- Kate McCaughey
I May Destroy You may, indeed, destroy you (but in the best way)
Trigger Warning: mentions of rape and sexual assault.
Michaela Coel’s 12-part series, I May Destroy You, has been discussed endlessly since its release earlier this summer. Coel first appeared on our screens in 2014 with her Channel 4 comedy series Chewing Gum, but not before she secured her name across poetry scenes and theatre communities in London and Birmingham; it was clear very early on, that she was a creative force to be reckoned with.
Following her own experience being spiked and raped in a club whilst writing Chewing Gum, Coel made notes journaling her reflections during the investigation and in the time that followed. As she describes in a GQ Scene Break Down video (which I highly recommend watching after the show!), these notes naturally started to flow into a narrative, and Coel began piecing together what would become I May Destroy You.
The series invites us into the life of Arabella, a young black woman in London finding her feet in a new writing deal following her internet fame and debut novel success. Arabella enters our screens in a wild burst of energy. She is outgoing, passionate, funny and warm; everything most of us would love to be. Coel beautifully crafts Arabella as a rounded character rather than a single-sided victim, presenting her partying and extroverted nature honestly, tenderly and, appropriately, in a way which doesn’t victim-blame. The crux of the programme is Arabella waking up after a night out, lacking memories, with a cut on her head and deeply unsettling flashbacks. As the show unfolds, we gain insight into Arabella’s world of social media, work, friendships, dating life, family, childhood memories, all framed by the trauma she is processing. Coel’s writing creates a realism which is both soft-spoken and brazen, and moves between the two effortlessly and tactfully. Her exploration of trauma and modern social issues never simply scratch the surface, and are always fluid and conversational. Fundamentally, Coel allows that which cannot be simplified, to be seen in its full complexity. Nothing is spared, and everything is up for discussion.
Moving between the perspectives of Arabella, her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia of Bad Education and Inside No.9) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu, known for his incredible Hamlet at the RSC, among many other roles). Their stories are given context and depth through flashbacks to events at school, giving the overall narrative a varied cross-section of the millenial experience. Representation is ample, avoids tokenism, and the portrayal of privilege is nuanced and complex; characters are never seen soley in terms of their trauma, and are humanised in a way that validates their pain but doesn’t ignore their faults.
As though Coel wasn’t too busy crafting thesis statements into entertaining and thought-provoking scripts - exploring race, sexism, veganism and LGBTQ+ issues just to name a few - the show also scrutinises social media. The show’s directors and videographers play with graphics and representations of electronic screens to convey a sense of overwhelm in Arabella’s online self, whilst the story encourages us to appreciate its valuable role in modern day activism.
In the aforementioned GQ video, Coel describes how she was interested in the use of boundaries and borders; how we as individuals, and a society, identify lines being crossed, and what happens when we who have had our lines crossed, begin to replicate a breaking and entering. This extended theme throughout the show allows much of its most fascinating nuance to come through, as we see Arabella, in spite of her trauma (perhaps even, because of it), make assumptions about other people’s pain. Arabella’s large social media following allows her to share her experience to a large audience, bringing solace for Arabella, but also exhaustion as she becomes a spokesperson for a recovery she has not yet been able to fully engage with. At times we see her policing people’s trauma, thus gaining insight into the experience of processing a traumatic event, and how personal power is influenced. As Coel says to GQ, “When you don’t know how much power you have in you, the power controls you instead of you controlling it.”
I May Destroy You is, in short, a work of genius. It is hilarious where it is morose, therapising where it is difficult and articulate where it is complex. If you only watch one series this year, make it this.