'I May Destroy You' Premiere Review: Michaela Coel's rape survivor's trauma hits like Netflix's 'Unbelievable'

The trauma that comes from not knowing if she was raped or not -- or fully registering the gravity of what might have been done to her -- is what makes the HBO drama such a marvel


                            'I May Destroy You' Premiere Review: Michaela Coel's rape survivor's trauma hits like Netflix's 'Unbelievable'
Michaela Coel (HBO)

Spoilers for Episode 1: 'Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes'

The one thing that Netflix's 'Unbelievable' got extremely and articulately right was the dissociation victims -- or survivors, if you will -- feel right after getting sexually assaulted. Unfortunately, we live in a world where sexual assault happens even when the victim is incapacitated to give their consent, so that aching, bitter, and beyond brutal realization of getting assaulted is something a lot of people have to deal with. Was I? Could it be? What exactly happened? These are the questions we saw Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) trying to riddle in the Netflix series based on true incidents. These are also the questions that I May Destroy You's Arabella finds herself fronted with the day after a night out, as she tries her best to go about her day as nonchalantly as she can, but her body tells otherwise. And it is this trauma that comes from not knowing if one was raped or not -- or fully registering the gravity of what might have been done to them -- is what makes Michaela Coel's HBO drama such a timely classic.

To say Coel exceeded all expectations would be an understatement. The writer and actor adds more feathers to her bonnet of talents -- this time also hopping on board as the executive producer of a dramedy that couldn't be more impeccably crafted. Arabella is your modern-day millennial author who finds online fame and followers after her book blows up. So she is sent to write again, this time in Italy, where she sparks a brief romance with a drug dealer and is met with the eventual disappointment that comes with most flings. When she returns from her 'writing trip' without a single word, in an attempt to meet a tight deadline, she spends the night at her publisher's London office, only to be imminently dragged out for a night of heavy drinking with age-old friends.

This brings us to the most salient feature of Arabella's story: right from the start, her friends are rooted in as a support system that becomes more and more credible as her trauma expands and tragedy unfurls. Her roommate Terry (Weruche Opia) is a struggling actor, also dealing with the firm bias of fashion and beauty brands. Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), on the other hand, is an indulgent but insecure gay man who is too hooked on to London's risque dating scene to shrug off the mask of flamboyance and sassiness he forts. Yet neither of them are the ones she goes out with on that fateful night she can't piece together. In that, Arabella's friend Simon (Aml Ameen), who invited her out, isn't the creepy friend that would do something this damaging not from the start at least, but there is reason enough to doubt his discretion.

While the script exceeds at establishing these ties between the friends -- inside jokes, authentic greetings that sort of invite the viewer with warmth and openness into their world -- what it also does is lay out a multifaceted structure for each character and their many flaws. While Arabella's surface-level flaws might be drugs, alcohol, and procrastination, Simon's is infidelity. Married to the gorgeous Kat (Lara Rossi) who wants to open their marriage to threesomes, Simon is conniving enough to blow off their date with another woman showing vivid disinterest, only to invite her back to an after-party, once his wife leaves for home. Simultaneously, he also makes passes at Arabella, and even though she shrugs it off as age-old friendship, Simon is a bit too cozy and comfortable talking about how great in bed she is.

While we never see what exactly happened to Arabella, it is those initial moments of pure dissociation that keep us on the hook. There's a cut on her forehead the morning after, and even though she is in a frozen stance as realization begins to set in, Arabella decides to go about her day as if it's all fine. There's a brash cynicism and tragic air of shrugging things off in her demeanor that's hard to overlook. As she swirls in the trauma of what might have happened to her, we see her completely detached, yet reacting whenever necessary. However, the situation demands only to recoil back into her little dome of terrifying numbness the moment she is left alone. Blacking out assault is a tale too common for most victims, and Cole does a marvelous job at both scripting it and portraying it for the scene. Her work doesn't need flooding tears, or violent sobs -- just eyes wide open as her body shuts down, her quiet screaming for an explanation but her memory still too jumbled to make sense of any of it. 

Coel also does enough to establish the two other supporting characters -- Opia's Terry and Essiedu's Kwane with backstories and evolving arcs of their own to hint at the growing significance of bot the characters in Arabella's story, and it's just as refreshing as it was to find the sketchy Simon's duplicitous nature. It's tragic, relatable, and a daunting reminder of the several layers of consent and how the lack of it doesn't need to be as vocal as a lot of people demand it to be. In short, Coel has proven once again why she is a storm the world of television needs to watch out for and her second TV venture is a clear proof of that.

'I May Destroy You' premiered on June 7, and will air every Sunday at 10:30 PM only on HBO.

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