Michaela Coel Tells No Lies
I May Destroy You is the latest handiwork from Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum), a masterpiece creation, written and executive-produced by Coel herself and co-directed with Sam Miller (Cardiac Arrest, This Life and Luther). Additionally, she stars as the protagonist, Arabella, a twenty-something author from London, who experiences a rape during her journey to writing her second book.
The world that Arabella knows is upended when she is forced to deal with her new reality, in the aftermath of a traumatic life experience. Michaela Coel’s writing is something to be applauded in this journey as we are presented with realness, a multi-dimensional character and a whole lot of fun, even within tragedy.
Here’s your episodic breakdown of the must-see show of 2020 (there are spoilers ahead).
On the eve of submitting the draft of her next book, Arabella (Michael Coel) is coaxed into a night out by her mischievous friend, Simon (Aml Ameen). The consequences of this decision steer the rest of the series. This first episode is a brilliant introduction to the personalities that will proceed to destroy the existence Arabella knew before the show. Arabella is introduced as a happy-go-lucky author whose air of irresponsibility might be detrimental to her progress, but she is charming in ways we cannot deny, so it is clear that she will be loveable and problematic throughout the series. We see her first exchanging goodbyes with her curt Italian lover – Biagio (Marouane Zotti) – on a business trip she has managed to manipulate for her own personal devices. Without diving too deep, Coel’s writing gives us snippets in their exchanges that the ‘situationship’ that Arabella has entangled herself in appears to be playful, but it’s challenging for both parties, as his hard-headed personality seems like it could easily clash with her mischievousness. Once back in England, Arabella’s support system, her equally lost friends trying to navigate their way through life, are introduced. Terry (Weruche Opia), is a struggling actor and Arabella’s right-hand girl. Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay man who frequently explores Grindr in order to satisfy his sexual desires, is Arabella’s other best friend. There’s also Ben (Stephen Wight), the more put-together roommate who embodies calm, unforceful support. The core group is presented and through the performances given, we know we are going to love seeing these actors shine and bring these stories to life.
As Arabella tries to recall the events of the night before, there is the feeling in the air that something isn’t right. The idea that a violation occurred lingers throughout the episode until we are confronted with the topic of rape. The production choices are commendable, with FX provided to present the faint and disorientating flashback images in Arabella’s mind at unexpected points during the episode. Her treasure hunt for information is infused with comical scenes to alleviate the tension that Coel generates. My personal favourites were Arabella’s encounter with Simon’s side-chick Alyssa or when she is forced to eat pinto beans and plantain by Simon’s girlfriend, even though she’s only there to ask a few questions. Eventually, when Arabella realises that something very wrong may have occurred, she is led to the police station to report it, as far as she can recall. Here is where Michaela Coel’s writing abilities truly shine, as the character of Arabella reports the rape in a very distanced manner, as if the event didn’t occur to her. Then the full force of the trauma hits her all at once and she forces herself to accept that she is, in fact a victim. The way in which Arabella processes her experience is not uncommon and Coel displays this so poignantly in her dialogue and performance. Now that the conflict is present in our story, where will this lead Arabella and co?
In this episode, we are transported to Italy three months before, to a time where rape wasn’t at the forefront of Arabella’s world and Coel provides an insight into who Arabella was before this incident. Her wild spirit is showcased once again when Terry joins her in Italy for a ‘business trip’. The pair represent a beautiful friendship between black women in their closeness, and this is mirrored in the little actions such as one using the toilet as the other gets ready in the same room; there is a level of comfort that is showcased in their relationship. However, the flip-side of such comfort is displayed on their night out, as Arabella loses control and Terry loses her patience. This leads to their nights taking different turns, with Terry’s leading her to a threesome with two Italian men and Arabella has the most hilarious and awkward sex scene I’ve seen on TV with the beautiful Biagio.
Through the experiences of Terry and Arabella, there are suggestions being made about the sexual encounters we have. On the part of Terry, we see her discomfort in how the two men leave and their familiarity does not sit well with her – rightfully so – as the pair had planned it, unbeknownst to her. What was meant to be a spontaneous moment is ruined by the deception of the situation and I’m sure that is something audiences can relate to in their own sexual encounters. Regarding Arabella, we see an area of sex that is seldom explored or brought to our screens – menstruation and sex. Here, Coel shatters the notion that people don’t have sex on their periods, whilst showing the reality of how messy and fascinating it can be. I don’t know many shows that could provide a sex scene depicting a tampon removal, then the probing of a blood clot. The sincerity conveyed in Zotti’s performance makes this a hilarious and believable scene. Sex is complicated and messy, and through two different stories, Coel showcases this beautifully.
In the aftermath of her rape, Arabella is appointed a therapist as well as another writer, by her agents, in attempts to get her to finish that much needed draft. The charming, Zain (Karan Gill) is introduced to help her write again, but instead of achieving this goal, the pair’s chemistry overrides the situation and this leads them to having sex. However, this is where Coel thrusts more conflict into the story for our protagonist, as Zain removes the condom during sex without her knowledge – stealthing, which is a form of rape – and ejaculates in her. The initial shock of the situation is the consequence of pregnancy and Arabella’s anger is directed towards that, rather than the serious nature of his actions. In fact, her casualness towards him after they procure the emergency contraception, illustrates that Arabella is unaware of the seriousness of his actions are at this point. Of course, Coel won’t leave it there, but we are left to simmer on it for this episode as Arabella has been through enough trauma for the time being.
