My phone dings twice, then rings. I pause Avatar: The Last Airbender—my dozenth viewing during quarantine—and answer. On the other end, my friend is crying. At first, I’m concerned, and then I realize that the latest episode of I May Destroy You just aired. She tells me about the latest awkwardness that’s just transpired. The new HBO series plunges into the life of Arabella, a millennial Internet writer who hasn’t quite got it all together. Played by Michaela Coel—who also wrote, created, and executive-produced the series—Arabella is flanked by her two best friends, who stand by her side after she gets sexually assaulted. Painfully funny and pulsating with genuinity, it feels like the right show for today. I May Destroy You has all the ingredients of a modern masterpiece, leaving us begging for more while also turning a mirror on the audience. From its exploration of sexual assault against women and gay men to its jaw-dropping embarrassments and real-life exploits, I May Destroy You takes your expectations of humor and drama and tosses them out the door. We’re left with something fresh, relevant, and personal, demanding nothing less than serious criticism and analysis.
It was during the third episode that my friend stopped the show to call me. The scene in question? Arabella goes home with Biagio, a man she meets in Italy while out drinking with her best friend Terry, but she’s on her period. Biagio later finds a blood clot and picks it up to inspect it. What would have been another tasteless period joke in a cheap early-2000s comedy turns out to be a profound and interesting scene. This isn’t just an utterly embarrassing moment, but something delicate between two early lovers. The gesture feels honest, real, and shocking. The duality between cringe humor and intimate drama is difficult to balance, but I May Destroy You does it perfectly.
The line between these two tricky genres continues in episode eight, when Arabella’s friend Kwame sleeps with a white woman who drops the n-word while rapping a song after sex. This intensely awkward moment is only elevated after Kwame comes out as gay, causing the woman to kick him out of her apartment. Kwame having been a victim himself of a recent sexual assault deals with his own issues, and his story is told with the same level of care as Arabella’s. There is no side-picking, no lack in the depth and time taken on either story. The sexual assault report Arabella files is dealt with in intense detail and attention, while Kwame’s is given the run-around by a single cop who’s too homophobic to handle the case at all. The details matter here.
Our world grows more anxious with each passing day, new warnings constantly flashing on television. Fake news and disinformation flood our inboxes every day, yet I May Destroy You manages to filter all of this heightened global anxiety and produce something beautiful. I come back to I May Destroy You not to have my anxieties cured, but seeking sophisticated explorations of real issues and emotions. This is seen in Terry and Arabella’s relationship, Arabella the survivor and Terry a source of comfort. Terry tries to assist Arabella through her journey, but in several instances his well-intentioned attempts are challenged by Arabella. This relationship explores the fundamental questions we constantly ask ourselves of these situations: how do we help those in need and to what level? How do we get help, ask for help, and deny help when we ourselves are in need?
I find that, for me, the best works of fiction are not the ones that hand-feed me narratives or lessons. Instead, I’m drawn to the stories that challenge us, ask us questions instead of telling us answers, and even teach me things about myself. Perfect for this world, I May Destroy You is a smart and persistent comedy-drama that hits all the right marks in one fell swoop. The show’s bolts of awkwardness won’t make you reel back in terror, but they will draw you deeper into the engrossing personal lives of these characters. It holds back no punches and is a challenge for sure, but if you’re up to it, it will delight and entertain and ask you the hard questions.
By Jarred Gregory