TRIGGER WARNING AND MILD SPOILERS AHEAD FOR EPISODES 1-5.
There is a moment at the end of episode one of I May Destroy You that perfectly encapsulates this gripping new drama. Young millennial author Arabella, played by series writer/creator/director Michaela Coel, returns to her London flat after her uneventful day, only to be greeted by a sudden flash of memory from the night before: a young man towering over her, raping her. It’s a moment of sheer horror that will have embedded consequences in later episodes, but Arabella’s reaction to this terrifying memory resurfacing is most unexpected: she pauses for a brief second, produces a wry smile and says, “huh”. As a viewer, you might also raise an eyebrow, but it’s what makes Coel’s new creation evermore effective – slightly off-kilter when you least expect it, but without shying away from the seriousness of its subject matter: sexual consent.
Over the next 11 episodes (all clocking around 30 minutes in length), and with the help of her close friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella unravels the events of the night she blacked out while meeting different characters along the way that inform her own experiences. As well as this, they also examine the fast inter-connected world of post-millennial life within modern London. Not Sherlock London or Bodyguard London, but a London that genuinely feels like London (if that makes London-sense). The graphics that pop up to represent Arabella’s phone when she’s on social media, sharing videos and posting stories, might look patronising and cringe to some, but this is the world we live in where a majority are forming a censored persona of their life that is far away from the honest truth. All of this sound like the ingredients for a zeitgeist, and there is no doubt its depiction of the 21st century has aided this. But even when it delves down these little passages, it always returns to that key theme which holds it all up: consent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is defined as a “voluntary agreement to or acquiescence in what another proposes or desires”.
Coel’s new show isn’t the first to handle this crucial terminology in a refreshing manner in 2020. In January, Netflix’s hit comedy-drama Sex Education, written by Laurie Nunn, took the opportunity to use Aimee Gibbs’s (Aimee Lou Wood) storyline in season 2 to explore this after she is sexually assaulted on the local bus. She tries to play down and ignore it but the aftermath takes an upsetting toll on her relationships and daily activities. When she finally stands up to face her demons by getting on the bus with her friends, it’s a moment filled with utter triumph as she regains her self-confidence and womanhood following its being snatched away by the assaulter’s “non-consensual dick”. Another example is in the BBC/Hulu adaptation of Sally Rooney’s romance novel Normal People, about the complex relationship between young lovers Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal). During the first of numerous sex scenes, Marianne asks him, “do you have a condom?”. A simple questions that only lasts five words but one, when watching it, that brought huge levels of comfort. Why? Because when was the last time you watched someone ask for consent in a recent major TV show and film? My bet is a long while ago.
However, in the case of I May Destroy You, it succeeds in something that is most remarkable: it takes the definition of consent, unpacks it, scrutinises the many forms of it, and then wraps it all up again. Not many dramas in recent times (including the ones brought up) have dared to do this because, as aforementioned, consent should be an agreement that is entirely voluntary, an act of permission that can be reversed. Unfortunately, as we witness through Arabella and her friends, people can take advantage of this by bending the circumstances to fit their own preferences in subtle ways.
Episode four showcases two scenarios. The first is when Kwame hooks up on a Grindr date and has consensual sex but, as he gets up to leave, his date instantly assaults him. Sadly, when he reports it to the police in similar fashion to Arabella, he doesn’t get the same treatment and is instead humiliated and dismissed. You feel helpless watching Kwame’s hopes of justice being eroded, but it highlights how there is a major flaw within the legal system in that gay men are rarely seen as victims, despite Kwame’s clear trauma and violation. It puts out serious questions as to whether similar situations are going unreported because of this prejudice.
The second scenario involves Arabella meeting ghostwriter Zain, who has been hired by her publisher to help finish her draft, but the plan falls short when they wind up having consensual sex instead. Unknown to Arabella, however, Zain removes his condom during intercourse, in spite of her insistence. It’s an act known as stealthing, which can be classed as sexual assault without consent – this is where Coel exposes one of these grey areas with such clarity. When Zain confesses afterwards, Arabella isn’t bothered because she can easily obtain the morning after pill, which she does. But as she comes to question Zain’s actions, she realises what she has accepted: the violation of her own body, the sudden removal of her agency, and the risk of getting an STD or an unwanted pregnancy. She wasn’t offered a choice because Zain thought it was acceptable as she already consented to the previous act; it isn’t, and in a grand-stand moment, Arabella calls him out as rapist.
Watching I May Destroy You at times is tough but necessary. It explores a deep problem in our society, the lack of knowledge regarding consent, and one that is even more apparent considering how poor sex education is in schools. But based on her own experience, which she revealed at the 2018 MacTaggart Lecture in Edinburgh, Coel shines a light on an uncomfortable subject that challenges plenty of the myths surrounding sexual assault and rape, two of the least convicted crimes in the UK, alongside constantly referring back to these words when you’re engaging in sex: yes or no.
All episodes of I May Destroy You are available now on BBC iPlayer.