Alongside this storyline, we see Kwame – the king of Grindr – connect with another black gay man who is yet to come out, Damon. Damon shows interest in Kwame, but both are stifled in terms of exploring one another sexually due to their housing situations. This leads to Kwame getting creative and organising a threesome for them with a stranger from Grindr. There is a frank display of MOM – man on man – sex between two black men (Damon decides he doesn’t want to join in), which is something seldom depicted and it’s brilliant that Coel allows us to see something considered taboo. The encounter takes a turn for the worse when the stranger decides to force himself on Kwame and sexually assaults him; a moment which is heartbreaking and our hearts break even more as he is unable to vocalise his pain to his best friend, Arabella, in a call directly after the event occurs. This episode ignites frank conversations about how even the people we invite into our beds can violate us and often we don’t see past the gaslighting to realise that our trust has been dishonoured. Additionally, we get to examine dating apps and their usefulness in this dating landscape (when used properly), but typically they are abused by people, which makes them problematic. Plus, the way in which they function, makes them the home of a lack of accountability, which is unfortunate when you have issues arise from them such as rape and sexual assault.
I was not prepared for how much Coel was going to shock us in this episode. It begins with presenting Zain and Arabella in a comfortable sexual relationship. Then through browsing some media content (big up showcasing some of Britain best black women led podcasts) Arabella begins reassessing her sexual encounter with Zain and is forced to confront the fact that she was raped again. Coel gives us playful scriptwriting with conscious dialogue, in order to hint that Zain will get his comeuppance for his behaviours and when it occurs, it’s presented in dreamlike sequence that mirrors fantasies that victims wish they could have. Unfortunately, justice isn’t seen on all fronts, as Kwame’s treatment when it comes to reporting his sexual assault is so careless and cruel. It’s clear that because he’s a gay man, who had had consensual sex before the assault, his treatment was different and his victimhood is not taken seriously, causing him to shut down.
In setting up these scenes, Coel is able to critique the lack of sensitivity when it handling of such cases because of how homophobia is still rooted in our society. The last scene we are given is Biagio reacting to finding out that Arabella was raped. Biagio’s reaction is something that leaves a sour taste in our mouths and presents the notion of victim blaming. In the conversation of rape, it is a prevalent topic and very often the victim is presented to be at fault. Through Coel’s depiction of an angry man shouting at a vulnerable woman, we see just how irrational the concept of victim blaming is, and honestly, it’s great, although it’s wretched to view. Overall this episode serves as a stark reminder that justice is hard to come by, and people we expect to support us can surprise us by doing the exact opposite.
This throwback episode is a gift that gives in so many ways. We are able to explore the topics of the boundaries of consensual sex, rape culture, exploitation, false accusations and elements of healing. Firstly, Arabella joins a support group co-ordinated by an old secondary school acquaintance – Theodora (Harriet Webb); much to the disapproval of Terry, whose self-care train is appearing to be a very regimented boot-camp to alleviate some sort of hidden guilt (we’ll get back to this later). In the support group, Arabella showcases a vulnerability that is beautiful and heartbreaking, she tops off her initial speech with the line: “I’m here to learn to avoid being raped”, a line that stays in the mind for the remainder of the series.
After the initial introduction to Theo and the support group, we are transported to the mid-noughties where Just Do It bags were the item to have and camera phones were new on the market. A young Theo, engages in consensual sex with a peer, but part way through this encounter he decides to take images, and the encounter changes. Theo reacts to the boy’s stupid behaviour and here begins the exploration of consensual sex, rape culture, exploitation and false accusations. The pair had consented to sex, but the involvement of the camera changed the conditions and his improper actions to take images, under the guise that she had done it before with other boys is very suggestive of rape culture and how it affects teens. Additionally, the pair strike up a deal with money in order to continue as they were and this brings exploitation into the mix. Following this encounter, a young Theo exacts her revenge for her humiliation through a false accusation of rape using a weapon, which brings the debate of false accusations and the power they wield into the overall debate of rape and sexual assault.
Here, Coel forces us to re-examine the actions of our past and critiques the school environment for being one that perpetuates rape culture with its lack of proper sex education for teenagers. Additionally, she uses the story of these teens to examine how power dynamics work when it comes to race and sexual assault i.e. the weaponization of sexual assault against black men by white women. Although it is not always the case, white women have been viewed as fragile and black men as predators, therefore, the notion that white women know this and can use it to their advantage is plausible – especially with current events we have seen unravel in society. Overall, this episode is stellar in its depiction of youth and their attitudes towards sex and implies that it is these behaviours we carry with us into adulthood. I also have to commend the performances of our young Terry (Adwoa Akoto) and Arabella (Brielle Atuwo), who play their parts so well and are not only representations of young, bright black women, but also act as sources of comedic relief in such a tense situation.