I May Destroy You: The phantom pains of Michaela Coel

Temps de lecture : 5 minutes

Memory is a strange thing. It is crucial, vital even. It’s immaterial, a fizzle you can barely catch before it evaporates. Or it lingers, a soul-crushing weight on your chest laying in bed at night. It can be oddly specific — I distinctly remember my kindergarten teacher’s shoes on my first day of school; or completely fabricated — the recollections of my godfather’s wedding are a shiny web of my grandmother’s retelling, not my own. Memory is the mystery of what makes us humans; what makes us who we are — the bedrock of our identity. And sometimes, it is snatched away from us. 

In I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel plays Arabella, a young East London writer struggling to finish the draft of her first book. In a fateful act of procrastination, she is spiked and raped in a bar. As she reconstructs the events of the night, Arabella takes us on a spiral where her loss of agency informs her every interactions. 

I May Destroy You is also a fictionalised account of Coel’s own experience of sexual assault; a televised catharsis, effectively blurring the lines between Michaela and Arabella. I May Destroy You is unsurprisingly heavy as it is light, demanding we surrender body and soul to Coel’s powerful writing in her search for release. 

The first eight episodes are a dizzying fall. Arabella goes down a rabbit hole of the absurd; the chaotic timeline, a sickening ride, leaves the spectator desperate for the smallest moments of relief in an attempt to slow down this deep dive. In vain. Cracked walls come crashing down at every turn until the last thing left standing is Arabella’s primal choice of life over death. 

In the blue waters of Ostia, Arabella sheds the skin of her dead self. She has hit rock bottom, irremediably alone for the very first time since her attack. At last, she’s ready to be whole again as she resurfaces from the water. She has become the destroyer she needs to overcome her trauma. A beating heart against all odds.   

I have read countless reviews of the show quite obsessively tracing a way back to Chewing Gum, Coel’s breakout show, and avidly pointing to the similarities between these two bodies of work. And I understand, after all, they are Coel’s creative babies. 

But the insistence on Coel’s comedic genius as if the intentions of one were that of the other, makes me uncomfortable. If these two shows deal in the absurd, the biting humour of Chewing Gum is a far cry from I May Destroy You’s neurotic tension. Arabella is always on the verge of breaking. 

It is jarring to compare the bizarre ridiculousness of a life where personal agency has been taken away and one where control stands firmly in the main character’s hands. The Coel of then striding about her estate is not the Coel of now wandering around East London grappling with her crumbling reality although the two somehow dramatically overlap. Coel was assaulted while writing the second season of Chewing Gum

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Below the surface: the phantom pains 

Between Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You lies a hidden gem — Black Earth Rising. Micheala Coel who is neither creator nor producer, plays Kate Ashby, the lead character. Kate is too chasing answers about a past she doesn’t remember. She is one of the many children victims of the Hutu-Tutsi war of 1994 that ravaged Rwanda — a trauma occulted and kept hidden below the surface of her consciousness… until she accepts to lift the veil and is reunited with the missing pieces of her past. If I cannot trace a direct creative line between Black Earth Rising and I May Destroy You, the wireframe is undeniably similar: memories lost are to be dug up, exposed and explored to achieve true liberation.

On social media, we do not belong to ourselves.
Our image belongs to those who look at us

In philosophy, it’s accepted that conscience and memory intimately interconnect to create a continuous identity — our cohesive sense of self. In I May Destroy You, Arabella’s inability to remember is combined with very conscious trauma suppression efforts. Arabella keeps ‘it’ under her bed where all scary things live in a feeble attempt to separate herself from the victim she does not recognise, further fracturing her identity. 

Arabella’s severed memories are phantom limbs she can feel in twinges of pain but cannot see. In a late night conversation with her therapist, she finally asks the question: who am I if I’m not the person I thought I was?  

Arabella’s severed memories are phantom limbs she can feel in twinges of pain but cannot see. In a late night conversation with her therapist, she finally asks the question: who am I if I’m not the person I thought I was?  

The second part of the show focuses on regaining agency and finding a path towards oneself. As any Millennial she resorts to social media where her small echochamber allows her to project a flattering albeit partial reflection of herself. The pursuit reveals itself to be an all consuming, narcissistic trap where agency remains elusive. 

The power of social media isn’t what it’s made all to be, bearing heavy consequences on the mental health of those we hold in god-like admiration. On social media, we do not belong to ourselves. Our image belongs to those who look at us. 

We also look into the themes of compassion and forgiveness towards the self and towards others in moments that can leave spectators wondering or uneasy but it is always three-dimensional and messy in the way life is three-dimensional and messy. 

In the season finale, Arabella is reunited with her rapist. Her memories unlocked, she allows herself to be one again. The episode splits into three possible endings, three possible versions of Arabella. 

  • An eye for an eye, she explores anger and revenge to the electronic sound of Janelle Monae’s Archandroid in scenario number one. 
  • She tries understanding and compassion in the hope to rationalise the acts of her rapist in scenario number two. 
  • She reimagines her tragic evening as a consensual affair in scenario number three. 

Whether these scenarios translate into reality doesn’t matter — they too belong to the realm of the absurd, the uncanny in the mundane. What matters is that Arabella has now reached below the surface and is able to make a liberating choice at last: make peace, let go, take back control. 

I May Destroy You is a tidal wave, an embodiment of the butterfly effect, where the smallest disruption creates chaos so out of proportion we cannot fathom the destructive power of its ripples. But when the ocean recedes, it’s with the promise of new beginnings. The cycle is endless and all along, Terry and Arabella conjure it almost like a spell: “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death.”