The 12-part comedy-drama is riddled with eye-opening revelations about sex, relationships and consent, leaving viewers both gobsmacked and profoundly moved.
Michaela Coel’s latest masterpiece smashes virtually every taboo concerned with so-called ‘millennial hook-up culture’. We’re talking period sex, racial ignorance and even homosexual rape. This makes it sound like an unpleasant watch and although it is hard-hitting, Coel manages to unpack the story in such a profound and gripping way, that you end up wondering what the next episode could possibly have in store.
The show centres around an event that happened to Coel while filming her previous series ‘Chewing Gum’. She was spiked and sexually assaulted on a night out, which resulted in her gradually coming to terms with her experience in the following weeks. In ‘I May Destroy You’ she plays Arabella, an extroverted writer who lives a fun-loving and chaotic lifestyle in London. To escape the pressures of her looming deadline, she embarks on a big night out, only to later discover that she was raped while under the influence. All she has to go by is a broken collection of flashbacks. Unable to remember the full details of what happened, she attempts to piece together the puzzle.
Her best friends Terry and Kwame are by her side the whole way, but both are battling their own internal struggles. Terry is an aspiring actress brimming with confidence, while Kwame is far more introverted, seeking validation in regular Grindr hookups. Coel creates a sprawling network of storylines so that we as viewers get to see their vulnerable sides too.
Despite the prominence of Arabella’s sexual assault, the series covers so much more than this – it’s hard to know where to begin. Each 30-minute episode is tightly packed with seemingly unrelated interactions. They often jump back in time to help shape not only the narrative, but the characters involved. From Kwame’s intimate relations in the supermarket toilets to Terry’s experience of racial ignorance at an audition, it is these nuances that weave everything together.
A medley of podcasts have been singing the show’s praises. In ‘The Receipts Podcast’, the trio discuss how refreshing it is to see a black-majority cast that is reflective of their own upbringing in London. Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes from ‘The High Low’ speak about the importance of Arabella’s self-assurance throughout the whole ordeal and her clarity in understanding where boundaries have been crossed. Even formal media outlets like The Economist have invited Michaela Coel onto their podcast to discuss the nitty gritty of creating the series – here she speaks of her 191 ‘vomit drafts’, which helped her shape the show and its intricacies.
Unsurprisingly, sex is an overwhelmingly prominent theme across the series. It is explored in a variety of ways, but most importantly, it is explored through the lens of consent. Apart from the blindingly obvious lack of consent in Arabella’s sexual assault, Coel plays with the seemingly subtle and often misconstrued instances where consent is not given, to the extent that it has awoken a whole wave of shared experiences across Twitter and beyond. Arabella, Terry and Kwame each experience this all-too-common ‘grey area’.
In one episode, we get a glimpse into the antics of Arabella and Terry’s trip to Italy, prior to the assault. On a night out, Terry agrees to a threesome with two men who to her knowledge don’t know each other. When they leave, she messages her friends instantly to declare her news, before looking out the window to see the pair chatting and walking home together, alluding to the idea that they did in fact know each other and planned the whole affair. It’s an uncomfortably anticlimactic and lonely moment for Terry – she consented to exposing herself under certain conditions, which ended up happening under false pretences.
In another scene, Arabella invites fellow writer Zain to her house. Before they sleep together she gives him a condom, but when she turns away, he covertly removes it at the last minute. This is known as ‘stealthing’, something that Coel herself was unaware of until it came up in a news feature, where it was described as rape. Seeing it acted out on-screen for the first time was enough to make your jaw physically drop. In this instance, Arabella had only consented to condom-protected sex, which would prevent her from not only becoming pregnant, but also from any STIs.
Kwame’s experience not only shines a spotlight on his experiences as a gay man, but also as a male victim of sexual assault. When most people think of rape, they automatically picture a female victim. Kwame’s encounter with another man begins as a harmless, consensual hookup, but it soon turns sour when he is forced to continue against his will. Again, it’s a scenario that rarely makes our TV screens, making it all the more startling. To top it off, when Kwame finally plucks up the courage to report it, it soon becomes clear that the way his case is dealt with is far from supportive, unlike Arabella’s. It’s even hinted that his inability to fully open up to his friends is a huge barrier, most likely skewed by the fact that male victims are so often pushed into the background.
The recurring lack of consent that crops up across the series is a stark reminder of how common these type of incidents actually are. For many, there is an assumption that sexual assault is a one-time, traumatic experience, when in actual fact, it has a tendency to manifest in different ways and happen multiple times to individuals during their lifetime, more often than not through ignorance. The show’s purpose is to entertain us as viewers, while making us feel uncomfortable. It will undoubtedly implore people to check in with themselves by reframing how we as a society should view sexual assault.
In light of the heated discussions regarding Black Lives Matter, ‘I May Destroy You’ couldn’t have come at a more important time. It serves up a visual representation of black experience in society today and in particular, from a millennial perspective. Watching it is educational and dark, but it’s also submerged with juxtaposing comedy, an electric soundtrack and taboo-smashing concepts that you simply won’t get on any other show.
You can watch ‘I May Destroy You’ on iPlayer.
Credit: Natalie Seery (HBO)