Since the start of its two weekly episodes last month, Coel’s drama – about a group of young black Londoners sailing with friends, dating and the ubiquity of sexual abuse – has been presented by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as the show of the year. He was inspired by Coel’s own experience with sexual assault while directing the sitcom for Channel 4 Chewing Gum, his winning pastel-colored comedy by Bafta, an incident she revealed in her MacTaggart lecture. 2018 at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.
Although I May Destroy You is a completely different proposition from Chewing Gum, who followed a 24-year-old trying to balance a hyper-religious family with a growing interest in sex, Coel’s talent for surprising you with humor remains. No less when Arabella’s best friend, aspiring actor Terry (Weruche Opia), told police investigating the assault that Arabella’s boyfriend is an Italian drug lord, followed by ” joke! Delivered half a time too late.
Diving into the world of party or starvation in London’s creative industries, he shares a central premise with Girls – where protagonist Lena Dunham famously declared that “she could be the voice of my generation.” Or, at least, a voice of a generation “- but without its privilege, situated instead in a London where its socially mobile but materially deprived protagonists dance in a garage of the 00s in a gentrified bar, visiting a council apartment one day and brilliant publishers’ office the next. The novel is overused when it comes to the post-Wire TV landscape, but here Coel gives a feeling of moving between different worlds in the same city like Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith, each contrasting vision of London sparkling with realism.
At its heart, this is a series on control. The question is whether self-determination – that ideology at the heart of Coel’s teen neoliberal Britain – is enough to transcend your past. (In a heartbreaking scene, Arabella talks about how she didn’t like the feminist cause when she was younger, because she had been too “busy being black and poor.”) It’s about whether you can stop the people around you making serious mistakes. It’s about whether you can have control over your body when people do horrible, half-memorized things to you – and maybe even things that you and they can remember, but that are just as terrible. The question is whether you can also control your mind by focusing on personal care or whether it is also punctuated with painful memories. As the series unfolds, Coel also manages to keep control of our emotions, to cope with and control the trauma as needed.
Although sexual assault is not at the center of every interaction or scene, it provides the backdrop from which everything else emerges. His silent presence shows that sexual abuse is something that exists inside our world rather than a threat from afar – something that you, I or someone else may have experienced without even realizing that was happening. This happens to Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay man experienced in the art of Grindr connection. This still happens to Arabella, in apparently safer circumstances. This happens to Terry in a scenario that she initially considers stimulating. It’s traumatic. It’s boring. It’s bureaucratic. It’s subtle.
This is of course not the first performance to intelligently tackle the horror of sexual assault. Amazing, Netflix’s 2019 adaptation of Pulitzer’s article about a young woman treated as a suspect in her own rape case, was praised for showing the inherent injustice of the American justice system when it comes to sexual assault . However, where Incredible was an extremely dark series – in which an entire episode could be devoted to the search for a “Bad Man” – I May Destroy You has a rare lightness of contact, Coel acknowledging that sometimes the Bad Man, or The woman is already in our field of vision.
Other scripted shows have done this too: Orange is the new black, where an inmate, Pennsatucky, continues a relationship with the prison guard who rapes her; and Euphoria, where the transgender teenager Jules is proposed by the father of a classmate, comes to mind. But few representations have been so complete. In the wake of a story between Arabella and Zain (Karan Gill), where he takes off a condom during sexual intercourse – Arabella later describes it as “not adjacent to rape, or a little raped: he is a rapist” – conversations about this practice of “stealth” were ignited on Twitter. Meanwhile, viewers wondered if there could be more in a story where a character, Theo, seemed to be lying about being assaulted by a classmate in a flashback.
Questions are also asked about representation. Coel could not have known that 2020 would be as marked by Black Lives Matter protests as by Covid-19; that conversations about everything from police funding to racism on the X Factor would be sparked by the murder of George Floyd. Nor could it have predicted that a bad faith cultural war would emerge simultaneously. And yet, without knowing it, she wrote the perfect show for a time when the notions of darkness are again dissected by a white majority.
His show takes place in the creative industries, where the offer of mentorship and the publication of a black square on Instagram have recently become de rigueur instead of companies and individuals questioning their own complicity in “the system”. In this way, the drama is the total antidote to white guilt at the surface level: a program that simply talks about black people living their lives, two gay and black friends, Kwame and Damon – a relationship rarely seen on the television – to the troubles of perma-knackered creators on the hustle and bustle, such as Arabella and Terry.
A few weeks ago, journalist Allison Pearson wrote a very large Daily Telegraph column praising the series for showing her black characters who are “human beings with the full repertoire of virtues and vices,” adding that “people don’t object to the big job which is really colorblind”. But, rather than being color blind, I May Destroy You just isn’t focused on the usual colors, as the scenes focused on “white girl tears” and the question of whether veganism is a type of savourism white are naked. While Coel was adamant in a pre-show interview with the Guardian that racing was not his goal here, his lived experiences mean that it is undoubtedly the kind of series that could only have been made by a black woman.
The Covid-19 era posed important questions about friendship – another area that Coel couldn’t have predicted, but that gives the show an extra layer of topicality. Who are our friends? What can we ask of them and expect from them? Are certain friendships a convenience rather than a necessity? The jerky, non-linear narrative helps to manipulate our perception of the friendship between the trio. As in real life, nothing is static, and sometimes it is not entirely clear which side we should be on. There are no cliché antiheroes, nor deus ex machinas; Susy Henny, the high-profile editor whom Arabella cannot believe is a black woman, is the same woman who sends her from her office empty-handed when trying to get a raise on his book and who says “rape – fantastic! ”When the author plans to use his own experiences in his work.
In a recent Bafta podcast, Coel revealed that Piers Wenger, the BBC drama controller, ordered the show based solely on conversation with her, rather than on traditional terrain. Wenger was able to give Coel the gift of complete autonomy over his project, and Coel in return could give Wenger an author show, a format rarely seen on British television. For a series that focuses on control, and its lack, it’s ironic – and encouraging – to learn how much autonomy Coel had over the process, by making a streaming deal that would have seen her lose her rights about the world she was building. Its agreement – with British production company Various Artists Limited, founded by Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, and the prestigious television titan HBO – demonstrates both its ease of origin and elegance that places it on the same continuum as Girls, Insecurity, Atlanta or one of the other half-hour dramas that the United States does so well.
I May Destroy You feels like a game changer for British television: ambitious and radical, the kind of program that seeps into your head between its weekly drops (a risk in the era of the frenzy that has no doubt paid).
Naturally, this may be too triggering for some survivors of sexual assault and rape to watch. But for those who can, it has an important message: what doesn’t kill you can’t make you stronger, but maybe it won’t break you either.
I May Destroy You ends Monday July 13 and Tuesday July 14 at 10:45 pm, BBC One and is available on iPlayer