WARNING: Distressing content
If ever there were a show so beautiful in its brutality, it's I May Destroy You.
The new series from Michaela Coel (creator of Chewing Gum) is incredibly confronting, especially given the context of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements in 2020.
It's an unflinching glare at the assault of black bodies and particularly black women, focusing mainly on the sexual assault of main character Arabella (played excellently by Coel).
The reason I May Destroy You is so confronting isn't because it's written and stylised to be relentlessly bleak like Handmaid's Tale or Game of Thrones, it's because it's uncomfortably real.
As such, it's not actually as hard to watch as it sounds. Coel expertly inserts the right levels of fun, humour and sometimes sheer absurdity at the right times, to balance the beyond-serious subject matter. The result is a show that switches tones so wildly it's – at first – hard to keep up with.
The first episode is so messy I almost gave up on watching the series altogether but by the final frame, I was all too aware that's exactly the point.
In it, Arabella is riding the wave of success from her first published book, but is up against the deadline for her second draft and pulling an all-nighter to get it done on time. She takes a break to go out on the town, blacks out, returns to her office, finishes her draft, takes her publishers' meeting and it's not until she gets home that she's hit by a flashback of her rape the night before. She gives a surprised, confused "huh" and the screen cuts to black.
Those final shots set the tone for the whole season: the brute force of the rape scene juxtaposed with the flippant, confused Arabella.
This is important firstly because the experience is based on Coel's own experience, in which she was sexually assaulted but still under pressure to hand in a script on time. As such, it hits with the kind of realism you get only from someone who's been there.
It's also important because often, sexual assault is portrayed in real-time but often these hazy flashbacks are how many sexual assault survivors first become aware of their own assault. While the confusion and pain that ensues are so heartbreaking, Arabella instead focuses on her deadline, telling herself it's not that bad ("There are starving children, not everybody has smartphones"), doing whatever she can to distract herself and clinging to her denial for as long as she can.
The episode on her police interview and forensic examination is similarly brutal yet lighthearted in its flippancy. There's one particular stand-out moment in which we see Arabella pulling up her hospital gown in a Super-8, stop-motion-style shot, portraying just how surreal the experience is. We also see her meet a fellow survivor whose gown is covered in blood and who nonchalantly asks Arabella: "First time?" and upon getting a "yes", remarks, "Really?" with surprise, as if they've met a spin class and as if finding a woman who hasn't been assaulted is like happening upon a unicorn - an understated yet powerful commentary on just how common this is.
Throughout it all, Coel gives a perfect performance, from the dead-eyed smiles to the silent tears and showing the sheer confusion behind the outwardly calm mask.
And she's not the only one. As the Grindr-addicted Kwame, Paapa Essiedu subtly portrays an icy resignation upon his character's own assault, wiping his tears later almost with annoyance and, in two short moments, commenting on the secrecy and toxic nature of gay hook-up culture - particularly for men of colour who all too often have to keep a foot in the closet for their families and their traditional values.
Between all the characters in and orbiting Arabella's story, we examine consent, assault, and how even regretted sexual acts can take a toll on the psyche. It also masterfully shoots the "they were asking for it" rhetoric squarely in the foot and gives drug-facilitated sexual assault the treatment it demands rather than the flippant passing "date-rape" anecdotes it's usually reduced to.
Throughout the show, there are moments specifically designed to remind you that this realism, like Arabella constantly peeing on screen, putting a pad in her underwear (something I'm not sure I've ever seen in a TV show) and her lover pulling out her tampon before sex (something I've definitely not seen on TV before).
But there are also quietly understated metaphors, like the poster that keeps falling off her bedroom wall depending on whether not she's holding it together.
At the time of writing, there are only four episodes of I May Destroy You on Neon, with new episodes dropping weekly after a short hiatus. But Coel says so much in each instalment, not just with the hard-hitting moments the show's blunt realism provides but also with its rich, nuanced subtext making it a story you will want to see through to the end - no matter how much you simultaneously want to look away.
I May Destroy You screens on Soho 2, Mondays from 8pm and streaming now on Neon.
Help phone lines
Safe to Talk sexual harm helpline 0800 044334, text 4334
* Rape Crisis — 0800 88 33 00
* Women's Refuge — 0800 733 843
* Shine domestic abuse services free call 0508 744 633 (9am and 11pm)
* Hey Bro helpline — supporting men to be free from violence 0800 HeyBro (439 276)
* Shakti — for migrant and refugee women — 0800 742 584 — 24 hours
* Oranga Tamariki line for concerns about children and young people 0508 326 459
* Te Puna Oranga — whānau crisis line 0800 222 042 — 24 hours