Home Theatre: Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You will destroy you
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's I May Destroy You, streaming on Disney+ Hotstar
By the end of the second episode of Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You — streaming on Disney+ Hotstar — the series had already lived up to its title for me. I also understood why this show is being universally hailed as the year's best. (Trigger warning: rape, sexual assault). Coel, who has written, co-directed, starred in, and executive produced the 12-episode series, was sexually assaulted when she was writing her previous show, Chewing Gum. She had taken a break when working on an episode to go meet some friends and ended up having a blackout. She later realised her drink had been spiked and she had been assaulted by strangers. It is this experience that Coel has dealt with fictionally in I May Destroy You.
The protagonist of the series, Arabella Essiedu (played brilliantly by Coel herself) is a Twitter sensation-turned-writer working on her second book. The night before her first draft is due, she slips out to meet friends at a bar and has a blackout. She suddenly finds herself back at the office, finishing her draft, but feeling out of sorts, and with an unexplained cut on her forehead and a smashed phone she cannot account for. She starts getting flashbacks, which tell her something isn't quite right, and is forced to confront what has happened to her.
Given the premise, you would think this is a heavy, difficult watch, and it is. This is definitely not a show you can simply binge on and move past. However, I May Destroy You is not all dark. There are flashes of humour in the most unlikely of places. There's also plenty of compassion and empathy. And above all, authenticity. The milieu — that of black millennials living in London — is vibrant. Weruche Opia as Arabella's best friend Terry and Paapa Essiedu as her gay best friend Kwame round out the primary cast, while the supporting roles are filled with a wonderfully diverse and memorable bunch of actors. Michaela Coel also lovingly portrays her Ghanaian immigrant heritage through Arabella's family.
The series is not only about rape and consent. At one point, someone says to Arabella, "I thought you were writing about consent." It's Cole wondering about her own writing for this show. It may have started there, but it's certainly not limited to that topic. It's also about dealing with trauma, about the struggle to continue one's work when doing so, about friendship, about family, about people.
Even when it is about consent, the treatment is extremely original. There are no cut and dried answers here. Coel isn't afraid to delve into murky waters. There are no completely good or bad characters. Everyone is flawed and even problematic in their own ways. This is what makes them true to life; people are messy. Terry, at first glance, might seem like the most loyal and reliable of friends. But she's not driven only by friendship in her ceaseless efforts to support Arabella's recovery. Kwame, who becomes the victim of an assault in episode 4 (whose ending is absolutely heartbreaking), later goes on to do something questionable himself.
Such contradictions are present not only in people. The system can be capricious as well. When Arabella goes in to report her assault, she is assigned two sympathetic female officers who treat her with respect and help her come to terms with what happened, even as Arabella herself is in denial about it. Kwame, on the other hand, has such an uncomfortable experience trying to report his assault that it puts him off telling even his friends about it. Not everyone is lucky enough to have understanding police officers who will believe and help them.
I May Destroy You continually plays with our expectations and surprises us at every turn. The biggest surprise of all is the series finale. I spoke before about how real this show is, in its characters, in its setting, everything. For the finale, however, Coel pulls the rug out from under us and gives us a very surreal final episode. It's one of the most daring endings and works brilliantly. When Arabella says, "Go" and we see the metaphorical manifestation of her trauma finally leave, it's like a load being lifted off our own shoulders. The follow-up scene with her adorable roommate Ben (possibly the least problematic character though, even with him, we get hints that all is not well) is heartwarming, as is the one after that with Terry and the return of their "Your birth is my birth" mantra. And that final shot of Arabella's exhale is perfection.
Michaela Coel destroys us several times over through the course of this series. But she also leaves us with a sense of gratitude and the satisfaction of having seen something quite unique, something very important, something we didn't even know we needed to see. Just before the very end, Arabella says, "Thanks for coming, by the way." It could be Coel thanking us for joining her on this journey. But really, it's we who should be thanking her for the privilege.