The process of healing takes Arabella into unexpected territory in “The Alliance.” Last episode, Arabella outed Zain at a public event that quickly went viral. In this next chapter of I May Destroy You, she takes a step inward, retreating from her concerned best friend, Terry, and a noticeably more aloof Kwame to join a group-therapy session for sexual-assault survivors.
Before Arabella leaves a spray-painting session with her friends, Terry frets that her self-care regimen may not be working — it’s not engaging Arabella, who’s completely absorbed by her phone — or worse, that Arabella might feel overloaded and is shutting down despite Terry’s best efforts. When Arabella puts away her phone to tell Terry her group-therapy plan, Terry scoffs, but she also looks a touch hurt that because the group is for survivors only, she can’t stay by Arabella’s side. Being uncomfortable about losing control of her best friend’s care is one thing, but then Arabella reveals she’s reconnected with a problematic former schoolmate who’s leading the group-therapy session. The news arouses Terry’s suspicions — and her jealousy.
Nevertheless, Arabella attends the meeting, joining a group of young women seated in a wide circle facing each other. Theo (Harriet Webb), Arabella and Terry’s old classmate, leads the session, explaining the ground rules (no perpetrators are to be named, only referred to pseudonymously) and setting the tone for group therapy. As the women begin to open up about their workplace-harassment stories, Arabella joins in, offering her story with much more clarity than when she first started therapy a few episodes ago. Instead of stifling her emotions, she comes right out and shares her unspoken fears. “Maybe it was my fault,” she says. “Because twice, you know … I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped.” She worries about it happening again, especially since her two incidences happened back-to-back. Theo tells her to focus on finding support in places like this group. Afterward, the two hug and share mutual appreciation of each other, but there’s more to the story of that hug than just healing from present pain.
I haven’t had the chance yet to focus on I May Destroy You’s use of music, but this show really knows how to use it. In this instance, a poppy techno beat takes us back to Theo’s adolescence in 2004, when she’s climbing in through a window of her parents’ home after a night out. The period details in this episode double as a bit of a nostalgic trip for those of us in Michaela Coel’s generation, including Theo’s Nokia phone and text messages that show up on its green screen, her early-aughts emo eyeliner, the ubiquitous Nike backpacks at school, and, of course, the music. Another upbeat techno song follows Theo (now played by Gaby French) to school where she sneaks away with a classmate so the two can have sex. It’s a rush of fast beats, young love, and the thrill of getting away with something forbidden. Just as they’re in the middle of the act, the guy, Ryan (Josiah Mutupa), takes out his flip phone and snaps a photo of her. Suddenly, the music stops and so does the moment. She’s upset that he’s taken a photo without her permission, but then it turns out other guys have done the same to her. Trying to regain control, she tricks him into paying her for better-quality photos and instead gets rid of his phone. She then sneaks into the cafeteria for a knife and cuts herself in the bathroom, later claiming Ryan raped her at knifepoint.
In another case of I May Destroy You exploring uncomfortable conversations, Theo’s story prompts two of them. One, obviously, is about taking compromising photos of a sexual partner without their consent, an issue that’s made more uncomfortable because both participants in this situation are minors. The second is that Theo tried using her whiteness as a means to get back at Ryan, a Black student. She assumed her word and her self-inflicted injuries would be enough to punish him, yet in a twist, Ryan’s eventually exonerated because he shares his illicit photos of her with one of his friends.
Although we see the younger Arabella (Danielle Vitalis) and Terry (Lauren-Joy Williams) cross Theo’s path a few times earlier in the flashback, they begin to play a much more prominent role in the story once Terry spots blood running down Theo’s legs and tells their teacher. When Arabella learns of the rogue photo, she reports it alongside Terry, and the two help Ryan clear his name. Arabella and Terry complain about their Catholic school’s double standard, where no one would have taken them at their word if they reported the same crime as Theo. The scene’s underscored by a fight breaking out behind them in the schoolyard where there’s no teacher in sight to separate the combatants, possibly because they’re all wrapped up in the controversy of a rape accusation from a white girl against a Black boy or perhaps because, in line with Arabella’s and Terry’s complaints, they do fear their Black students. In response to this incident, the Black students form The Alliance to stick up for each other.
When Theo is released, she and The Alliance exchange steely glares and some muttered unpleasantries. She wanted to regain control against someone who’d taken pictures of her having sex without permission and, in the process, hurt not just herself but other classmates. Now at home, her stepdad voices concern for Theo since she’s suffered abuse at the hands of her biological father. Only that’s not the whole truth. Theo sets the record straight with her stepdad, telling him that her mom had taught her to say terrible things so she could get full custody, indirectly implying that that’s where she learned to lie to get what she wanted.
There’s no music returning us to the present, just Theo’s introductory speech for group therapy. Now what seemed like routine counseling language is couched in something much more emotional and complicated. When she says she hates abusers, she means both people who violate consent and people like her mother, who groomed and manipulated her to effectively shut her dad out of her life. When she calls for an oppression-free space, it means that, hopefully, she’s reckoned with the way she lashed out in the past against the person who violated her consent. “I have been abused. I have been exploited. One in every two women have,” she tells the group calmly. It’s a rehearsed speech she gives at the beginning at every session, letting others know that she understands what they’re going through but also bringing up her own trauma every time so that others might be able to heal. Arabella may not yet know Theo’s full story, but she’s happy to take her up on her offer of a safe space and a community of fellow survivors.