Content warning: The following review of Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” includes discussion of rape, assault and racism that may be upsetting to readers.
Spoiler warning: The following review also contains multiple major plot spoilers. Also, you could do an entire university-level 14 week course on just the show alone so please don’t hate me if I don’t get to your favorite part.
I started the first episode of Michaela Coel’s new series “I May Destroy You” with a couple friends on a casual weekday, without really knowing what it was about. 30 minutes later, the episode ended and we were all speechless. No trailer or show description could have fully prepared us for the visually stunning and emotionally arresting content of Coel’s series.
The 12-episode journey, which is streaming on HBO and BBC iPlayer, invites the viewer to walk alongside Coel’s vibrant characters as they experience harassment, assault and identity crises in East London. In the first episode the main character, Arabella, played by Coel, is drugged in a bar and raped. As many survivors (including Coel) also experience, the memories of the assault are hard to pin down and it takes her multiple days to put the pieces back together and make sense of it.
The viewer, like Arabella, is confused, unsure if the images she’s seeing are actually personal recollections or things she witnessed happening to someone else. In an interview with Garage Magazine, Coel said, “I used to be anxious about the fact that my memory wasn’t perfect. And then I realized nobody’s memory is perfect. What does stay are feelings.”
One of the most striking moments of feeling in the series comes at the end of episode 2 when Arabella is reporting the rape to two female detectives. Arabella rejects the idea that the “thing in her head” is a memory and gets angry when the detectives allude to that effect. As the scene flashes between the current moment and Arabella undergoing a sexual assault forensic exam, one of the detectives asks, “Who’s he [the rapist] looking at?” and Arabella begins to cry.
The rape itself is extremely difficult to watch, making me wince and instinctively try to protect myself by covering my eyes, as one of my friends repeats “oh my god” over and over again. As difficult as it is to watch, this is how rape should be shown — because this is how rape is. Unlike rape scenes in shows like 13 Reasons Why, there is no cascading lyrical song in the background, and the experience isn’t sensationalized just to get public attention. It is violent and grotesque and represents what rape really looks like. The rest of the series also has elements of horror, whether it be a "fan" of Arabella’s threateningly tapping on the glass at a bus station stop, a book publisher baring her teeth in passive aggression, or Arabella’s Italian lover, Biagio (or Garbagio as one of my friends not-so-lovingly called him), pulling a gun on her when she tries to reconnect.
Later in the series, when Arabella’s friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) experiences an assault, the scene is similarly horrific, but doesn’t fit the common and narrow definition of rape. Feeling violated and unsure, he googles the assault and finds out that “non consensual humping” is rape. Where this scene and many others in the show could feel like an afterschool special or some sit-down lesson with your parents, the intimate work of the actors makes it feel more like a late night sleepover chat.
Although the core of the show is about this process of trauma and healing, Arabella is simultaneously trying to finish her second book. This deadline runs in the background and parallels Arabella’s process in confronting her trauma and dealing with it. As she tries to make sense of her first draft, she works with a fellow writer named Zain (Karan Gill). The two end up having sex and, midway through the scene, Zain removes the condom in a practice known as stealthing. Again, this experience doesn’t fit into the widespread definition of rape. But it is in fact what Coel called, in an interview with Trevor Noah, a “theft of consent.”
What is perhaps the true gift of Coel’s series is the inclusion of these often-ignored nuances and shades of grey that force the viewer into an uncomfortable position. We have to face the realities of rape and trauma and healing and what it really means to be in community with people who are all struggling with their experiences of sexual violence.
Sometimes, Arabella’s friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame are just the support she needs, while other times, they minimize her experience or ignore her turmoil. In a perfect narrative, this wouldn’t be the case. Terry would be the perfect friend, our representation of good, and Simon, the friend who leaves her alone at the bar, would be evil and one dimensional. But that would make I May Destroy You just like any other prettily-packaged healing narrative instead of the raw, liberated version it stands in now.
And although Arabella never gets revenge or justice in the stereotypical sense, at the end of the series she is able to literally and metaphorically look in the eyes of her rapist and tell him to get the fuck out of her house. It isn’t the same gratification that rape revenge movies of the '70s provide (although we do get a fragmented taste of this). It's a more real, grounded attempt at resolving something that can never really be resolved.
This experience will sit with Arabella for the rest of her life, but hopefully, Coel’s own mediation of her experience through I May Destroy You and the resulting shared catharsis helps us all move forward in collective healing. Speaking to Garage Magazine, Coel said, “I feel very empowered by my own history. The life I’ve lived, the lives of my friends. I want to honor them. I want to honor everything that made me what I am.”
Photo by Natalie Seery/HBO
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Madeleine Janz is a journalism student at the New School. She lives in New York City and enjoys film, as long as film means rewatching the same five rom-com's from the 90's every week. You can follow her @madilonglegs24 on Instagram and Twitter.