I May Destroy You review: Uncompromising, personal TV
James R | On 08, Jun 2020
This is a spoiler-free review based on the opening four episodes.
“I can only tell you to take care of yourself when possible.” That’s the advice given to Arabella (Michaela Coel) after she was sexually assaulted. Other advice includes doing creative acts to help recovery, as well as identify people around her that she trusts. But I May Destroy You, Coel’s remarkable, ambitious, striking and thought-provoking series, explores just how difficult a notion trust can be today, as it questions concepts of consent in a digital age.
In some ways, the world has changed dramatically and, in many others, it’s exactly the same as it always has been, with exploitation and abuse under-reported and under-discussed. To make a series exploring these issues is a bold move in itself but to make one that doesn’t offer easy answers is even bolder; this is a candid, complex watch that wrestles with big questions in a way that’s designed to challenge an audience.
We meet Arabella as she’s trying to crack her difficult second novel. Her first, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, was a book made up of tweets that struck a chord with her followers. Actually penning a follow-up, though, turns out to be much harder, and so she ducks out on a deadline in favour of going drinking – and then wakes up the following morning unable to remember anything else that happened. She went to a bar, but where did she go after that? Why has she got a cut above her eye? And why does she keep having recollections of a man in a bathroom doing something that definitely doesn’t seem friendly?
Her life after that night is repeatedly interrupted by flashbacks to that man, a relentless and unsettling barrage of images that leaves us as disoriented as Arabella is – and, as she begins to investigate what happened that evening, we join her on what is initially a pseudo-detective drama. But I May Destroy You is looking to tell more than that story, and the scope widens out to include the lives of those around her, from her friend, Terry (Weruche Opia), an actor trying to make her way in the industry, and fitness instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) to banker Simon (Ami Ameen).
Each one of them have their own complicated situations to navigate, and their busy lives lead to encounters that increasingly blur the lines between witting and unwitting participation. The series makes it clear that agreeing to do one thing doesn’t automatically means someone is comfortable doing another thing, and the script’s frank, intimate and nuanced dissection of every step along that spectrum is remarkably well observed. It’s coupled with a non-judgemental attitude towards Arabella, whose habits involving a range of substances aren’t shied away from but also not presented as any form of blame for what happens to her; rather, it spends the time capturing her trauma after the fact, as she becomes incapable of sitting in a bar without nervously looking at every drink nearby.
Threesomes and other hook-ups prove equally as messy, as we watch dates and evenings move fluidly from cheerful and exciting to distressing and uncomfortable. That messiness runs through the whole show, with the cast bringing a realism and naturalism to the rarely simple existence of 20-somethings in contemporary London. Perceptions and presumptions are undermined, while memories and recollections are perpetually proven to be unreliable, all served up with critiques of sexism, Oxbridge elitism and more, and a lot of explicit bedroom sequences. If all of that sounds heavy viewing, you’ll be surprised (unless you’ve seen Coel’s Chewing Gum) just how entertaining I May Destroy You can be, as it sneaks laughs in throughout the show even as it deconstructs the mental image society has given us of victims. With trust able to be exploited and power and consent able to be taken away behind one’s back in so many different ways, what exactly does a victim of rape or abuse look like today?
In 2018, Coel announced that the Edinburgh International TV Festival that she had been assaulted, and the process of her revealing that experience, and coming to terms with what had happened to her, is what inspired I May Destroy You. Written and exec-produced by Coel, who also stars and co-directs several episodes with Sam Miller, the result is a deeply personal piece of television that captures the experience of putting one’s life back together, bit by bit. Over its opening four episodes, there’s no hint yet of what those pieces will add up to – is the title a promise of revenge yet to unfold? – but it promises to be something memorable, distinctive and uncompromising, and leaves you wondering why all TV shows aren’t exploring these issues right now.
I May Destroy You is available on BBC iPlayer until January 2022.