Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Paapa Essiedu
Paapa Essiedu
Screenshot: HBO
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Nothing about this show gets easier to watch, does it? Personally, “That Was Fun” was the episode that forced me to look away the most so far. It’s the episode that reminded me the most of my own experiences of assault. “That Was Fun” is a terrifying reminder that victims don’t exist in a vacuum after their assault, they’re instead left to defend themselves in a world that can re-victimize and re-traumatize them again and again. Bella can’t even handle a bus ride or sitting in a bar without flashbacks.

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Distracting herself with company is the only way she can stop thinking about that night. Bella is in a vulnerable place, but she’s forced to get back to work in order to support herself. It’s good she’s in therapy, but how can she write when the very act of writing is so tied to the night of her assault? When Zain, a ghostwriter hired by her publisher shows up, it’s not surprising that Bella sleeps with him. She doesn’t want to be alone. It’s also a way she can feel some control over her body again, until Zain steals her moment of agency by removing his condom.

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What Zain did wasn’t an accident or a mistake. He took the condom off on purpose and didn’t tell her. It’s called stealthing and plenty of people have written about why it’s wrong. While Bella is initially upset, she goes along with him when he plays it off as something that just happened in the passion of really good sex (that didn’t look particularly passionate at all). I also don’t think Bella wanted to confuse her first moment of sexual agency since the assault with Zain’s actions. Still, I think Arabella knows she wouldn’t have invited Zain over in the first place if she’d known her roommate, Ben, was home. I also think to some extent, Arabella wanted to prove herself after Zain dismissed her as a “Twitter” writer. It’s not that Arabella cares, she’s quick to point out how useless his degree is, but it’s like she wanted to prove she could win him over.

Zain, however, is a jerk and he’s insulted when Arabella isn’t impressed that he went to Cambridge. That context makes their encounter even more corrupt. He doesn’t respect Arabella and he thinks he’s better and more deserving than her. He didn’t ask her if he could take the condom off because he didn’t care what she had to say. It’s frustrating that Arabella let him off the hook so easily, but like Terry’s threesome last week, this is another coercive sexual situation that doesn’t make itself immediately clear. Hopefully Arabella’s therapy helps her process what happened because I don’t think Zain is a great choice for a relationship. Arabella seems to know that too and her playful text to Biaggio leaves me hopeful that Zain will remain a distraction.

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Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Screenshot: HBO

Kwame hasn’t had any issues with his sexual liberties so far in the series. We’ve seen him swiping on Grindr and the episode begins with him casually accepting a bathroom hook-up while in the grocery store with his mother. There’s nothing wrong with Kwame’s sexualization. He’s a proud black gay man who doesn’t see the point in hiding his desires. As he points out, no one is going to throw him off a building. That doesn’t mean everyone is as open as he is and the date he lines up shows how black gay men are still limited from showing intimacy in public settings. Kwame and his date are instead forced to use a Grindr hookup’s apartment for their meet-up because they still have to hide. They’re forced into the margins where it’s easy for them to be overlooked or targeted.

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When Kwame’s date leaves, it’s the first sign that things won’t go as he planned. He told his date he didn’t have to join in and even made a last minute plea to see if he could do anything for him. It’s unfortunate, but they were all agreed to this as a potential outcome. Kwame’s initial consent and his date leaving doesn’t mean he gets to be used against his will, however. The assault he faces is just as calculated and heinous as Arabella’s drugging. The perpetrator intimidates Kwame with his size. He overpowers him. He also doesn’t go all the way with Kwame and states, “It’s not sex.” It’s like he knows escalating the assault with penetration would be enough for him to actually get in trouble. When he suggested he’d see Kwame again, I wondered how often he did this to people.

Paapa Essiedu
Paapa Essiedu
Screenshot: HBO
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Kwame’s call to Arabella at the end is excruciating. Paapa Essiedu is a brilliant performer who captures the confusion, pain and fear of the moment. Essiedu has a way of bringing Kwame’s tenderness to the forefront in every moment. You can tell Kwame needs help, but he knows Arabella’s attack is still weighing on her. Terry is suspiciously absent this episode and Kwame is left all alone. All three main characters of I May Destroy You have suffered from very different versions of sexual assault.

They all force us to question who we see as a victim and what we see as victimization. What combines all of these acts–from Zain’s condom removal to Terry’s threesome–are men who wanted what they wanted no matter what. With Terry processing Italy and Arabella possibly re-traumatized, Kwame may be left to deal with what happened on his own. There’s very little attention given to male sexual assault survivors in film and TV. The few portrayals that do exist either make jokes or are overly sensationalized. I May Destroy You has done an amazing job of presenting the topic with care.

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Stray observations

  • That was not fun at all. This episode already aired in London, so some articles have already mentioned how hard it is to watch.
  • Michaela Coel co-directed this episode. She co-directed every episode after this one too. If you weren’t convinced of her genius, you should be now. The close-ups when Arabella is in the bar were great. I also loved the shot of Kwame at the check out with his mom and the guy he just checked out. I also loved the shots of Kwame in his bed.
  • I’ve dated so many guys like Zain. This was a difficult episode to watch for so many reasons. I’m sure a lot of people could relate to that moment.
  • Ok, I’ve seen screeners for the entire season and I promise I May Destroy You gives you room to breathe...eventually.
  • I’m glad this show uses an intimacy coordinator.
  • I May Destroy You offers these resources on sexual violence. If you or someone you know in the U.S. has been affected by sexual violence, help is available 24/7 through RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.
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Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.

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