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I May Destroy You review: An honest and unparalleled exploration of sexual assault and survival

Michaela Coel urges viewers to rethink the ‘good’ sexual assault survivor in this side-splittingly funny and physically painful drama

Isobel Lewis
Monday 08 June 2020 18:41 BST
I May Destroy You trailer starring Michaela Coel

Two summers ago, while giving the MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Michaela Coel revealed that she had been sexually assaulted. Retelling the story to a stunned crowd, the Chewing Gum creator and star detailed going for drinks the night before a writing deadline and the next day finding herself having flashbacks to a sexual assault she couldn’t remember.

That night is the inspiration for I May Destroy You, Coel’s new series for BBC One and HBO. It’s an undeniably heavy topic for a 12-part series – especially for a writer best known for comedy – but it is Coel’s ability to intersperse the darkest of issues with bursts of joyous sunlight that makes the show so singular. In its highs, I May Destroy You had me cracking up; at other points it left me clutching my chest. It is a TV experience like no other.

Coel is Arabella, a Twitter commentator-turned-author desperately trying to follow up her bestselling debut novel. During a quick catch-up with an old friend, Arabella has her drink spiked. Her words start slurring, her head lolls back, her memories crash into each other. As all this happens, the camera correspondingly loses focus, the music becomes muffled. It’s a claustrophobic and traumatic experience, like a nightmare where you try to open your mouth and scream, but can’t.

Then, just like that, it’s tomorrow. Arabella seems dishevelled, but fine. Yet the slow dribble of blood leaking from her forehead, her smashed phone screen and the incessant ringing in her ears leave you with an underlying feeling of dread that suggests something darker has gone on, whether she knows it or not.

In a drama about consent and the fuzzy area surrounding it, Arabella is not your model, “good” rape survivor. A pink-haired smoker prone to oversharing, casual drug taking and peeing with the bathroom door open, she is sometimes hard to understand – but the trauma, honesty and humour in Coel’s performance means you never doubt her for a second.

But I May Destroy You isn’t just Arabella’s story. Later episodes see her best friends Kwame and Terry (the excellent Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia) explore sexual assault in different forms and the “grey areas” surrounding modern dating. Is “stealthing” (the removal of a condom halfway through sex without consent) rape? Can you consent to a threesome you thought you were having with two strangers if you later find out they knew each other all along?

I May Destroy You has been described as a “sexual assault drama”, which is a vital label for identifying the show’s potentially triggering subject matter, but one that hardly does it justice. No TV show has ever shown the complexities of sexual assault and how it affects survivors, their friends and their communities quite like this difficult, harrowing and hilarious drama.

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