REVIEW: I may Destroy you is tackling subjects TV has never dared to.

by | Jul 4, 2020 | All, Reviews

In
a culture where new TV is so often reviewed in comparison to popular shows of
the past, it seems cheap to do the same with BBC One and HBO’s new
comedy-drama,
I May Destroy You. Its supposed likeness to Fleabag is
perhaps lazy, and the similarity between creator
Michaela Coel and Phoebe
Waller-Bridge
begins and ends with the fact that they are two female visionaries
whose career trajectories have paralleled. Granted, both
Chewing Gum and
Fleabag gained attention from their protagonist breaking the fourth wall
and interacting with the viewer. Whilst Coel makes sure that her latest venture
remains insular, with
I May Destroy You she has created a world that is
as engaging, involving and compelling as anything I’ve ever seen on TV.

In
I May Destroy You, Coel plays the central character Arabella, a young writer
who has recently found fame amongst millennials with her debut novel. In the
opening episode, Arabella distracts herself from the looming deadline of her second
book by venturing on a night out with friends, but the next morning, she is deeply
shaken and is confused about her movements. As she attempts to construct a
picture of the previous night, she realises that her drink was spiked and she
was sexually assaulted. The series then follows Arabella as she navigates the
weeks and months after the assault, as well as exploring her career and her
relationships – both romantic and platonic.

What
I love about Arabella is that Coel has made her a deeply flawed character;
she’s vivacious and passionate yet she’s also naïve and chaotic. It’s never enough
to make her unlikeable, but the assurance that she isn’t perfect immediately
connects an audience to Arabella, and we are profoundly affected by the
disorientation she experiences on her night out, despite being introduced to
her character only minutes previously. The same nuanced treatment is given to Arabella’s
closest friends, as a sense of moral ambiguity is attached to even the most
sympathetic of characters. Terry (Weruche Opia) is a struggling actress who is
fiercely loyal to Arabella, her best friend since school, but her kindness in
the aftermath of the assault perhaps has a guilt-based ulterior motive. Meanwhile,
Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is silently struggling with his own exploitation after
experimenting with casual sex using the app Grindr, as well as exploring the
fluidity of his sexuality. Every character is multi-layered and three
dimensional, creating accurate depictions of messy and complex modern-day
relationships. As viewers we tend to quickly establish who the ‘good guys’ and
the ‘bad guys’ are in shows – I May Destroy You lets us do this and then
subverts what we thought we knew, twisting and challenging our judgment.

It’s
not just the characters that are presented ambiguously; one of the key themes
of
 I May Destroy You is consent, but it is explored in a refreshingly unique way. The first episode depicts a sexual assault which is evidently
non-consensual, but as the series progresses, the show challenges the binary of
consent and argues that it is not just a yes-no question. There are examples of
consensual sex becoming non-consensual, “stealthing” (when a man removes the
condom during sex), and deception, where someone consents to sex on different
terms. In all these scenarios, consent had been given at one point,
highlighting the often-ignored truth that consent is a constantly renewed
agreement. Just as Arabella receives widespread support on social media after
sharing her ordeal,
I May Destroy You has been celebrated by critics and
viewers alike for its representation of the “grey areas” of consent, with many
talking for the first time about their own, similar experiences.

Consent
is rarely discussed in television with such nuance, and I May Destroy You does
this and more, with Coel tackling a number of taboo subjects in her writing.
The sex scenes have been praised for their realism and their diversity, with
particular attention being shown to a scene where Arabella deals with having
sex whilst on her period. A section of dialogue I found particularly
interesting is a conversation in episode 8 where Kwame discusses the use of
both homophobic and racial slurs – it is a subject left alone by writers in
fear of offending, but this is yet another bold and effective choice made by
Michaela Coel.

The
use of the internet and social media is something else I appreciate about this
series. In today’s world, technology has become embedded in everything we do,
and
I May Destroy You captures this skilfully, without it ever feeling
forced or unrealistic. The ease in which something can be shared on social
media and the ability for that post to go viral is set against the danger of
anonymous dating apps and the distribution of inappropriate images. The power
of the internet is used as a tool within the series to either liberate or
destroy, with this careful balance making the show even more relevant and
important for a young, contemporary audience. This building of a believable
world allows Coel to make an intricate social commentary that threads through
the central plot. As well as highlighting complex hypocrisies within social
groups and organisations, the series shows an appreciation of intersectionality.
Arabella says that “prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman.
I was busy being black and poor.”, underlining the struggles that come with
each of her identities. Systemic racism, elitism and misogyny tend to overlap,
leading to the confusion of those who are subjected to more than one of these
forms of oppression. For this conflict of interest to be explicitly confronted
on television is something I found incredibly powerful.

I
May Destroy You
is
like nothing I’ve ever seen on television before. Michaela Coel has proven
herself to be a true innovator, and it is clear that she has been heavily
involved in every aspect of the show. As the creator, writer, director
(alongside Luther director Sam Miller) and the star, the passion Coel
has for this project is showcased in every frame, in every music choice and in
every word of dialogue. The rawness and authenticity that is felt throughout
likely stems from the fact that Arabella’s story is based on Coel’s own
experiences, when she was the victim of a sexual assault whilst writing the
second series of Chewing Gum. There is so much freedom within I
May Destroy You
; there are tangents, monologues, loose ends and
flashbacks, all of which are risks within episodic television, but the quality
of the show means that you trust Coel’s superb vision and will happily go with her
in whatever direction she takes the story next. It means that the show can
often be an extremely difficult watch, but there is also joy, empowerment and
humour woven into every moment of tragedy. The unpredictability is surely the
shows’ strength: watching I May Destroy You is genuinely exciting and when
I sit down to watch the next episode, I have no idea what I’m about to watch.
The only thing I am sure of is that it will come from a place of truth,
integrity and fearlessness.

Contributed by Erin Zammitt

I May Destroy You is now available on BBC iPlayer

Erin Zammitt

Erin Zammitt

04/07/2020

Lover of all things telly, especially all things comedy. Will most likely be found watching Strictly, Corrie or Only Connect – or Stath Lets Flats for the millionth time.

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