Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I May Destroy You doesn't have time for victim-blaming in its fifth episode

Weruche Opia (left), Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu
Weruche Opia (left), Michaela Coel, Paapa Essiedu
Photo: Natalie Seery
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Last week, I said Kwame’s attacker purposefully abused him in a way that wasn’t necessarily clear cut. For viewers who aren’t well-versed in the details of anal sex, it might not have been clear that Kwame wasn’t completely penetrated. He searches the internet for the phrase “non-consensual humping” to clear up any confusion for viewers. He tells the police officer that even he wasn’t entirely sure if he was penetrated. These details are uncomfortable, aren’t they? In the end, it shouldn’t matter to what extent Kwame was assaulted, his body was still invaded without his consent.

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I May Destroy You could gloss over those details, but it stands bravely in this uncomfortable moment. This make viewers question their own notion of victimhood and what they require from victims. Do you see Kwame differently if you believed he was penetrated and now understand he wasn’t? Do you see one act as more salacious or compelling to the narrative? Does it somehow lessen or change the way you view what he went through? It shouldn’t.

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Like one of Arabella’s detectives says, that’s exactly the problem. People get away with crimes when victims don’t know what is or isn’t a crime. Arabella’s attacker did this in a physical sense by drugging her so she literally wouldn’t even know a crime had occurred. Zain did this by gaslighting and confusing her after taking his condom off. Terry’s abusers lied to her. Kwame’s attacker knew Kwame would be dismissed by a legal system that doesn’t see gay men as victims. Most of us may not see a distinction when it comes to how abuse is experienced, but abusers skillfully manipulate this legal and emotional grey area to perpetrate their abuse and that’s why it needs to be explored. It’s a careful nuance I’ve never seen a TV show portray without straying into victim-blaming territory; something I May Destroy You isn’t at all guilty of doing.

Because “...It Just Came Up” is an episode that rewards I May Destroy You’s victims rather than blaming or punishing them. If you were watching the show because you wanted an extended rape and revenge plot, the show isn’t here to be exploited that way. Arabella gets called down to the police station because they already have a suspect in custody. DNA was found on her clothes and there’s a match to a man who’s committed similar crimes. Her friend, Simon, and his cousin, have apparently been cleared and cooperated fully.

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For now, there is no big, shady mystery. A sex criminal with a history of being a sex criminal got caught by The Rapebusters. It’s so simple, it almost feels like a dream. But of course, it can’t be that easy. In order to confirm the suspect, they need to clear Arabella’s consensual partners. Like the details of Kwame’s assault, this is another uncomfortable reality of the legal process. Biagio was in Italy the night of the attack, but sadly this could inevitably be used against her in a court system that looks for any reason to doubt women.

This also apparently brings us to the end of Biagio and Arabella’s relationship. After “Don’t Forget the Sea,” I wasn’t sure how Biagio would react to Arabella’s attack. He showed a lot of empathy and regret over his actions as a drug dealer. It seemed possible that he’d offer Arabella support, understanding and love, just like Terry and Kwame have done. But, no, I was right to be suspicious of Biagio. He shames Arabella for taking a drink from a stranger, even though she points out that’s how they met.

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He blames her for her own assault and tells her she wouldn’t have gotten raped if she watched her drink. He basically says everything you’re not supposed to say to a victim who’s healing from a violent attack. From a legal standpoint, Bella has dealt with the best scenario possible: She has two understanding, female officers who believe her and are taking her case seriously. Even with that, Biagio finds a way to make her feel bad about what happened.

There are a number of factors that make men like Biagio and Kwame’s officer skeptical of victims. None of them are valid or really worth mentioning. There’s no defense for how they behaved. They aren’t acting from genuine concern, but from judgement. Biagio believes Bella is wild and drinks too much. The officer sees Kwame as another hypersexual gay man. Even if those things are true, they don’t deserve to be punished for it. Their attackers should face consequences and one of them does...pretty quickly, actually.

