new notoriety prompts requests for her to sell stuff on Instagram, as if she were a prominent figure for something comparatively innocuous like a makeup line. “Rape, fantastic!” her smiley publisher exclaims without any mordancy when Arabella opens up about what has happened to her. There are moments in which Coel and Essiedu let loose, whether in the comforts of their familiar friendship or the blissful din of a group gathering. They both evince themselves as elastic comedic performers in these moments, their limbs and faces willing to go whichever direction could nudge a scene into full-stop mastery.
Scenes tend to tonally crescendo. With the same unpredictability of life, this is a series prone to beginning scenes light-footed and ending them in a state of emotional collapse. But they never jerk, plummet downward unexpectedly or shoot upward unnaturally. Everything feels lived-in. Coel shrewdly uses music to complement the show’s tonal movements. The episode most comprehensively reimagining her teenage years is almost exclusively soundtracked by club music, milking youthful optimism. The finale is nearly entirely backed by songs from Janelle Monáe’s deeply cinematic first album, The ArchAndroid (2010), to instill in the drama a sense of grandeur.
I May Destroy You finally ends both adequately and open-endedly. A series that establishes early on that nothing in life is cut and dried, and that everything has under it a metaphorical trap door, it concludes in a way that’s perhaps efficient for the television show as a medium but nonetheless leaves room when we think of Arabella not as a creation but a person. With these characters it’s difficult not to. Coel knows them. Will there — must there — be a second season? I May Destroy You will endure as an intricately complicated portrait whether it keeps finding more shades, zooming into little details we didn’t see before, or not.
I May Destroy You is narratively prismatic; tonally it is too. Conceptually the series is serious, but as the narrative unfolds it can also be very funny. Razored satire imbues the way Arabella’s assault is quickly commodified culturally. Her
Arabella, swaggering in her pink wig and stylishly baggy clothes, agrees to go out with friends for a few drinks at a neighborhood bar called the Ego Death. Maybe that will loosen her up just enough; maybe it will relax the muse enough to persuade her to stay over a few hours.
This night will change everything. Not because it was the night during which Arabella finished the mostly immaculate
first draft of the book that would come to be her magnum opus, the work that legendarily disproved the sophomore slump. A little into what is supposed to be a brief, fun break, Arabella’s world goes blank, like her brain was a TV, the unsentimental universe wielding a remote. She wakes up, hours later, in front of her desk — was she writing in her sleep? A big gash digs into her forehead. What’s that from? What Arabella knows for sure is that she is awake and the muse is here. She gets in that draft.
It will take a few days longer for Arabella to know for sure, as memories start to interrupt unrelated trains of thought like fireworks lit on a neighboring street, that her world went blank, that big gash got there, because she was drugged, because she was raped. She starts to remember a bathroom stall; she remembers a man. She can’t remember how she got back to her desk; she can’t remember this man’s face — just his panting, his thrusts, his sweat. As the memory-fireworks continue with their haphazard schedule, Arabella gets closer to the truth across I May Destroy You's dozen episodes. She also has to pick up the pieces of her shattered self — try to put the Arabella she once was back together. But can she?
I May Destroy You is semi-autobiographical. While shooting episodes for Season Two of her previous TV foray, comedic coming-of-age tale Chewing Gum, Coel, like Arabella, was drugged and assaulted. After a period of processing, Coel started to have an interest in dramatizing what had happened to her. Her experience also inspired a want to explore different perspectives, and how various betrayals of consent can impact people in the long-term. "It almost sent me around the bend, back into the shock," Coel told NPR in July of making the series. "I was probably already suffering from PTSD."
I May Destroy You, a joint production between HBO and BBC One, is an intimate, crushing show; it’s an expansive, vibrant show. As entirely written and co-directed by Coel, it sensitively, messily chronicles her heroine’s journey to recovery — if getting to a better place following such a shattering trauma can be classified so simply.
In the course of the series, Arabella becomes a sort of #MeToo “celebrity” — a tricky honorific. In the middle of I May Destroy You's 12 episodes, she briefly dates another young author under her same publishing firm (Karan Gill). After he secretly rends his condom mid-sex one night (which Arabella doesn’t recognize as assault until she listens to a few podcasts on the subject), she outs him publicly at a meant-to-be-celebratory publishing-house event. A clip of this goes viral; Arabella suddenly becomes a kind of sexual-assault-survivor spokeswoman, something that is at first cathartic for her but, slowly, begins to consume, her phone becoming as harmful as the vape pen on which she grows progressively more dependent. “There are hungry children, there are hungry children, there are hungry children. Not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone has a smartphone,” Arabella repeats to herself whenever she feels she’s coming dangerously close to a new emotional low.
Toward the end of the show, after Arabella realizes she cannot healthily continue being this difficult breed of a public figure, she starts spending nights at the Ego Death Bar daily, almost trying to will her memories into a place of clearness. In the last episode of the series, Coel presents us with three increasingly surreal "conclusions" to Arabella's story, like a mini omnibus movie. All are testaments to how when you have experienced this sort of trauma, there can exist no perfect palliative. Healing can happen, but scarring will stay. “I, Michaela, have had to let it go,” Coel said of her own processing of her assault in an interview with Vulture. “I had to let it go, and realize that I was still alive if I let it go, and the trauma did not need to define me. I could let go of the trauma and I would still be here.”
