Written by Harriet Keown
Michaela Coel’s latest creative triumph, I May Destroy You, is already being heralded as the TV show of the year. Portraying life after sexual assault with a rare tenderness and sincerity, the hype is more than deserved.
It’s usually pretty easy to tell which television shows have been written by men by looking at their female characters — who usually lack depth, empowerment and authenticity. Just three minutes into I May Destroy You, as we watch the main character, Arabella, sitting on the toilet, underwear at her ankles, talking on the phone and rolling a joint, it’s already obvious that this story comes from the mind of a woman. It’s a trivial detail, but one which immediately reassures me that I’m about to see myself in these characters.
Created, written, co-directed, and executive produced by the ultimate multi-hyphenate, Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You is a refreshingly honest, yet warm and sensitive exploration of sexual assault. The 12-episode series, available on Neon in New Zealand, follows Arabella (played by Coel), a London-based writer whose drink is spiked on a night out while she procrastinates submitting the first draft of her next book. The ensuing episodes depict her hazy recollection of the night, which is studded with harrowing images of a stranger’s body looming over her in a bathroom stall, and the recovery process which follows.
Based on Coel’s own experience of being sexually assaulted in 2016 after her drink was spiked (also while procrastinating a writing deadline), I May Destroy You gives you the sense that you have been granted access into something much more significant than an invented screenplay. Coel’s portrayal of the aftermath of Arabella’s assault flows seamlessly between the emotions that many survivors would feel all-too-familiar with, from disbelief, denial and numbness, to shock, horror and trauma. Sometimes it is meant to be obvious, others it’s a slight flicker of a facial muscle that betrays Arabella’s reaction, but you feel every inch of Coel’s formidable performance like it is within your own body.
The show doesn’t just focus on Arabella’s experience though, expanding to explore the issue of consent with all the complexity it deserves. As her best friends, Terry and Kwame (played with incredible depth by Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu, respectively), are both faced with their own assaults, we are shown how nuanced the idea of consent can be. Coel examines so many of the grey areas that surround sexual encounters with an intimacy that is so rare in television: the scenes are confronting and forthright, but dealt with in a way which focuses less on the act and more on way it makes the characters feel.
Throughout the show, we get glimpses of other events occurring in this fictional world. From clips of natural disasters on the news to allusions to poverty and famine, Coel contrasts widespread, global issues with the implosion of Arabella’s own world. In one powerful scene, Arabella tells her therapist that one of her coping mechanisms is to repeat the phrases: “There are hungry children… There’s a war in Syria.” It seems a reminder that although we are often told to put our own issues into perspective — an easy trap to fall into in the madness of the present day — this mindset doesn’t allow us permission to feel our own grief. Our personal struggles are relative and valid.
Although it’s coincidental that the show was released in June 2020, it’s impossible to watch I May Destroy You without seeing it through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement. Arabella (like Coel) is of Ghanian descent, and most of other the main characters in the show are also black, making it a welcome representation of the lived black experience, especially that of black women, on their own terms. Speaking to GQ, Coel said, “I think that since the media has really even existed, it has dehumanised black people. In many ways, it’s dehumanised and disempowered women. To be within the media, to challenge that, and to present us as fluid, multi-dimensional human people, just like everybody else, feels like a really amazing privilege.”
It’s a chaotic, diverging storyline which jumps between timelines, locations and emotions, but in a way which always feels just right. Arabella’s character is a wild, nonconformist delight who, most importantly, is never treated as a victim or product of her assault. With complex, multi- dimensional characters at its core, I May Destroy You is a must-watch for anyone who has never truly seen themselves or their experiences on the television screen.