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

Michaela Coel surpasses expectations in I May Destroy You's devastating pilot

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Photo: Natalie Seery (HBO)
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I May Destroy You has already received praise for being a thorough look at sexual assault. Prior to airing, the show also set out to make its topic explicit with a series of discussions, interviews and panels. As a pilot, “Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes” plays with these expectations by introducing the subject of sexual assault in a limited capacity. This isn’t an episode about a woman’s assault, this is an episode about a woman: Michaela Coel’s Arabella. It’s about her career and her life, her friends, and her relationships. Coel also takes on writing duties this episode. Her brilliant script focuses on Arabella and the life she was leading before the event that changes things forever. It spends half an hour building this world before Coel craftily destroys it in seconds.

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Arabella is a writer, struggling to finish her second book. On top of that, she’s dealing with a long distance situationship with Biaggio, a guy whose entire character is established almost immediately. He’s a selfish jerk. Arabella is shocked he even dares to kiss her goodbye in public. Biaggio remarks that every time she comes she brings so much shit. Arabella wants to define their relationship. Biaggio says when he wants to talk, he’ll call her, but it’s clear he has no interest in continuing the conversation. He doesn’t care about her terms, their relationship only exists within his guidelines. Arabella seems aware of this too, but she later admits to her friends that each trip has only made her like him more.

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But, Biaggio’s call, telling her to remember the sea feels sweet. Of course, that’s probably because he wants it to feel sweet. The sun-drenched clips of them eating pizza and playing on the beach are beautiful and almost convincing. Perhaps, there really is something there far beyond the red flags her friends bring up. Maybe it’s silly for her to be so hopeful and her feelings for Biaggio can only end badly. That doesn’t matter. I May Destroy You suggests it’s okay for Arabella to carry that hope. Or at least Coel’s script thinks she should have the chance to figure it out for herself. Besides, a relationship is hardly her only focus at the moment.

It’s rare for black female characters to exist in a reality that allows them the space to figure things out in a less than perfect way. Black women are expected to be intuitive, wise, trustworthy superhero caretakers and any deviation from that role is viewed as less than respectable. I May Destroy You shines when it plays with this stereotype. Arabella is at once an icon to black women around her but she also does bumps of coke and nearly misses deadlines. Her debut book Confessions of a Fed-Up Millennial, causes fans to stop her in the streets unaware of what Arabella is really going through.

She doesn’t have it all figured out, but what she has to say clearly resonates with people. Maybe she isn’t someone who mastered time management skills or “writing quickly.” Instead, Arabella has developed an ability to get shit done under pressure and she knows her voice. She has faith in those abilities. When she decides to go to her office, she sets up her battle station. She knows what she needs to do get the job done, but she still has trouble. She decides to give herself an hour to get away from the page. She does some coke, she has a shot. Suddenly, she’s stumbling out of the bar.

And then she’s back in her office. The draft is done. She showers and cleans up. She took a break, she finished the draft. She knew what she needed and she got the job done. Her faith in herself is proven, even if her literary agents seem utterly baffled by what she’s written. Then the results of that trip to the bar are revealed: her phone is newly broken and there’s a cut on her head. Dazed, and attempting to find her way home, it’s clear Arabella has lost time and doesn’t remember the events of the night before. When she finally opens her bedroom door, a memory comes rushing back to her: a man’s face, above her, forcefully assaulting her.

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Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Screenshot: HBO

The reveal is as cutting and sharp for viewers as it is for Arabella. It forces us to question our memory of what we just saw, even though we knew this moment was coming. We have to piece everything together along with Arabella. Nothing about this journey is going to be easy. Sam Miller’s direction, the sudden slight tilt of the camera, pairs beautifully with Coel’s shocked expression. It hits her as it hits us: The moment she can’t remember. A moment that forces her to question her intuition. In this way, I May Destroy You is more than a PSA on sexual assault; it’s an exploration of agency, healing, and selfhood.

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Brief introductions to her friends, Kwame, Terry, and Simon (respectively played by Paapa Essiedu, Weruche Opia, and Aml Ameen) establish Arabella’s support network. While Kwame and Terry actually seem concerned with Arabella’s doomed romances and impending deadlines, Simon is simply shady as hell. In the episode’s B plot, Simon and his girlfriend, Kat, attempt to set up a threesome date. At first, it seems pretty cool and legit! Kat is into it. They chose a woman in a dating app together. The woman seems aware of what they want to do. But, that’s not the situation. Simon has already been seeing this woman, something his cousin’s sly glances earlier in the night only suggested. When Arabella sees him with Alissa, she warns him that she doesn’t want to hurt Kat. Simon uses the opportunity to weirdly hit on her before she tells him to shut up. She seems surprised by his behavior.

Additionally, it’s Simon who introduces Arabella to the white face we later see above her in her memory. Even though Arabella seems to have it figured out to her fans and the white literary world, something shady has managed to creep into her life through Simon, a seemingly close friend. While it wasn’t clear if Simon knew the guy personally or not, Arabella will still be forced to question his role in her life as she questions everything else about that night.

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Stray observations

  • Hi! I’ll be here every week reviewing I May Destroy You. Look, the title of this show is an active warning: this show may destroy you. It is an unflinching look at sexual assault in a variety of forms. There are moments that will be incredibly hard to watch, but the show is far from trauma porn. I think HBO gets a lot of fair criticism for its depictions of rape, but I May Destroy You feels revolutionary in its ability to showcase the individuality of black trauma, healing and joy without feeling exploitative.
  • This pilot is so good from the jump and covers a lot of ground. The episode rushes from Italy to London to a night club to the office so quickly, that it’s not until Arabella finally gets to her bedroom for the first time that we’re given a chance to slow down and take everything in with her.
  • Every moment of Michaela Coel’s performance is just brilliant. Even when she’s just staring at her computer screen. You feel the energy of the moment even when she’s procrastinating. In the morning, after the attack, you see a new energy in Coel’s performance. There’s just hurried indifference as she types. Something has changed.
  • My entire life something I’ve wanted is representation for black girls who roll joints on the toilet. I finally feel seen.
  • Arabella’s white literary agents going through her Instagram is an interesting detail. She started her career from Twitter and is weirded out by their corporate intrusion into her personal life. She doesn’t owe them that access and I like that she slyly brings it up. They also seem barely concerned when she’s literally bleeding in front of them. Maybe reschedule??
  • “I’ve lost all decorum, babe” - This line reading...this line.
  • The cuts between Kwame casually perusing Grindr and Simon and Kat cruising Tinder for a unicorn are interesting depictions of modern dating. Swinging on TV is typically presented as comical or inherently sexualized in a positive light. Simon manipulates a situation with Kat and Alissa that seems consensual and ethical, but he’s being deceptive. It explains why he throws a fake temper tantrum over Kat “forcing” him to download the app. A TV show with black swingers that looks at unethical polyamory but it’s not just some weird joke?! I love that!
  • Simon bringing Alissa around Arabella was such an audacious move. I also hated that he tried to pit Arabella against Kat.
  • Ms. Alissa “I think I like drama, it just follows me wherever I go” OH YOU THINK?? Agreeing to a threesome date with your cheating boyfriend’s main and helping him plot it? First date oversharing? Yes, girl, I think you like drama. God bless her.
  • I love Arabella’s interactions with her black female fans. Her journey from the office to her apartment is terrifying. It seems like someone could take advantage of her again. There’s almost an immediate sense of communal safety in knowing a black woman is helping her get home.
  • Amazing soundtrack.
  • Michaela Coel is so talented. She wrote the episode. She’s really created something special.
  • 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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