Culture

Television

Processing trauma: ‘I May Destroy You’

By Craig Mathieson
Michaela Coel’s inventive series charting sexual assault and creativity is this month’s streaming standout

Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You

It’s difficult to quantify just how immense – thematically, tonally and emotionally – Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is. As creator, lead actor and co-director, the 32-year-old Londoner has crafted a remarkable limited series that inverts your expectations through both unblinking directness and wrenching empathy. A co-production between the BBC and HBO – and streaming in Australia via Binge and Foxtel on Demand – the show’s 12 half-hour episodes chart the sexual assault and subsequent waves of trauma experienced by Arabella Essiedu (Coel). A working-class writer struggling with the transition from viral tweets to a commissioned first novel, Arabella takes a break from staring at her blank laptop screen one night to get a drink with friends, and her drink is spiked. The next morning she’s bloodied, disassociated, but still trying to write.

Creativity is a demanding salve for both Arabella and Coel, who composed I May Destroy You as part of examining her own drugging and sexual assault. Making something from your trauma is an act of tremendous transformation, but the narrative refuses to let this process be linear or reassuring for Arabella. Like the gaps in her memory, Arabella is in pieces that don’t readily join together – she lurches from manic energy to shattered vacancy, from defensiveness to defiance. The deficiencies she always carried but never acknowledged intrude, but the storytelling is too inventive for conventional resolutions. Sharp humour, social critique and lucid fantasy all wend through the plot, galvanising one another to create a deeply individual work.

Arabella’s bedrock is her close friends, who, like her, are children of West African immigrants. Their complicated dual lives can be seen in how they relate to each other versus white Britain. The bond Arabella has with Terry (Weruche Opia), a struggling actor, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a fitness instructor addicted to Grindr, is complicated by small deceits and wayward good intentions. Coel’s vivid characters open up a welter of issues, spanning the addictive consolation of social media to the policing of personal transgressions, but they’re written with such idiosyncratic insight that they never become two-dimensional outlines, even as the series subtly suggests that sometimes that’s the easier way out for a person looking to move on.

Coel’s mainstream breakthrough came with her previous show, Chewing Gum, an insightful, freewheeling comedy available here on Netflix where she played a young woman from East London desperate to lose her virginity after a pious Christian upbringing. In that show she displayed a comedian’s aptitude for slapstick, and that expressive physicality extends to I May Destroy You. In a story where powerlessness – in terms of sexual consent, financial burden or the inability to remake yourself – is a recurring motif, Coel’s performance literally embodies everything Arabella struggles with; her walks have a taxonomic range, while the shifts in Arabella’s outlook transform her facial features. From scene to scene, this compelling series has a granular level of specificity, and over six hours the accumulative impact is vast.

Up next: Screening as two movie-length episodes this Sunday and Monday, The Comey Rule (Stan) is clearly meant to serve as a prescriptive full stop on Donald Trump’s first term as president of the United States prior to the November election. As such, this dramatic adaptation of A Higher Loyalty, former FBI director James Comey’s book about his leadership before and after Trump’s 2016 defeat of Hillary Clinton, is a narrow tick-tock thriller about a career public servant whose lofty values are undercut. The storytelling is bluntly efficient, the visual scheme workmanlike, and the looming horror framed as an assault on democratic rigour. The show is effective, but limited: its virtuousness doesn’t allow Jeff Daniels any breadth in his performance as Comey, or any insight into the circumstances that Trump took advantage of.

The first episode tracks the FBI’s fraught on-and-off 2016 investigation of Clinton’s emails, while the second inhabits the five months Comey lasted before Trump fired him as the Russia investigation refused to go away. Most of it is familiar, with an off-kilter feel to the casting: Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Barack Obama is too young, Richard Binsley’s Alexander Downer too engaging. But the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson is horrifically effective as Trump, eschewing a comic impersonation’s inflation to emphasise the nightmarish negation that grows out of the businessman’s narcissism. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump tells Comey at their infamous private White House dinner, and it’s his matter-of-factness that’s so alarming. The Comey Rule concludes with an homage to America’s institutional resilience, but Comey was fired in May 2017. It’s not clear if there’s anything left now.

Streaming successes: Created by Fauda writer Moshe Zonder, the Israeli series Tehran (Apple TV+) is an initially taut espionage thriller that dabbles with implausibility as it progresses. Nonetheless, in depicting a covert Mossad operation in Iran it shrewdly portrays both the insurgent, Tamar Rabinyan (Niv Sultan), and the person hunting her, Revolutionary Guards commander Faraz Kamali (Shaun Toub), as the flawed heroes of their own stories. The Duchess (Netflix) is an amusingly abrasive English comedy about a happy single mother (creator Katherine Ryan) whose belated quest to get pregnant again allows for loopy logic and spit-take retorts. The second season of The Boys (Amazon Prime Video) furthers its superhero satire as a timely commentary on American delusions and corporate excess. Xenophobia, exploding heads and the rousing stomping of a Nazi are all part of its bracing charm.

Streaming miss: Away (Netflix) is a contrived deep-space melodrama, with Hilary Swank as the American commander of an international mission to Mars who struggles with her crew while the family she left behind on Earth struggles without her. The show mistakes platitudes for soulfulness.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You

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