I May Destroy You is (and will be) the best bit of television released this year – it really is that simple. Written, starring and co-directed by Michaela Coel, previously known for the acclaimed dark comedy Chewing Gum, the show confronts the audience and, ultimately, holds them accountable for the way we live our lives, more specifically, I May Destroy You offers TV viewers a nuanced, and frankly, groundbreaking perspective on sexual assault and violence, in a way that I have not seen on mainstream television before.
Coel annihilates the ‘grey area’ that accounts for much of the discourse surrounding what is consensual sex and rape, to the extent that I believe everyone can learn something, potentially life-altering, about what is safe sex. However, although the assaults are central to the show’s narrative, there are moments of such lightness and humour. The friendships between Arabella, Terry and Kwame are truly what makes I May Destroy You phenomenal. Their determined and withstanding relationships accurately and emotionally convey what it is like to support friends during hardships but also everyday life.
so many are able to see their own experiences within the show; it becomes everyone’s story
Indeed, the twelve-episode story is a fictionalised version of Coel’s own assault that occurred whilst she was writing Chewing Gum. For Coel, I May Destroy You became a cathartic method of grievance that allowed her to process the violation she had and continued to experience. Interviewed in Paper Magazine, Michaela states that she was “surprised to find myself emotional while I wrote it, but I find that’s what happens in therapy a lot…therapists often advise their clients to journal. This felt like journaling very specifically about a traumatic event and then fictionalising it”. Perhaps this is why I May Destroy You has been defined as a game-changer, so many are able to see their own experiences within the show; it becomes everyone’s story.
Unfortunately, the BBC drama is about so much more than the rape that occurs within the first episode. The audience and the characters themselves are continuously reminded that assault is not limited or restricted to one form, one gender, one race or one scenario: whilst at a group support session, Arabella musters the words “I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped. There must be some way…’. The helplessness of Arabella is matched by the audience at this moment as the show displays multiple assaults wherein all characters act and behave differently, we know that there is nothing they could have done. In the end, it is also this which unites the three central characters who are all coming to terms with the abuses they have endured. However, Coel successfully conveys the difficulty of this. Whilst caught up in her own trauma, Arabella dismisses and even enhances Kwame’s suffering, first by locking him in a room with a man just days after his rape and secondly in shunning him for his attempts to cope – even if they are slightly controversial.
It’s a dark and scary thought to have about any moment when you have been vulnerable and it’s such a common one
I May Destroy You’s success is not only owed to the sympathy the audience are left heavy with, pondering Arabella, Kwame and Terry’s experiences, but in fact, the shows, potentially triggering, ability to invoke emotions and memories within the audiences own lives – or at least this was the case for me. Most notably, the gradual and painful realisation Terry has when finally understanding the threesome she had was not entirely consensual, and in fact a manipulation of the truth. The later realisation that a sexual experience was not entirely what you thought it was. It’s a dark and scary thought to have about any moment when you have been vulnerable and it’s such a common one, a serious anxiety and marginal abuse that is often looked over, and yet an experience most people can empathise with.
The final few episodes, although a disappointment to some, cemented Coel as an outstanding writer: my heart was lodged in my throat for the entirety of episode twelve. Notably, it was the lack of trust I had in all of the characters that ruled my anxiety. With everyone’s secrets and lies coming slowly to the forefront, it was Arabella’s flatmate, Ben, who was riling my suspicions the most. A quiet, introverted and unsuspecting guy, obviously loyal to Arabella, seemed to have little place in a drama largely concerned with abuse. For the most part of the final episodes, I was convinced that he had some part in Arabella’s assault all because he was so concerned and lovely all of the time. That is the magnitude of Michaela’s writing: she has the ability to create such a hostile and suspecting environment for characters and viewers alike that, in the end when Ben is revealed to simply be a lonely man living in the middle of London, as well as the middle of someone else’s story, I felt extremely guilty and confused. Had I been subject to the same obsessiveness as Arabella?
“I May Destroy You” Coel warns and we have to let her. I’m happy she did “destroy me”, I feel as if I am a better and more educated woman for subjecting myself to the characters’ burdens. It was a rollercoaster of heartbreak and anxiety caused by issues we all should be more aware of. Although it has been a while since I finished watching the show, I am still digesting it and learning from it, something I expect to be doing for the rest of my life.
Last modified: 28th July 2020