As a haunted house story of sorts, Amazon’s Them has its fair share of specters. But two in particular loom above the rest, although neither appears on screen.
The first is Jordan Peele, whose back-to-back hits Get Out and Us made the director’s name synonymous with the exploration of race via allegorical horror. Them follows the trials of the Emory family in the early 1950s, when they move from North Carolina to the then lily-white Compton, California—a synopsis that falls neatly into the category Peele has come to practically own. It doesn’t help that Them’s title is the grammatical inverse of Us, nor that the works share uncannily specific details like the use of Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” in the soundtrack. Us and Them even share a cast member in Shahadi Wright Joseph, who plays the Emorys’ teenage daughter, Ruby.
The second spectral presence belongs to Ryan Murphy, the prolific producer whose American Horror Story kick-started the seasonal anthology trend for television in general, and horror shows in specific. Since its premiere over a decade ago, American Horror Story’s successors have evolved into a subgenre unto themselves, condensing a complete, scary story in a single season and allowing for the body count that gives horror its stakes. (American Horror Story didn’t reveal it would be starting from scratch in Season 2 until it had already killed off much of its cast.) Series like The Haunting of Hill House and The Terror have taken a similar tack, combining the extended length of TV with the finite ending of a film, the genre’s traditional domain.
The good news for Them is that neither comparison proves unflattering. Created by first-time showrunner Little Marvin and executive-produced by Lena Waithe, Them hits a rich thematic vein, one that proves the horror of racism is too broad and deep to be monopolized by a single creator. (Nor was it in the first place; the second season of The Terror, for example, centered on the trauma of Japanese American internment during World War II.) The first season of Them is subtitled Covenant, after the restrictive pacts often used to prevent Black families from buying property until they were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948. But as the Emorys learn, banning outright discrimination doesn’t do much to stop the extralegal variety.
In another parallel with Peele’s work, Them has almost the exact same plot as the third episode of Lovecraft Country, the uneven, maximalist drama he produced for HBO last summer. In both Them and “Holy Ghost,” the Black protagonists purchase a home in a historically white neighborhood, provoking racist harassment as the house itself seems to turn against them. Both stories play out over exactly 10 days, a time frame outlined in an ominous epigraph. But unlike Lovecraft Country, Them gives its story a full 10-episode season to play out. In some ways, this is a challenge; sustaining the tension that gives horror its momentum for hours on end is a difficult task, and after a nail-biting pilot, Them understandably pumps the brakes a bit to flesh out its ensemble. In the episodes that follow, Them has the time to develop its characters and carefully ramp up the action, avoiding the rushed feel of Lovecraft’s overstuffed approach.
Like millions of other Black families taking part in the Great Migration, the Emorys head west hoping for a fresh start thousands of miles from a South still in the grips of Jim Crow. But on top of segregation, the Emorys bear an additional burden—a crushing loss hinted at in a mysterious cold open. Henry (Ashley Thomas), a veteran, takes a job as the first Black engineer at a local aerospace plant; Ruby (Joseph) has to fend for herself at the local high school, where open racism gets the extra sting of teenage cruelty. That leaves Lucky (Deborah Ayorinde), a homemaker, alone in the house, amplifying the typical anxieties of suburban isolation with something much more frightening.
Them mines a fantastic amount of unease from the Stepford Wives staples: too-bright colors, unnaturally neat lawns, the menace of conformity. Typically in these stories, the whiteness of single-family subdivisions is left implicit, with classics like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet digging beneath the surface of the American Dream without putting all its innards on display. Them dispenses with this pretense until images of everyday abuse are indistinguishable from whatever else is after the Emorys. Dozens of neighbors gather outside the Emory home to stare and blast music, eerily standing in a crowd. Maybe they’re possessed by some Invasion of the Body Snatchers–esque entity. Maybe they’re just bigots.
The length of the season also allows Them to build out the Emorys’ adversaries, chief among them proto-Karen Betty Wendell, played by the always-great Alison Pill. (Including her turns in Snowpiercer and Devs, the actress has built quite the villainous CV.) Bored by her life and alone in her marriage, Betty throws herself into a campaign to displace the Emorys and the perceived threat they pose to her all-important sense of safety. “It’s our home, Clarke,” she tells her handsome, ineffectual husband. “And I want it to stay that way.” There’s no mistaking who she means by “our,” or in the epithet that gives the show its name, “them.” When she’s not engaged in an emotional affair with the milkman (the 1950s!), Betty whips up resentment among her fellow homeowners until they’re just as incensed as she is.
Betty is a compelling nemesis, a more tangible threat than the hallucinations that start to chip away at the Emorys’ sanity. But more than most horror, Them goes out of its way to lay out the systemic underpinnings of the Emorys’ plight, not just capture them in metaphor. Step by step, Marvin and his writers lay out practices like redlining—the refusal of agencies like the FHA to guarantee mortgages in neighborhoods deemed undesirable, most often due to the inhabitants’ race—and profiteering by realtors, who would sell homes to desperate Black buyers at a markup, then goad panicked white owners into selling. (For an even more straightforward guide to the all-too-recent past, check out Richard Rothstein’s essential The Color of Law.) Them capably weaves together the intricacies of policy with the blunt force of fright, a counterintuitive match that makes each more effective.
Them owes much of that success to its cast, which embodies the flesh-and-blood impact of abstract ideas like housing reform with total dedication. Even before you get to more recent antecedents like Peele or Murphy, Them draws heavily on classic archetypes: the paranoid housewife, the skeptical husband, the little kid who goes from cute to creepy in the blink of an eye. But just like the parallels to Us or American Horror Story, there’s no shame in drawing inspiration when it’s executed as well as Ashley’s crumbling composure, or Ayorinde’s escalating panic. Horror as a whole draws on the most universal emotion there is, and elicits it through a collection of established tropes: slasher flicks, home-invasion thrillers, monster movies, and so on. The true test for a show like Them isn’t originality, but effectiveness. As for myself, I couldn’t watch any episodes after dark.