SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first season of “Them,” streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
“Them” creator Little Marvin likens horror to a roller coaster ride, during which one’s pulse quickens due to a variety of thrills, in addition to scares. On a roller coaster, one may think they know what is coming, depending on their vantage point from their seat, but the feeling that comes when the drop is often still surprising. That feeling likely describes what viewers who binged the first season of his Amazon Prime Video anthology experienced: There was a certain expectation for the racism that would be depicted when the Emorys, a Black family, moved from the Jim Crow South to Compton, Calif. in the 1950s, but the way their youngest child was killed was born of the darkest nightmare.
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For Little Marvin, that nightmare was literal. He tells Variety he had a dream about the scene in which Lucky Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) is home alone with her toddler son when a white Southern neighbor (Dale Dickey) strolls up to the house, sings “Old Black Joe” and asks for the boy. That is eerie enough on its own, but things turn truly brutal when she and a few white men barge into the home. Lucky is held down and assaulted while the baby is stuffed in a sack and spun around and around, while the neighbor screams about a cat in a bag.
“I dream it and I did what I typically do [which is] write it down really quickly so I don’t forget it. But with this I had a real, visceral reaction that I’d never felt with anything I set out to write. I threw the phone and I said, ‘You will not,’ and I went back to bed. And then the scene haunted me for a few more days, and I realized there was something in it that was so raw and perhaps got to the deeper and darker and subterranean level of the history of violence against Black folks in this country that definitely unmoored me, and I felt I had to interrogate it,” Little Marvin explains. “I had to explore, ‘Why does this exist and what it is doing for the story?’ For me, it was meant to reach through the screen and force a viewer to contend with this history of violence.”
This scene opens “Them” but does not play in full until the fifth episode of the season. Instead, the first episode cuts it off before the assault and murder within the home, leaving the audience to wonder — and watch Lucky and her husband Henry’s (Ashley Thomas) body language closely enough to determine — exactly what went down and why they are leaving the South without their youngest alive. (It is later revealed that, still traumatized and unable to leave him behind, Lucky dug him up and brought him with the family after all.)
Much like the audience, Thomas shares that he didn’t know the full extent of the family’s personal tragedy before signing onto the show. Only receiving and reading the first four episodes, he “was just looking at the character as a nuanced Black man who loved his wife and loved his kids and had so many layers, and was written by someone who looked like me,” he recalls. “That was what was initially appealing.”
Ayorinde, on the other hand, learned the truth early on because the aftermath of the event was part of her audition. “I knew that it would require every bit of me to make it authentic, and I just had to really battle my own fears, my own self doubt, because I knew that a lot of people [who had] experienced anything remotely close to that would feel seen and feel heard — and that’s that’s a big weight, that’s a big responsibility,” she says.
She admits she didn’t want to over prepare for such a challenging scene because she felt reacting naturally in the moment would aid in that authenticity. However, the episode director, Janicza Bravo, brought the team together to “get comfortable with each other and see each other outside of the world, to make it as technical as possible so we don’t even have to worry about that when we got to it.” Bravo was a special part of Ayorinde’s support system on set, but that also included a therapist who was on set and on call for anybody — cast or crew, she says — who needed to talk. “I literally called her on the way home and just let it all out.”
Both actors say understanding the full extent of what the family went through, from both Lucky and Henry’s perspectives, informed the way they wanted their characters to react in uncomfortable situations in their new town, thousands of miles from the scene of the crime.
“It’s not his wife’s fault whatsoever so he has to be sensitive around his wife,” Thomas says. “I was really aware of that and I was interested in, how does a man move, how does he act around his wife at that moment? There can’t be any fast movements. He should be watching how hard he squeezes his wife anyway, but just be extra mindful, just so that he’s not triggering anything related to that scenario. And he also wanted to make sure that never happens again right so he’s looking in every direction [and] every experience for him after that is also triggering. If he experiences prejudice or aggression, it just reminds him each time of that moment where he wasn’t able to protect his family.”
Moving to Compton was an opportunity for a fresh start for the Emorys, but immediately upon their arrival they realize it is not going to be an idyllic safe haven. First they are faced with the covenant law, which their real estate agent (Brooke Smith) says is not enforceable but still reminds them of the historical horrors Black Americans have faced. Thomas, whose family is from the West Indies, Jamaica and Dominica and moved to the U.K. as part of the Windrush, found he had to “strip away my ego completely, and understand that I don’t understand everything” in order to play a Black American. (He was able to glean perspective from friends, cousins and a former neighbor who grew up in the Jim Crow South.) Ayorinde, who was born in the U.K. but raised in America and is of Nigerian descent, was able to use some of her own personal experiences for the role.
Immediately upon the Emorys’ move, their new neighbors stage a sit-in in the street, blaring music to annoy and upset them. From there, things escalate to dolls being hung off their roof, slurs burned into their lawn, their dog being killed and more direct threats that come while neighbors trespass on their property. Eventually Henry’s fears about not being able to protect his family come to a greater head when their neighbor Betty (Alison Pill), an instigator in the sit-in, goes missing and the neighborhood men break into the Emory family home. Lucky even gets institutionalized for a spell. And in addition to the very grounded racial horrors, some otherworldly events begin to occur, from their younger daughter (Melody Hurd) seeing and hearing a mysterious “Miss Vera” to Henry seeing a stereotypical tap dancing man.
“I felt like the supernatural entities and the supernatural element had nothing on the actual people and what they did, the evil, the hatred,” Ayorinde says. But, “to explore racism in the context of horror, I felt like they’re one in the same. I felt like the supernatural entities just represented the things that Black people have suffered over centuries that other people don’t see, and other people don’t understand, and other people don’t think really exists and just how that can actually drive a person mad.”
“When Henry sees the tap dance man, he’s seeing a manifestation of what he possibly thinks is himself: Is he cooning? And then he starts to attack himself, and that is what so many Black people do because of the pressures of the outside world, whether that be poverty, lack of opportunity, violent aggression towards us. It manifests sometimes in the home and it manifests mentally, psychologically,” adds Thomas.
Although some pieces of the Emorys’ story have closure by the end of the season, the larger, systemic problems of racism still exist for them and in the world around them. Although they stand firmly alongside each other and refuse to back down, the neighborhood is still standing against them. Subsequent seasons of the show (the second season is already ordered) are designed to visit new places and time periods and tell different stories. While both Ayorinde and Thomas hope their characters could get themselves out of the dangerous situation in which they are left, they know the realities of what is working against them.
“I wrote a letter to my daughters as the character, if my character didn’t make it, just to help with the work that I was doing — just what he wanted his daughters to achieve. He wanted his daughters to live in a world where they had no limits, no boundaries and they could do whatever they wanted to be. I want him as a character to be to be OK, but I think like any father, or any parent, they want their kids to do better, to experience a better life, so really my concern is for the little girls,” Thomas says.
“I think the beauty of the final scene is the fact that it doesn’t end with what I think most of us know is going to happen to them, it ends with them finally finding their own victory in the face of everything going on. That in itself was honest and it was very honoring to the Emorys and to people who experienced that,” adds Ayorinde.
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