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I May Destroy You’s Structural Epiphanies

Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

In seventh grade, an English teacher assigned me “Araby,” the story from James Joyce’s Dubliners about a young boy who wants to buy a present for a girl he loves at the fantastic, exotic Araby bazaar. When he gets there, finally, after wrangling with his caretakers and scraping together the money, it’s nearly too late. The market has almost closed, and his vision of the magical opportunities of the Araby market falls to pieces. The shopgirl is unhelpful and resents his presence. The world is not opening for him the way he imagined; his fantasy collapses. This, I remember my teacher explaining, is an example of an epiphany. The whole story builds to this ending. The narrator discovers something fundamental about the world, and his whole viewpoint changes. I wrote “epiphany” on the page and circled it.

I thought about “Araby” as I watched the penultimate episode of I May Destroy You. Throughout the season, Michaela Coel’s protagonist, Arabella, has been struggling with her own incomplete visions of the world. The most direct, immediate version of this is that Arabella gets drugged and raped in the first episode and then cannot piece together a full memory of what happened. She’s left with a few disconnected images in her head — images that appear to her in incomplete flashes and leave her incapable of piecing together a full, ordered story of what happened to her. That’s the most pressing and obvious gap for Arabella, the absence where her memories of that night should be.

But that missing vision comes on top of, and then fuels, lots of other stories Arabella tells, other misapprehensions and underexamined ways of seeing herself. She falls deep into social media and fashions herself as an icon of hard-line anti-abuse truth-telling, causing her to almost wholly dissociate from the physical world. She and her friend Terry devote themselves to superficial self-care activities; yoga and painting parties become easy achievements rather than meaningful changes. She vacillates between denying that her assault was serious and finding power in declaring what happened to her. She cannot decide, because both visions appeal to her and she just doesn’t know.

Mostly, Arabella tries frantically to get back to her writing, something she had at least some working rhythm for before she was attacked. It’s almost totally evaded her since, though. So she casts around desperately, grabbing on to cursory but highly regimented self-improvement programs and then abandoning them when they don’t help. She starts disintegrating again. None of it works. None of her visions of the world and her place in it can incorporate everything she is and everything that’s brought her to this point. There are too many lines of tension, not just the assault but also identity, personality, race, class, gender, talent, ambition, and stress.

In episode 11, something shifts. Arabella has a meeting with Zain, another writer for her publishing house, someone who nonconsensually removed his condom before having sex with Arabella in an earlier episode and who Arabella very publicly accused of abuse at a young writers’ event. He arranges the meeting under a false name, and Arabella’s very understandably reluctant to speak with him when she realizes who he is. When he sits down at her table, though, he doesn’t bring up anything about his actions or her accusation. He gives her a handout — a printed sheet of paper with a diagram on it. It’s a narrative structure, rendered in a three-part visual form and labeled with story elements. The beginning, Zain explains, is the “setup,” where you introduce the “regularity of their world.” Then comes the conflict or confrontation that introduces an antagonist — conflict, Zain says, “enables the story to develop.” Then there’s resolution. “You can also use multiple narratives, circular structures … it’s just a guideline,” he tells her.

Arabella invites him back to her house, and when they get there, she thrusts a pile of scrap paper at him. It’s her book, roughly, the collected scenes and ideas she’s been trying to pull together. They’ve resisted her, in the same way any coherent, stable perspective on her assault has resisted her. Together, Arabella and Zain force them into an order, physically taping the dozens of little pieces onto the wall of her bedroom, wrangling them together into a massive story diagram. Zain leaves, and Arabella stands looking at the story that’s been revealed to her.

Later — that night, maybe, or the next night — Arabella and Terry go back to the bar where Arabella was drugged. She scans around the room, as she has been for weeks, but this time her eye lands on a man’s face, and all the scattered images she’s recalled since her assault come flashing into view again. Now, though, they are in order. They are a whole story, a narrative that starts with Arabella in the bar and goes all the way through her rape. It’s an epiphanic episode. Arabella, sitting at the bar, now sees the world in a way she could not see it before. She has access to a different understanding of herself.

This epiphany is written as though the discovery at the bar is the big moment, the scene in which the scales fall from her eyes. That’s the moment of new knowledge, after all. That’s when she has new access to this memory, this story we’ve been waiting for her to find from the beginning. But the true epiphany happens before that. The full epiphanic experience is what comes right beforehand in the ecstatic scene in Arabella’s bedroom as she diagrams her story in a wave of note cards. She is overwhelmed, totally overcome by her growing insight into the story she’s been trying to tell, and it’s not because she found new characters, a new setting, or some crucial recovered scene that was missing. Her epiphany is structural. It’s a swift, all-consuming insight into the thing that will actually give her power over all these disordered, conflicting threads in her life: She gains control by giving them a shape. Arabella can tease and twist them into a form, where they all work together to complement each other rather than pull in opposing directions. Arabella’s memory of what happened to her isn’t the episode’s epiphany. It’s the result of the epiphany; Arabella can see now that she has wrestled and contained all these other pieces into her own formal control.

I always hated “Araby,” actually. It wasn’t the structure of the story, which I love — that incredible exclamation point of an ending and how little you see it coming. What I hated was the epiphany the narrator comes to, that nihilistic trade of fairy tale for disgusted, pragmatic self-knowledge. The epiphany Coel finds for Arabella is equally based in self-knowledge, and, like “Araby,” it’s one that requires the narrator/protagonist to trade many falsely meaningful stories about herself for something more pragmatic. She will not escape to Italy with her gorgeous, scolding Italian hookup, and she won’t be able to resolve the trauma of her assault by burying it or by drowning it in self-care either. But she can find a way forward by taking control of the way she tells herself this story. The many visions and parts of Arabella — her escapism, the baggage shoved under her bed, her ambition, her myopia, her experiences of racism, her assault, her sexuality — they don’t all collapse like the fantasy in “Araby.” They are integrated together. It’s an epiphany of euphoric, wide-angle, empathetically imposed structure. I May Destroy You insists all of those visions are necessary to tell a true story and that the real epiphany is in understanding how all those pieces fit together.

I May Destroy You’s Structural Epiphanies