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I May Destroy You does not shy from the grim realities of life

Watching the first episode of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You makes you wonder about the show’s music licensing budget. The aptly named Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes burns through four songs within the first ten minutes, with the total song count for the episode reaching an even dozen.

Watching the first episode of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You makes you wonder about the show’s music licensing budget. The aptly named Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes burns through four songs within the first ten minutes, with the total song count for the episode reaching an even dozen.

Then you remember that the London-set series is a co-production between the BBC and American network HBO, with the latter most probably shelling out the money to ramp up production quality and provide Coel that elevated attention to detail her material demands. The use of Rev. Milton Brunson & The Thompson Community Singers’ It’s Gonna Rain while two different timelines intersperse at the Ego Death Bar is a particularly memorable highlight.

Coel doesn’t shy away from the message she wants to convey. But that does not mean the show lacks subtlety or nuance. It’s just that Coel treats the audience with respect. If anyone needs to remain oblivious to reality it’s the character, not the viewer. This is refreshing in an era of shows where the writers strain to make the audience feel good about themselves by making them solve plot-related puzzles in between episodes being released.

In an instance where her sexual partner sees her off before she goes to the airport to fly back to London after her supposedly work-related trip comes to an end, Coel’s Arabella says “they might not let me come back”, prompting you to immediately think “she’s telling you that you may not see each other again any time soon”. Arabella does not leave this lingering in the air and makes the implicit explicit. Different priorities and outlooks on the relationship play out in seconds, culminating in a sweet but parsimonious line about the Ostian sea missing her if she’s away too long, with the use of third person allowing the man to express some affection without diminishing the distance he wants to maintain between the two of them.

People who have worked in corporate environments will recognise the abrasion between Arabella, an author and writer, and her literary agents. Phrases like “ping it over” and “by end of play” are instant irritants to both Arabella and ourselves. The methodical calculation of a next-day deadline only adds to the detached, formulaic approach to a piece of art being created.

Of course, as in most well-written shows, things aren’t exactly clear cut. The literary agents, as unlikeable as they come across, aren’t perfectly bad, and Arabella isn’t perfectly professional. However, we quickly find out that the aforementioned playful bickering with a sexual partner and the terse professional discussion in the run-up to the next book’s first draft are inconsequential when the show quickly moves to a much more grievous issue, that of sexual assault and how a victim traverses life after it.

The cut above her eyebrow as she meets with her agents the day after the assault has taken place is meant to symbolise how trauma can stare people in the face and all they can do is point out the blood without being able to grasp or seek the context of the injury nor the events which led to it. Even a harmless inquisition from a friend on what caused Arabella’s phone to be smashed comes across as loaded and triggering in this revised version of life.

Trauma is persistent, it repeats its worst moments on a loop, expounding on the pain and regret. Quick fixes don’t apply here. A vertical poster loses its adhesion in three of its four corners so it flips 180 degrees, hanging by one of the bottom corners. A friend puts the poster in its right position. Arabella is left alone so that she can sleep the previous night away. Respite never arrives. The blurred and previously forgotten section of the night returns in her mind, revealing more and more of its disconcerting, violating self. The poster comes undone once again.

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