So I lied and said I wasn’t going to write this article last week because episode 10 quite frankly left me speechless. After the words “I need a hug” left Kwame’s (Paapa Essiedu) mouth, I knew I was witnessing something truly remarkable happen in the craft I love so dearly. The heart-wrenching look in Arabella’s mother’s eyes during the last few seconds of the episode filled with pain, discomfort and exhaustion as a response to finding out about her daughter’s assault juxtaposed against the obliviousness of her father and brother was a gentle reminder of the burden women carry while men eat; I was moved to the point of feeling completely hopeless in the face of the brilliance I was witnessing. There have been very few instances in film and television that I can recall feeling a true shift in the depth and precision used to approach black storytelling.
‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins is a film that spurred my decision to pick up my camera for the first time. Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer, Regina King’s performance in Watchmen and When They See Us by Ava DuVernay, amongst others- all paint the weight of the black existence in such immersive colour that your eyes have to open a little bit wider just to see. The same thing goes for what Michaela Coel (star, writer and creator) has done in I May Destroy You, which is far too vast in its impact to be narrowly described as a show about consent. Around the core of a heavily unaddressed subject lies much smaller stories that deeply reflect the black British experience with an unfounded meticulousness and it does so without excluding all black people.
We watch Terry (played beautifully by Weruche Opia), in all her loud confidence and self-assurance, cower in the face of almost all her auditions and tremble from the shock that overcomes her after learning she actually landed a job. The disbelief in that moment perfectly encapsulates the silent battles we’ve watched Terry struggle against with little to no support. As she tries to quietly fight the guilt she feels for telling a friend it was okay to leave Arabella on the night of her assault, you can’t help but wonder who was looking after her. Terry is the first to realise that Arabella was assaulted as she listens to her dismiss the flashbacks she’d been having as her mind was playing tricks on her. As soon as she’d connected the dots Terry doesn’t miss a beat with beginning to look after Arabella; declining Biagio’s (Marouane Zotti) calls, tying her headscarf and tucking her into bed without forcing her into the realisation before she was ready. Neither Kwame or Arabella notice her crippling anxiety regarding her career and as the story progresses, it becomes very apparent that Terry is the glue in this beautiful trio. Weruche delivers the character with a fearlessness and charisma that is so lovable and even though she was wrong for what she did, her efforts to make it right are heart-rending to say the least. As Arabella expresses her forgiveness in episode 10, I couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief because this was never Terry’s fault. The blame for what happened to Arabella lies on the assailant alone.
During a date with Kai, a gorgeous trans man who Terry flirted with as she waited for her table, she retells the story of her threesome, to which Kai points out that it seems like the two men knew each other and tricked her into thinking they were strangers. Truth is, Terry already knew this and was simply not ready to process the discomfort that comes with realising you’ve been manipulated. Looking at this two-dimensionally she had consented to sex with both men, however the circumstances under which her consent took place were a false; an invisible boundary.
Michaela Coel throughout this show explores all the different boundaries that can be crossed both explicitly and implicitly, brazenly confronting that ‘grey area’ both assaulters and law enforcement usually employ to have survivors questioning whether or not they have a right to feel violated. The same went for Kwame who was assaulted after having consensual sex with a man he willingly met up with. Although he was immediately and visibly shaken by the incident, this ‘grey area’ shows up again when he attempts to report it and is introduced to the egregious incapability of an inept justice system (abolish it). Not only this, Kwame casually tells the story of how he lost his virginity as a child in a random car on his way home from school by two men who didn’t bother to identify themselves. This revealed another supposed ‘grey area’ where age is concerned, that for some deeply woven patriarchal reason doesn’t seem so well understood when the child in question is male and black.
During the finale Arabella accidentally meets up with Zain, a colleague who 'stealthed' her: removing the condom during sex without her knowledge. She finds out that the publishing company they both work for still went on to publish his book under an alias despite her coming forward and all she could really spare was a dry chuckle. Because of course. The particular irony in the matter is that Suzy Henny, the head of her publishing house, is in fact a black woman, one Arabella assumed she could level with on a personal level because of their shared blackness. However, every time she asked Suzy for help, her elevator rides down from her office always found her in a worse situation than she was previously in. Zain stands a few meters away from her on the pavement, far enough for them to slightly raise their voices to speak. He doesn’t come any closer until she gestures him in and then he doesn’t sit until she says so because like she tells him, she isn’t afraid.
The deliberate nature that goes into making such a small blocking decision is the reason I’m writing this article. It becomes apparent to me that after 190+ drafts, Michaela Coel might have written one of the most perfect screenplays I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Small but incredibly powerful statements are littered within the seams of this script, like the fight going on behind Arabella & Terry’s conversation in secondary school during episode 6. Her housemate Ben’s consistent but silent displays of support which Arabella takes for granted; like covering rent without question, breaking into Biagio’s house and not realising that her presence, no matter how justified her actions felt, had crossed the line. Leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not Theo (Harriet Webb) is being truthful about her experiences in the support group or does lying about raped in her past discredit her completely? Did she even really lie? Or the painful irony in the woman on the bus saying to her that “boys will be boys” as she holds the bloodied body of her rapist during the first imagined version of reality that played out in the finale.
All these minute decisions Michaela makes throughout the show colours the lines of each episode with an incredible amount of familiarity creating a viewing experience that resembles self-discovery. As the aftermath of her assault unfolds, we are constantly reminded through Arabella’s blind stumbling towards recovery that trauma doesn’t have a face. It looks like sitting awkwardly in a therapy session because you genuinely don’t have the words. It looks like crossing boundaries yourself by lying to strangers for sex just to try and take back control. It looks like asking your broke friend to buy you a plane ticket to see a man who has made it clear he wants nothing to do with you. Trauma looks like leaving the police station in the middle of giving your statement or not going to the police at all. It looks like laughing it off because your brain simply can’t process another assault so quickly after the first. It looks like being able to recall specific details or not remembering in the first place.
The way our brain chooses to rewire and cope with trauma is just as complex as the way we choose to move on. As so chillingly depicted in the finale, be it exerting your revenge or choosing to forgive, every response is valid because it’s your own. In one of the beautifully shot final scenes, Arabella tells her rapist to ‘go’ in the third and final version of her encounter with him and he gets up and leaves along with the bloodied version of him she had hidden under her bed in the first sequence. Michaela doesn’t spoon feed us once in this entire show as we are left once again to come to our own conclusions as to what really happened. Whether or not Arabella even remembers the assault properly is not even clear and for all we know what looked like a memory could have just been her figuring out how to end her book. Either way it’s irrelevant now because she’s written her ending, both literally in her independently published book titled January 22nd (the original name of the show & date of the assault) and figuratively. And as Arabella exhales, smiles and runs across the beach in the final frames you know that whatever happened, she’s decided it’s over.