I May Destroy You also ventures out into the sea of Arabella’s closest relationships. Closely followed are her best friends, gay aerobics instructor Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and budding actress Terry (Weruche Opia), whose biggest role is the lead in a phone commercial, as seen at the end of the show. Individual episodes center on them and their own sexual traumas, and what they have changed in them. A few days after Arabella's attack at the Ego Death, Kwame is sexually assaulted by a Grindr hookup. In another episode, during which he tries dating a woman, he not only finds out that his one-night, white paramour’s interest in him is primarily fetishistic but also that, once he reveals that he identifies as gay, she’s bigoted. Some time before the series opens, Terry participates in a threesome but later finds out that the men she spent the night with weren’t the strangers they said they were. Kwame internalizes his pain. Terry, more open, flits between bemusement and devastation — she’s not sure what she feels about what happened.
Some episodes journey beyond Arabella’s immediate circle. A flashback depicts a morally prickly brush with consent experienced by one of Terry and Arabella’s old classmates, Theo (played in childhood with perfect petulance by Gaby French and in adulthood with bluntness by Harriet Webb), who in the present-day seeks out vindication in victimhood.
Another chronicle charts how the infidelities of Arabella’s father have affected their family. The show looks for nuance in everything it can. It's a series of grays.
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
pilot episode, that night is preceded by a day that also changes everything for its heroine, an East Londoner named Arabella (Coel). Arabella, an increasingly influential writer widely celebrated for her self-published, irreverent debut essay collection “Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial," has until tomorrow to complete a draft of her latest book for her new publisher. Two problems: Arabella hasn’t written anything; her current case of writer’s block is so consuming that it seems to have replaced the air. Stuckness pollutes.
At the end of the long and unlucrative day,
n I May Destroy You (2020), the excellent new series from English multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel, one night changes everything. In the 12-episode show's
On I May Destroy You and Selling Sunset
It's Gonna Rain September 8, 2020
The Small Screen
show premiered last spring.) I hit play the other day after Twitter buzz and recommendations from friends became too incessant, too intriguing to ignore. I gobbled all 24, on-average 30-minute-long episodes in the course of a weekend. Yet like the other most famous project from showrunner Adam DiVello, The Hills (2006-2010), Selling Sunset sounds dull on paper when reading a description. How could this warrant a binge?
Set in Los Angeles, it chronicles the melodramas between agents who work for the Oppenheim Group, a glitzy real-estate brokerage firm in the city. (I.e., it will take on a $40 million listing no problem.) The cast comprises conventionally attractive, driven female agents in their 30s, with exceptions in the firm’s 40-something-year-old
owners Jason and Brett Oppenheim, identical twins who look like Mr. Clean if his eyes were beady, his face tightly
botoxed, his canines perfectly veneered. Most of these agents have a hard time getting along; various plotlines circle around trivial, usually non-work-related dramas between the co-workers. Mary’s much-younger French fiancé Romain doesn’t want Davina at their upcoming wedding because he heard she made fun of the ring he bought Mary. (He couldn’t afford a diamond, so he opted for moissanite for now.) Christine thinks that the new girl, Chrishell, is fake, which drives her crazy because no one seems as aware of this — or as willing to acknowledge this — as she is. Heather can’t believe Amanza would give her relationship advice like that in front of everyone in the office — she doesn’t know her like that, and she doesn’t know what she’s talking about! Much of the third season revolves around Chrishell’s divorce from an actor only fans of This Is Us (2016-present) have heard of; when I (and many others, based on the online discourse) heard how he filed, I fumed, as if Chrishell were a good friend of mine.
Everyone can be easily grouped, like on The Hills. There are agents we love (Chrishell, Amanza, Mary, Maya), agents we love to hate (Christine), agents we unreservedly, passionately hate (Davina), agents we don’t care much about (Heather). There isn't much room for the “characters” to oscillate between the set types. The show is algorithmic; it’s the latest iOS update of the DiVello brand. Much as we're aware of Selling Sunset's manipulations, its familiarity and hypercompetence are soothing. Sometimes the series
hits the same pleasure spots talking shit with friends does. The episodes are just as long as they were on The Hills, but now the storytelling and editing are tighter. The characters are also glamorous, their melodramas as fundamentally silly. But they’re less basically annoying and are better at articulating their frustrations, fostering more sharply edged storytelling. (We also don't doubt whether they hold the jobs they are purported to.)
As I breezed through listed properties (the show doubles, in some ways, as even more upper-crust HGTV) I couldn’t help but also think of the sedate nature of the Architectural Digest Open-Door videos. I know, deep down, that the properties being ogled are unmistakably wasteful and unnecessarily state of the art — especially now that we are in the middle of a pandemic and especially since Los Angeles is having a major housing crisis. But I got so caught up in this world of extravagance that, by the end of the series, my brain started automatically treating a $2 million property without a “nice view” like a last resort — a disappointment. The exorbitant commissions agents are set to receive start to seem reasonable after some time.
Selling Sunset is an engaging, fizzy product that functions exactly how it was designed to. We get lost in its smog of petty problems and never-ending gossip; it works as a nice respite in what has come to be an endlessly exasperating year. If you look a little more closely, though, something about it is also fascinatingly dark. Look at its specific celebration of neoliberal empowerment capitalism (drilled in by the humorously insane soundtrack), its allusions to the broader, cutthroat nature of Los Angeles in general. (Both things were more thoroughly discussed in a recent and definitive essay about the show by culture critic Naomi Fry.) I’m sold. I can't wait to see what else it has to offer.
I May Destroy You: A
Selling Sunset: B+
he third season of Netflix’s Selling Sunset, a pretty-to-look-at, pretty-easy-to-get-lost-in reality show or “docusoap,” came out the first week of August — a little over two months after the release of Season Two. (The