Updated: Mar 17, 2021
After being sexually assaulted in a nightclub, Arabella's life changes irreversibly and she is forced to reassess everything, including her career, friends and family.
Michaela Coel first allowed a general audience into her psyche in 2015 with her adapted tv show of her own play Chewing Gum. If it had a scent it would smell like a pig’s den as the comedy here is so unbelievably raunchy. Each episode getting dirtier than the next but what really solidified the mechanics of this show is that even when Coel writes a show as comedically daunting as this, she manages to somehow make it poignant. Even when episodes include porn websites that include naked women and dogs, she still manages to reel it in to the essence of a person. How one’s psyche works when put in the most peculiar situations and what to make out of it. Whilst watching this, I thought, imagine keeping this sense of person within a tv show but dealt with a more connected and intricate subject matter. And that is exactly what she does with her sophomore tv show: I May Destroy You. I feel as though that the word ground-breaking is used with any tv show that mildly steps away from the boundaries of expected tv conventions, but this show should be the basis of ground-breaking.
The plot’s basis is about Arabella, our protagonist played by the writer/co-director Michaela Coel, attempting to rebuild her life after her drink is spiked and she is sexually assaulted. This is merely the main driven plot with our two sub-plots following her two friends Terry and Kwame. This show deconstructs what trauma is capable of once it seeps through the metaphysical barrier of the world and our mind. When the tragedies of the world have no option to intertwine with one’s identity and what to pursue to unwind this knot. I don’t want to say too much about the plot as every episode seems to offer more nuance and depth as it progresses but what I can say is that this is not a tv show. It’s a movement.
Sexual assault will always be a difficult act or theme to explore within any medium to due how personal it is for so many. I found some parts of the show difficult to watch, not only because of Arabella’s suffering but Kwame’s, a black queer character within the show. The representation within the show has been a hot-topic due to events that occur within the show that do emanate bi-phobic stances, but I commend Coel for the primary characterisation of Kwame. Played by Paapa Essiedu, who is flawless in his performance, his character is one of the most confident LGBTQ+ characters I have seen on screen. His identity is always assured to him from the start and I admire this conviction as I want to aspire to have that same stance on my queer identity as him.
His main conflict within the show is through the critique of gay-hook-up culture through the likes of Grindr and the effect it has on someone’s expectations when it comes to real connection. As the story progresses, we do see a change to his careless attitude towards the frankly disturbing nature of casual hook-ups with strangers, but he is met with true demise when he gets sexually assaulted by one of his ‘matches’. I cannot say much about how Coel deals with this particular storyline without spoiling important segments of the show, but I do wish that it was concluded with more care. Since the whole show is about trauma, the lack of exploration of that effect towards Kwame simply because of him being a part of the supporting cast undermined his true feelings. I feel like when it comes to queer characters their troubles should not be underwhelmed by a leading simply because they are not the main. If you were to introduce an act of sexual assault to a separate character, they should now have as close to as equal attention as the main.
Of course, I can understand this lack of side-tracking as this show was one of the ways that the creator explored her own trauma for her own experiences which is why this show is extremely centred around Arabella. I can’t really dive into the other problems within LGBTQ+ representation here as it requires a deep investigation into a major plot point for Kwame, but I think Coel does the best she can with such a heavy and dark subject.
TV has developed so much and I’m so glad to see programmes like I May Destroy You is getting its recognition as it further pushes the boundaries of what is capable to be displayed on our screens and make television more alive. This is a difficult but necessary watch, and I cannot wait for Coel’s future projects to have much life as this show has.