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The new HBO drama series I May Destroy You has a timely throughline that contrasts the crises of individuals with those of the world. Now more than ever, personal problems seem trivial as COVID-19 claims thousands of lives daily, children in South Sudan are starving, a civil war in Syria rages on, and rampant police brutality continues to be the sixth leading cause of death for Black men in America.
What makes I May Destroy You a worthwhile piece of television is that its main character Arabella (Michaela Coel, who created, wrote, co-directed, and stars in the series) eventually figures out that one crisis doesn’t supersede the other. Horrific things can and do happen on a global and even local scale while people’s lives simultaneously fall apart for unrelated reasons. But if we’re lucky enough to pick up the pieces, we can help others afterward.
Arabella is grappling to find sanity and creative motivation after a man drugs and sexually assaults her, a similar experience to one Coel suffered in real life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Coel commands every scene she’s in, especially during Arabella’s most vulnerable moments, proving she is no longer the awkward fledgling from her breakout series Chewing Gum. Coel is undeniably comfortable in her body and non-European beauty, and delivers a raw performance and story that unflinchingly examines consent, victim shaming, gender, race, class, imposter syndrome, and our over-reliance on social media through the lens of a Black Londoner.
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Author and hard partier Arabella’s troubles begin when she attempts to pull an all-nighter to complete a pressing deadline for her second book. Distracted by the allure of her drinking buddy Simon (Aml Ameen), Arabella happily agrees to take a writing break filled with camaraderie and tequila shots. The next morning, she can’t remember coming back to the office and doesn’t know why she has a small cut on her forehead or how her smartphone screen got broken. Despite this, she manages to bang out a rough draft for her literary agents. Just as Arabella prepares to shrug off her blur of a night, the faint memory of a man towering over her in a cramped bathroom stall emerges in her mind and she begrudgingly realizes he violated her.
And that’s just the pilot. In the episodes that follow – all 12 of the series’ installments were screened for this review – Arabella’s descent to rock bottom is unpacked to reveal a not-so-distant past where she trusted too many strangers during her recreational drug binges. This includes Biagio (Marouane Zotti), the handsome but distant Italian drug dealer who sells to Arabella before dating her.
We also learn that Simon isn’t the first pal to abandon her at a nightclub. Although her best friend Terry (an equally impressive Weruche Opia) works hard to help Arabella overcome her rape trauma syndrome, she does so out of guilt for not being a better friend while questioning the offenses men committed against her too. Their other best friend, Kwame (a loveable Paapa Essiedu), enjoys the sexy informality of Grindr but sadly learns his own painful lesson regarding consent. Other episodes tackle the weaponization of white women’s tears, what a victim of sexual assault is supposed to look and act like, condom use, and racial biases within healthcare. Although 18 percent of Black American women are victims of sexual assault – 17 percent in the UK – these women’s stories are rarely explored and often eclipsed by those of their white counterparts. This drama, filled with unexpected moments of levity and humor and a slamming soundtrack, flips that script as well.
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In addition to earnestly tackling timely topics, I May Destroy You presents characters without judgement. Yes, Arabella parties too hard and trusts blindly but that doesn’t make her deserve to be raped. Terry, a struggling actress, is temperamental to a fault but is more sympathetic to Kwame’s plight than Arabella is. Arabella’s friend Theodora (Harriet Webb) had racist tendencies when she and Arabella were classmates, but as an adult she becomes Arabella’s unlikely and much-needed ally. Arabella and Terry also don’t shoulder the responsibility of representing all Black British women, and ancillary characters such as police detective Funmi (Sarah Niles) and book publisher Susy Henny (Franc Ashman) subtly but effectively help represent Britain’s diverse Black diaspora.
I May Destroy You isn’t without its flaws. There are far too many scenes with Arabella on the toilet, and the hair department was either inexperienced or understaffed because none of the wigs are on par with Black American standards elevated on shows such as Insecure, black-ish and grown-ish. Potentially juicy character explorations including that of Simon and his wife Kat (Lara Rossi) also fall by the wayside in favor of Arabella’s occasionally plodding evolution and her dogged desire to find her rapist. What happens when and if she does will also baffle a few viewers.
Coel and her razor-sharp cheekbones elevate even the show’s weakest episodes, challenging viewers to grab her hand as her character fights to find a resolution in unpredictable ways. Best of all, watching Arabella and her friends find eventual peace inspires a level of hope a lot of people could use individually and beyond.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
I May Destroy You premieres Sunday, June 7 at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.