Here’s why Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ blows ‘Fleabag’ out of the water
Everyone has heard of Fleabag by now; its creator-writer-performer Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a star! Donald Glover of Atlanta fame and she can make anything cool under the sun. Waller-Bridge’s telly series was based on her one-woman show which was first performed in 2013. The show, streaming on Amazon Prime Video, had its first season premiering in 2016 and the second in 2019. The second won six Emmys and became an international sensation. Michaela Coel’s Chewing Gum had a relatively quiet presence on Netflix for some time. Like Waller-Bridge, she is the creator-writer-performer of this comedy, and broke the fourth wall, too, much before Fleabag.
This television series was based on Coel’s 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams. The show focuses on Tracy who wants to have sex but cannot, who is religious but has her fair share of apprehensions. There’s no sexy priest but there are enough sexy men. And Waller-Bridge and Coel play their own versions of sexy in costumes that fit their character very well.
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Trigger warning from here till the end: It was in 2018 that Coel decided to share a deeply personal story that she was sexually assaulted while writing Chewing Gum. And this personal story provides the basis for I May Destroy You that came out last year on BBC in the UK, HBO in the USA, and Disney+ HotStar in India. Almost everyone I know who had watched the show confessed that it was a difficult watch; they needed time to recover, or watch something “lighter” after this. They also, however, related to the many arcs: how they had easily been in those situations of being the victim and the perpetrator, in both small and big ways, irrespective of their gender identity and sexual orientation.
Coel is a writer named Arabella Essiedu in the series; her close friends are Kwame, played with nuance and restraint by Paapa Essied, and Terry Pratchard, performed with just enough cheer, conflict, and charisma. Arabella goes about her daily routine of meeting a deadline one day, decides to take a break, and then gets raped.
The series has 12 episodes with a runtime of about 30 minutes each, and each of them has something different to offer. While most of the context mentioned earlier is set in the first episode. The second shocked me in the way Coel handled Arabella’s going to the police with her friends and reacting to their questioning. When they say they’re going to ask her a few, she refers to the assault as “the thing in my head;” she refuses to call it “memory;” she is just not sure!
In one of the episodes, the cliché gay friend troupe, Kwame gets his storyline in a different way. Usually, Kwame is seen sitting by himself, checking out guys on Grindr, and hooking up with men who are near wherever he is. He doesn’t talk too much but consent is understood and he enjoys sex. However, as he is about to leave one date’s home, he gets raped early in the show. He doesn’t share it with his friends, goes straight to the police, but doesn’t get taken seriously. In one of the later episodes, Arabella, not having known of the incident, locks him up with another stranger in her bedroom for hours, triggering him all over again.
Terry’s plot happens later and is implicated in Arabella’s story too much to not spoil the story. There’s a bit on Arabella’s social media presence which creates a rift between her friends and her. For a show that has a rape at its center, and everyone somehow implicated, navigating themes of race, consent, friendship, relationship, mentorship, protection, alcohol, writing, memory, law enforcement, gender, sexuality, and much more, arriving at an ending would have been tricky, had it not been for Coel’s genius. Suffice to say, it does more than what it can and should.
One of my favorite writers, Jenny Offill, annotated her book Dept of Speculation (Knopf, 2014) on Goodreads saying, “If your house goes up in flames, make something beautiful out of the ashes.” To tell a tale like Coel’s that could perhaps be therapy for others is not only brave but can send a lump down your throat and make you think about it for days and months; it can heal! She has given us the funny and charming, the thoughtful and cathartic; difficult or not: if there was a standout creator-writer-performer in the 2010s, then nothing that came out can beat the brilliance of Michaela Coel. Did we, on the other hand, deserve her?