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“...It Just Came Up” is I May Destroy You’s first hint of a pacing issue. Zain and Arabella’s relationship has jumped ahead three weeks. It’s evident that Bella is using their relationship as a form of therapy and she still dreams of Biagio. She still can’t be alone, but she needs someone to cuddle and paint with, even if Zain is the worst. Being sexual again and doing yoga are ways for Arabella to take ownership of her body again. That’s what make it so annoying when Zain dismisses her #YogaADay challenge as an internet fad that she’s just going along with. But her yoga session with Terry proves Bella really is putting in the work. Personally, I am two years into a “force myself to do daily yoga to stay sane” routine and I still haven’t mastered Crow Pose. Arabella is obviously putting in actual work, but Zain doesn’t value or see it. I appreciated the choice to have Bella actualize Zain’s assault by listening to a podcast, however. An outside perspective allows her to see the pattern he engaged in immediately.

Zain’s consequences come swiftly and publicly. Arabella not only calls Zain out for what he did in front of his own mother, but also address the very definition of it. She’s armed with the proper language to name what he did and that makes her even more powerful. By UK law, what he did was rape. Australia may think he’s just a bit rape-y, but it’s not at all okay. As good as the moment feels for Bella, Sion and Terry, it’s still rushed. Bella and Sion have a moment of connection that lacks some clarity, but this feels realistic. It’s difficult to confront another woman about her partner’s potential past abusive behavior, so I like how the script has Sion approach Bella.

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The problem is how quickly Bella goes from understanding Sion to speaking for her on stage. Yes, Sion alluded to a similar incident with Zain, but that doesn’t mean she was ready to come forward in front of an entire crowd and her boss. Sion seems okay with the sudden rush of internet attention, but we needed to see Terry and Arabella’s conversation about the issue to understand her intentions and any possible boundaries Bella crossed. It seems like a missed opportunity to exclude that talk, especially since Terry didn’t even know Bella was seeing Zain or having sex again.

“...It Just Came Up” makes me thankful I May Destroy You has a twelve episode season. This is the first episode where viewers have had a chance to sit with these characters. There’s so much happening for Kwame, Terry and Arabella. It’s not necessarily that the plot needs to rush to get them anywhere, but Michaela Coel has created a world so rich, it has to be savored. As good as it felt to see Bella hold Zain accountable, I May Destroy You’s best storytelling still comes from its more character-driven plots. Kwame still hasn’t told Terry and Arabella what happened to him and Terry’s stage fright is probably tied to a deeper issue. Bella’s relationship with Zain was an understandable part of her healing process, but with seven episodes left this season, I hope this really is the last time we see him or Biagio.

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Stray Observations

  • I loved Bella’s thrift store outfit after she leaves Zain’s. Bella steps into her power this episode and they literally outfit her in the clothing of a man and she imagines herself as her attacker in a vision.
  • I would need an entire separate article to get into the specifics of Arabella and the black hair salon scene. There’s a reason why Terry didn’t want to remove her wig during that audition, it’s incredibly intimate. I love that Coel’s direction allows us see Bella get her hair done. A lot of shows with black characters don’t get into this. It’s a form of self-care and the choice to shave her head is a quintessential form of black girl healing (yes, I did shave my head in October, why do you ask?). The soft pink protection of Bella’s old wig is gone. New Bella doesn’t hide from anything.
  • I have a theory about cardigans and how Bella was wearing one the night of her attack and how she uses them as armor during her healing process, but I haven’t entirely worked it out yet. Anyway, let’s all appreciate this cardigan look:
  • Arabella didn’t know her publisher, Susy, is black. She’s excited about this, but I don’t think Susy is her kinfolk. Susy seems more interested in monetizing Bella’s story than taking care of the rapist in the room. She clearly just cares about shallow versions of representation than any sort of real solidarity with a black female writer.
  • Bella is definitely projecting a lot of her previous attack onto Zain, but I think if she’d wasted time communicating he would’ve just tried to gaslight her again.
  • Bella has flashbacks to the assault this episode, but unlike previously, the camera doesn’t tilt to an angled view of her. Instead, it stays steady on her as Zain enters the meeting.
  • Kwame’s interrogation room was even less intimate. The giant windows, lights and open doors just highlighted that he wasn’t in a safe space.
  • The social media angle is interesting. I think it’s used as a positive here and gives Bella the support Biagio failed to give her. It’s worrying though that she’s getting power and help from the internet, which can be fickle. The purple heart that grows from the screen hints that this is a positive. We haven’t seen Bella and the color purple together since she was in Italy before her attack. I think the community she finds online will be interesting.
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Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.

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