Them: Covenant spoilers follow, and the scenes discussed in this piece are violent and gruesome, so please read with caution.
Horror should always push boundaries, and not just in terms of shock or disgust either. At its best, horror is challenging, forcing us to reconsider our place in the world. And that's exactly why this genre is so often met with controversy.
Scary stories have long provoked and alarmed conservative parties who fear the impact horror may have on traditional values. Most of that is of course absurd. Horror films don't turn people into serial killers. But can a scary story ever take things too far? Is there such a thing as too offensive?
When the trailer for Them: Covenant was released a few weeks back, a number of people drew comparisons between Little Marvin's show and Jordan Peele's Us. Both thematically and stylistically, the two stories share a lot in common, and that's even before you consider their diametrically opposed names.
But Them: Covenant takes socially conscious horror to new extremes with one particular scene of racist violence that will certainly spark controversy.
While season one is primarily set in 1953, flashbacks throughout the first four episodes keep taking us back to an earlier time before the Emory family moved to Los Angeles and set up a new home in an all-white neighbourhood.
The scene in question revolves around Lucky Emory (Deborah Ayorinde) and her baby boy, the latter of whom is suspiciously absent in the present-day storyline. Lucky is visited in this flashback by an older white woman who can barely hide her disgusting bigotry behind a smile. Given that she's the only adult in the house, Lucky is understandably afraid of what might happen next. However, it's not until episode five that we learn just how awful this memory turns out to be.
Each episode of Them comes with a viewer discretion warning, and it's at this point we need to share our own as well. What we're about to describe is incredibly disturbing and violent, so please be aware of that moving forward.
'Covenant I' is one of Them's shortest episodes, but it's also the chapter you're least likely to forget thanks to one horrifically cruel act of violence that robs Lucky of her joy and happiness.
As viewers will have long suspected, the white woman who appears on Lucky's door intends to harm her, and she's not alone either. Three white men join the attack and invade the Emory household. But it's the woman in particular who commits this show's most despicable act.
After she steals Chester away from Lucky, the woman wraps him up in a blanket and starts to throw him back and forth between herself and the other men while Lucky is sexually assaulted. The group laugh throughout, as if they're playing a game, and when the woman is done, she drops the baby to the floor as blood starts to seep through the blanket.
Pretty much every episode of Them: Covenant is full of unsettling moments that will disgust and horrify even the most hardened horror fan, but that's the whole point of horror, right? Usually, that is true, although some viewers will undoubtedly object to this scene in particular, arguing that the show has gone too far.
Death is commonplace on screen, and not just horror either. Even your friendly neighbourhood Marvel films are actually drenched with the blood of corpses when you really think about it, but children, and in particular, babies, are usually off-limits.
There's just something about seeing the death of someone so young that disturbs viewers far more than the average murder. No matter how gruesome things get on the likes of American Horror Story and Lovecraft Country, it's never this disturbing. And when you also take into account how Lucky's child was killed, emotions will surely run even higher for anyone watching that scene.
But did Them: Covenant go too far here? Is it fair to criticise a horror show for including something truly horrific?
Although worst things have been shown on screen before, there's a difference between using controversial images to make a point and courting controversy for controversy's sake.
Of course, even that's subjective. Just take Srđan Spasojević’s A Serbian Film, one of the most deplorable films ever made. While its defenders will argue that social commentary is intrinsic to the script, others will argue that the lengths it goes to in order to make these points is wholly unnecessary, and quite frankly, disgusting.
It's worth bearing in mind here that Them: Covenant clearly has something important to say. During a WonderCon 2021 panel, series creator Little Marvin said:
"If you're able to come away from the show with a greater understanding that the word segregation is not from the distant past but is, in fact, part and parcel of the way we live today, there's no greater hope I have than that for creating the show."
Sometimes, using shock and controversy can be a powerful way to educate people and teach them important lessons they might not always want to hear. By showing us something as awful as the murder of a baby, Them: Covenant reminds us that extreme racial violence was commonplace back in the 1950s, and still is today.
But on the flipside of this, it can also be argued that scenes like this feed into an ongoing narrative of exploiting Black trauma to teach white audiences a lesson. Journalist Nia Simone McLeod recently wrote (via Medium) that describing the show as being about "the horror and terror of being Black" means that it's not really made for a Black audience at all:
"Just like Pixar's Soul, Them is centered around the white gaze. It's blatant trauma porn that has no compassion for the marginalized community it exploits. It's a shame because horror would benefit greatly from a wider array of Black representation."
McLeod continues: "Although I wish the best for the cast and crew of Them, I can't support the show. I won't reopen past wounds for the sake of entertainment or education."
These kind of criticisms started to appear more online after the trailer dropped, prompting the LA Times to ask Little Marvin and his team if they themselves thought that this scene went too far.
"What I've come to realize," said the show's creator, "is that I wanted a scene that would rip through the screen, grab the viewer by the jugular and force them to contend with a history of violence against Black bodies in this country.
"If I did that in a way that you’ve seen before – like an act of police brutality or a slave narrative – that in some way creates a distance or a salve for a viewer. 'I’ve seen it before.' But this is so abominable it defies you to see it that way."
It's no wonder that Deborah Ayorinde, the actress who plays Lucky, said this was "the hardest" scene she's ever shot. But she too stands by it, saying: "It was very important that particular scene was as raw, as honest, as tragic as possible. I wanted anyone who had remotely experienced anything close to that to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel believed."
How you feel about Them: Covenant and that one death in particular will vary depending on your own personal experiences and how your outlook on life relates to the art that you consume. Are shows like this cathartic or exploitative?
Whether Little Marvin and his team made the right choice here is ultimately a judgement call that needs to be made on an individual basis, but for some, this show will have undoubtedly taken things too far.
All ten episodes of Them: Covenant are now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
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