by Tegan Steward |
I May Destroy You is magnificent.
From its normalisation of period sex to representing the black female experience, the show has deservedly been met with critical acclaim. Chanté Joseph, of the Huffington Post, hails it as ‘the new standard’ for televisual storytelling. It’s hard to disagree.
Michaela Coel – writer, director, producer and actor on the show – has established a narrative that is fresh, captivating and human. Whilst she experiments with various visual forms to develop the story, the intense, surrealist style of the final episodes confirms her wizardry. As the series descends into the depths of the human mind, Coel demonstrates the negative consequences of social media and sexual abuse.
Speaking at the James MacTaggart lecture last year, Coel remarked that ‘being human is a noisy job,’ especially with a ‘mind overcrowded by flashbacks.’ It’s no wonder, then, that this busy drone of human existence spills into the very foundations of the series. Coel investigates the Millennial social landscape through her protagonist. Arabella (Coel) and her two best friends, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Terry (Weruche Opia) are the backbones of each other’s lives, and of the show itself.
Alongside devouring the series, I read Lola Olufemi’s ‘Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power.’ Her argument that ‘art calls for a witness’ provides a seminal perspective on Coel’s show. I became aware of how the reshaping of characters and situations re-framed my perspective as a witness. From episode nine onward, Arabella’s autonomy as an artist and individual is revitalised, as she shifts between physical spaces, such as therapy groups, and abstract spaces, such as social media and her subconscious. Here, she simultaneously gains an understanding of herself and tests our limits as witnesses, acting as both an artist and witness herself.
Arabella’s function is a ‘mouthpiece for others, to empower fellow survivors.’
Episode Nine observes Arabella turning to the abstract space of social media in an attempt to gain control over her sexual abuse. The constant buzz from Arabella’s phone, however, is consuming and claustrophobic, making it impossible for her to process any emotional damage. The kaleidoscope of comments infect our screen throughout the episode and dictate Arabella’s judgement, as well as her online/offline performance. She drifts through London’s night-time streets, documenting her thoughts live on Instagram. She begins to lapse into delirium, and witnessing this descent throws our perspective off-kilter. ‘Have you tried therapy?’ one comment reads, ‘You need to talk to someone’ adds another, as we find ourselves increasingly distanced from Arabella. She becomes a stranger to us, just as her mass of anonymous followers are strangers to her.
These commentators, or witnesses, are masked and impenetrable. Ella Kemp of CultureWhisper writes that Arabella’s function in the show is a ‘mouthpiece for others, to empower fellow survivors.’ This is an art in itself — providing a visual, online response to the socio-political landscape. The safe space that she once welcomed is compromised by the anonymity of her witnesses. Lola Olufemi writes, ‘Art is best utilised as a weapon, a writing back, as evidence that we were here.’ Arabella’s platform is her weapon, her statement.
And yet, it constantly ricochets.
The final three episodes are electrically charged…
Where she attracts more of a following, her heightened narcissism and irrationality begin to affect her friendship with Kwame and Terry. The double-edged sword of social media provides a commentary on human interaction in the Millennial age. Kwame and Terry helplessly witness Arabella grapple with her fragmented state of mind, which is torn between the online and offline presence. The real-life presence of her friends becomes a threat to Arabella, as they can support her in processing her trauma, whereas her online following provides her with a false sense of truth and growth. ‘Social media promotes speaking, often at the cost of listening’ advises her therapist. Arabella’s friends hold up a mirror to her truth, but the online ‘community’ distorts it. Her choice to take a break from social media clears her perspective and is a good step forward in helping her heal.
The final three episodes are electrically charged. Coel begins an active dissection of the ‘self’, which parallels Arabella and Kwame’s healing processes. Their trauma is unfettered, and where they have struggled to find a healthy outlet to process their respective assaults, episodes ten through twelve provide the opportunity for reassessment.
The introduction of Tyrone to Kwame’s narrative is a moving moment. Kwame’s dependency on anonymous hook-ups demonstrates the inherent loneliness associated with casual sex, and his interaction with Tyrone highlights this. He refreshes Kwame’s perspective, and adjusts ours, to remember that connection between people is essential and should be valued. Kwame’s ‘I want a hug’ is devastatingly tender, and a release of things left unsaid.
In the last episode, Coel taps into the surreal by showing us three possible scenarios conceptualised by Arabella. All depict a version of Arabella gaining control over her rapist, David. All follow a similar chronology, yet each outcome is different. This is her final healing process, where she becomes both artist and witness.
The first scenario exacts revenge. Arabella humiliates, physically assaults, and emotionally penetrates her rapist with all her repressed pain. In a shocking twist, she kills him. Whilst the viewer needs retribution, committing this crime compromises Arabella’s growth. Olufemi writes that ‘Art is threatening because, when produced under the right conditions, it cannot be controlled.’ This scenario represents Arabella’s instinctive response. Her uncontrollable emotion, much like Olufemi’s conception of an autonomous, lawless ‘art’, pushes her imaginary actions beyond the bounds of ethical reason.
The second scenario slips into a more disconcerting narrative. The pulsing beat of The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ scrutinises every movement, and accompanies Arabella’s maniacal approach to David, her rapist. Feverishly repeating ‘I’m a Firestarter!’ to any question he asks, this scenario sees Arabella meet herself (pretty meta) and the two briefly dance together. This glimpse into Uncanny Valley shifts our perspective once again, alerting the viewer that this space is not reality. Vulnerability is exposed in David, as he begins to crumble – he is troubled, disturbed, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing. As he cries “you’re not worth anything, David! You’re f*cking worthless!”, our perspective twists once more – is this Arabella speaking through him? What should we be feeling right now?
Michaela Coel brings us a compelling investigation into the human experience…
Control defines the third scenario. The space is empty, intimate. Arabella has destabilised the situation to find the truth, and here she becomes the artist. The image of her and David having sex is striking, but Coel needs us to witness it. Arabella has completely unravelled her perspective to finally detach herself from her assault. The last words that David speaks aren’t his words at all; it is Arabella speaking through him.
‘I’m not going to go unless you tell me to.’
He leaves, naked, and takes with him another piece of Arabella’s past, her abortion. It is a welcome release to know that the past is now just that – the past.
Michaela Coel brings us a compelling investigation into the human experience by unpacking the components of personal growth to reach the core of modern existence. I May Destroy You is a powerful reminder that the ramifications of abuse permeate the emotional capacity of the self, but by reshaping perspective and dissecting the truth, art and autonomy can be rediscovered.