Michaela Coel’s masterpiece deserves your attention.
Social media has been ablaze with rave reviews of Michaela Coel’s latest work for weeks. From the moment the first episode aired in early June, my Twitter feed was awash with people declaring it a masterpiece, and its creator ‘the new Phoebe Waller-Bridge’. My interest was piqued. Still, I was hesitant as I hit play, not quite sure whether the show would live up to my expectations. Fast-forward a couple of weeks and you’d find me lying on my floor, trying my best to contemplate what I’d just seen in the show’s finale. Subversive is too soft a word for the twisted, confusing, uncomfortable, incredible half hour I’d just experienced. I was fully ready to declare I May Destroy You a work of genius.
In fact, all those words and more can be applied to the entire series. In twelve episodes, the viewer is taken on a journey encapsulating assault, deception, shame, guilt, memory, breakdown, identity and, ultimately, reclaiming oneself. At every turn, we are reminded of how brilliant Coel is, not only as an actor, but as a creator too. I May Destroy You is the first show she has directed (in partnership with Luther’s Sam Miller), but you wouldn’t be able to guess. Her vision for the show is executed seemingly effortlessly in every detail, from its eclectic soundtrack to the costumes and settings.
I May Destroy You follows Arabella, a young writer living in London, who is sexually assaulted. Her experience of the aftermath, at first not being able to remember anything apart from a blurry face, is tracked, as well as the experiences of her friends Terry and Kwame.
Coel’s own experience of being spiked at a bar was part of the inspiration for the show, and she described writing it as “deeply cathartic”. She weaves these personal elements in with more broad studies of existing in the world: for example, being a black gay man, explored through Paapa Essiedu’s character Kwame. Multiple threads are brought together, traversing time and location, in a way that feels both seamless and jarring at different points. However, this unease works in the show’s favour; discomfort is the point. Arabella cannot always control her emotions and actions. Therefore we, as an audience, have no choice but to attempt to adapt to her swings in temperament and try to understand them.
Similarly, though the show is billed as a comedy-drama, the genre shifts wildly from scene to scene – and in a particularly self-reflexive sequence, the question ‘what genre is this?’ is asked. Critics and fans alike have been comparing I May Destroy You to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s dark comedy Fleabag, with some suggesting the latter should ‘move aside’ for Michaela Coel. This fundamentally ignores the obvious fact that two brilliant female screenwriters can exist at the same point in history, while also frustratingly conflating their work. Yes, both Fleabag and I May Destroy You are comedy-drama series written by women, but their narratives are very distinct. To begin with, Fleabag has an entirely different experience of the world to Arabella, and vice-versa. To equate them is to ignore certain privileges Fleabag’s ‘heroine’ (and writer) has, and to do a disservice to the huge amount of talent and hard work both writers have put into their work.
Ultimately, I May Destroy You is about the way the mind deals with trauma. We see many facets of Arabella’s response to her assault; some frightening, some inspiring, some upsetting. The show’s beauty comes with this honesty, as well as the excellent and sensitive performances by its lead actors. At its core is, as Michaela Coel has said in interviews, the idea that power controls you. This is as true of the show’s ‘villains’ as it is of its ‘protagonists’, some of whom have experienced trauma and are now having to navigate a world in which the boundaries between healing oneself and hurting others are difficult to contend with. This is series filled with joy, friendship, reclamation and hope – all served up with a banging soundtrack and one of the most radical sex scenes in TV history.
I can’t wait to see what Michaela Coel makes next.
– Caitlin Barr
Featured Image Source: Still via HBO // YouTube