I May Destroy You
After several episodes of trauma in the stories of Arabella (Michaela Coel) and her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), you might be wondering when I May Destroy You will get to the next stage of the healing process. In the fifth episode “… It Just Came Up,” the wait is over, but relief is still far off. Arabella has leapt into the wide world of self-care and, in a hint of things to come, is avidly sharing her journey with her social-media followers. In the morning, she shakes off dreams of her Italian maybe-boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti), kisses her agency’s mandated writing partner Zain (Karan Gill) good morning, and gets up to work on her daily yoga pose.
Healing is a nonlinear journey, one that I May Destroy You is only too happy to explore in its realistic messiness. In the middle of listening to a podcast while Zain showers, Arabella comes across a discussion that hits too close to home, revealing that Zain’s so-called condom accident or misunderstanding might have been a purposeful violation with excuses supplied by a Reddit forum. Shaken by the news, she walks out of Zain’s apartment as if in a trance, lost in thought, anger, and pain — so much so that she doesn’t notice that she’s left the flat without any pants on until walking into a shop for an emergency pair and some boots.
Arabella then goes to a salon, where she gets a high-pressure call from her agent and a call from the police investigating her sexual-assault case. Self-care isn’t always on your time, after all. With less time left for something new, she opts to have her head shaved, almost like a riff on the post-breakup haircut, something some folks do to reclaim your image and body from whatever was in your past. In a way, she gets the cut before the breakup, but Zain’s time in her life is numbered. The cut inevitably becomes a statement that everyone remarks on.
At the police station, we’re treated to another round of uncertainty and suspense. They found a sample that might belong to Arabella’s rapist and an arrest has been made, but they need to check against any other men she may have been with consensually around that time to verify the sample is the offender’s. Although Arabella looks excited at the mention of Biagio’s name and insists they talk every day, she also reveals to the investigators, along with Terry and Kwame, who are sitting beside her, that she has yet to tell him about the assault. That won’t be an easy conversation, and her reluctance is no longer an option now that he has to go to the police to give a DNA sample. Before she leaves, she asks the police if removing a condom during sex is a crime? Without hesitation, they say yes, it’s rape. In light of this information, Kwame begins researching his own assault on his phone to see if it, too, meets their definition.
Thanks to I May Destroy You’s brief 30-minute run time, the tonal changes feel even more jarring and upsetting. Arabella makes her way from the police station to sitting in her agent’s office for a meeting with her publisher, Susy Henny (Franc Ashman), and her assistant, Sion (Ellie James). What first looks to be the beginnings of a pleasant conversation sours as Zain enters, throwing Arabella’s focus. She tells the group she’s just back from the police station and mentions that she knows her rapist, and names Zain as the perpetrator. But she quickly covers up what she just said by thanking Zain for helping her write. As if she didn’t hear what Arabella just said, her publisher asks her to commodify her trauma into a story. “I want to see that story,” she says with a smile. Arabella nods and accepts her invitation to speak at tonight’s writing summit and asks if a close friend could read the selection. Henny asks if this friend is white, and when Arabella says no, she excitedly accepts. It’s a quick exchange to end the scene on a lighter note, but also a heavy sigh. Even after sharing that she’s gone through this ordeal, Arabella is still treated as the token dash of diversity to the event’s lineup by another Black woman. It doesn’t matter that Arabella doesn’t want to read so long as there’s another Black woman on the stage. It’s a sharply bleak observation on the media and entertainment industries’ shallow treatment of Black women and other people of color, but played for a punch line.
Terry is thrilled by the opportunity while Arabella looks to keep herself calm in yoga practice. Later, as Arabella and Zain share an awkward afternoon painting, Kwame has an awful time trying to file a police report about his own assault. In three short segments, the scenes comment on how little support there is for men to report these crimes. Dejected by the experience, Kwame leaves the station without filing his report. It’s a painful rejoinder to Arabella’s experience with the police, which, despite certain failings, has been largely a supportive experience where she has gotten results. The same will not be true for Kwame.
At the writing summit that night, Arabella tries to tell Biagio what happened to her. She gets as far as telling him that her drink was spiked before he begins to scold her. Ah, yes, I was wondering when we would run into some old-school victim-blaming. She ends the call, goes inside and tells Terry what happened. There’s clearly more conversation that happens through the cocktail hour than makes it to screen, because by the time Terry and Arabella are backstage, Terry’s equally fuming over what Zain did to her friend and freaking out from stage fright. In what may be the episode’s only offbeat note, the once-confident Terry loses her nerves and Arabella must take the stage on her own.
I May Destroy You takes care to show Zain isn’t inherently a bad character. He can be cute and tender with Arabella, almost like a good boyfriend, but it doesn’t negate the hurt he caused her when he ignored her demand to use a condom. While they’re together after the meeting, she continues to slip his name into her statements about the rapist she reported, and it shakes him. He looks visibly guilty talking with her, and it’s possible he’s trying to smooth things over because he knows he’s in the wrong. Yet at that second, she’s not ready for that discussion or is trying to get him to apologize out of guilt. He doesn’t apologize.
Heading into the event, Arabella’s eyes are focused on Zain from afar, showing off the people he knows with his mother. He looks like any other face in the mingling crowd. Sion tells Arabella that she knows unsavory things about Zain, and it fuels her anger. Now armed with a mic and a platform, she speaks her truth, loudly and publicly outing Zain as a rapist. “He’s not rape-adjacent or a bit rapey, he’s a rapist under U.K. law,” she says calmly as camera phones light up to record the impromptu Me Too moment. Later, Arabella, Terry, and Sion are tethered to their phones watching the fallout, but the victory feels short-lived. Back at home, Biagio berates Arabella for not watching her drink, claiming it’s her fault that he now has to go to the police station. Again she ends the call, but this time, she’s in tears. Looking for comfort elsewhere, she turns to social media, where a new love affair will begin.
Between the podcasts, social media, and onscreen messages, Coel captures this unprecedented moment where conversations about previously unspoken subjects are now out in the open. Never has it been so easy to find out about these issues or find fellowship with others who share your experience. But with it comes a whole new set of demands and dangers. Just because it’s easier to have these conversations, it doesn’t make them easy to have in the first place.