There may be few series as difficult but as important right now as Michaela Coel’s new 12-episode HBO show I May Destroy You. The Ghanaian-British creator and star explores the pain, confusion, and eventual road to healing regarding the rape experienced by her London-based lead, Arabella. Playing out as a series of vignettes, the season is tied together by a close-knit group of friends who must confront everything from their own biases to sexual crimes perpetrated against them.
The half-hour series begins with Arabella returning from an Italian sojourn to visit Biagio (Marouane Zotti), a local drug dealer with whom she wants to have an actual relationship. His reticence sets up the first of many romantic disappointments, a theme throughout this episode and the season as a whole. Back in London, Arabella is being pushed to finish the manuscript for a book that landed with a major publisher, but in the middle of her all-nighter she goes out to meet up with friends at a bar where she is later drugged and date raped.
The events of that night come back to Arabella in confused flashes, and while she does go to the police and ultimately seeks therapy, she is hesitant to believe the worst—or even (initially) that anything happened at all. With Arabella, Coel gives us a young woman who is not trying to be a poster child. She is a mess, and the book that she is trying to write becomes the show that we are watching and ultimately experiencing with her. When she tries to go back to “normal” after her assault with a casual hookup, it turns into another kind of rape. Later, attending a support group for survivors, she says the most heartbreaking line of the entire series: “I’m here to try and find out how to not get raped.”
Arabella’s experiences are harrowing, but her reporting the crime and finding support are given a clearer path than that of her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay man who engaged in consensual sex followed by assault. Like Arabella, Kwame wants justice for what happened while also wanting to pretend it didn’t happen—something that is made all the more difficult by a horribly botched encounter with police when making the report. Arabella’s best friend and roommate, Terry (a dynamic Weruche Opia) is also is forced to reconsider a sexual encounter she had in Italy that she thought was freeing, but was in fact likely a setup.
All of this is rough, but the series takes on a loose structure to tell its stories. It’s not often clear where things are going, episode to episode, and resolutions are not always tangible. Some kind of closure is ultimately available to Arabella in a strong season finale, but there is still a lot left unexplored. And while we get to know Arabella exceptionally well throughout the season, we never know Terry or Kwame quite as three-dimensionally, despite spending so much time with them. Their own endings are rushed and tacked-on, as if to find something positive out of all of this pain, but in a way that doesn’t feel earned after so much time spent in the wilderness. The road to happiness deserves space, too.
Coel is taking on a lot here, and while the journey of these friends trying to make it can feel familiar, it’s coming to audiences from a new perspective—instead of young white adults in New York, we have young black adults in London. That distinction is important in a number of ways, and Coel also leans in to the Millennial nature of it all by showing Arabella’s obsession with her social media influence and ways she seeks to monetize without being exploited (which feels impossible). There’s also an early scene where a white casting director asks Terry if she’s wearing a wig, if she can wash it, and to please take it off to show them her “real” hair. The way Terry responds (hesitant, uncomfortable, and ultimately rebuffing) mirrors in some ways the moments of assault shown in the series. It upsets her but she tries to brush it off, much like everyone else responding to controlling or aggressive behavior.
I May Destroy You also highlights the importance of self-care while absolutely acknowledging that other outlets or therapies are needed to work through trauma. And ultimately, what speaks to Arabella is taking control of her own narrative for herself, imagining the different scenarios that could happen if she did see her rapist again. At the start of the season, she has a visible scar on her face from the attack. It’s something people have to take notice of, even though her true wounds are obviously much deeper. It works as a kind of metaphor throughout, that though there is an expectation of healing as clearly as a tear in the skin, the truth is so far from that. The glee with which the book publisher—also a black woman—says “rape! yes!” in regards to Arabella tackling that as a subject is also part of the show highlighting a society looking to exploit tragedy at every turn.
All of this adds up to a weighty, ambitious attempt to wade through incredibly difficult subject matter, but one that also seeks to balance with earnest optimism and a desire for healing. There are many, many scenes of the friends just having fun, of getting annoyed with one another, of professing their undying love. That movement back and forth, to the past and present (to an imagined future), between feelings and experiences and traumas and desires, covers some of the series’ other uncertainties in ways that are both compelling and true. But more than anything, it’s a thought-provoking work that should make us consider our own relationship to trauma, experienced by ourselves or others, as well as hopefully this new cultural awakening to the many, many different kinds of sexual assault.
I May Destroy You premieres Sunday, June 7th on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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