Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ is blueprint for portraying media reality

Photo of Michaela Coel's 'This May Destroy You'

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Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” does not tread lightly — its opening scene is all pink balayage and anxiety. Arabella, the show’s protagonist and Coel’s author surrogate, is hunting down a taxi to the airport as her Italian not-boyfriend Biagio sends her off. He kisses her, but dismisses queries of their relationship status. The uncomfortable negotiation only ends when the not-boyfriend shrugs and gives her a not-answer. Arabella watches him walk away, and then Tierra Whack’s “Only Child” plays — the soothing, warbled synth brings an unexpected sweetness to Arabella’s heartbreaking frustration. 

This technique is the collaborative genius of Coel and the show’s music supervisor, Ciara Elwis. As the show progresses, other heavier sources of pain for Arabella and her friends arise — pain more substantial than the not-boyfriend’s commitment issues. Pain in shades of rape and trauma addressed in full range of ambiguity and clarity. It’s the main reason, Elwis explained in an interview with the New York Times, that the show’s creators did not want an original score. “They were really keen that people be able to make up their own minds about how they felt about something, rather than having the music tell you, ‘This is sad, and you must feel sad now,’ ” she said. 

Instead, in the most agonizing scenes, there’s always a sort of release, coming from saccharine songs such as “Only Child.” The result is a jarring gulf between the suffering and the joy, so immense that it gives you pause — no, it gives you a reminder that there exist reactions to traumatic events more complicated than sadness and anger. This is all owed to Coel’s conscious construction of a media reality.

In their 1960 paper for a NASA conference, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the word “cyborg” to describe the intimate relationship between man and machine. By their conception, the synthesis of the organic (flesh and sinew) and the mechanized (metal and oil) was an all but inevitable frontier in space exploration. Are we not cyborgs today — our somatic experiences constantly extended by simple technologies such as contact lenses, pacemakers or headphones? “I May Destroy You” poses a tangential question: How do our cyborg bodies digest complicated traumas? 

Music is only one component of the sociotechnical world of “I May Destroy You.” The show also employs an exquisite use of on-screen texting, Grindr messages, Facebook reactions, Instagram tags and Twitter mentions, sewing them seamlessly into the characters’ cyborg bodies. 

In the beginning of the seventh episode, Arabella and her friend Kwame are grocery shopping when he receives a buzz in his pocket. It’s a Grindr message from ‘ChizzieChisom.’ The text is overlaid next to him on the screen, with one message saying: “Send pic of ass.” Kwame puts his phone back in his pocket, but the sexts remain on screen — they continue to occupy his thoughts. Next to him, Arabella scrolls through her tireless Twitter mentions praising her bravery for outting her rapist and concludes: “Being a woman is the fucking worst.” By way of the particular forms of social media on their phones, Arabella and Kwame experience two completely different realities, even while standing side by side. 

If the physical space of a grocery aisle can be so easily dissolved by the aid of media, then in what other ways can media alter our understanding of our “natural” reality? Coel has recognized the gap between our experience and our popular representation of modern pain and healing. The rehabilitation of a cyborg body is complicated by factors that are immeasurable by rape kits, factors that sting differently from Neosporin. 

Arabella makes productive use of her cyborg self: At the end of the fifth episode, when the not-boyfriend disappoints her, she self-medicates with social media. One minute, she’s sobbing with the duvet over her head. The next, she’s holding her phone up at a flattering angle. “Pynk” by Janelle Monáe plays — the show’s signature beacon of musical levity during troubling scenes. In “I May Destroy You,” music is not a direction to wallow, but an opportunity to detach from the physical (the salty tears and bloody gashes) and connect with the nonphysical (in both mind and machine). 

Arabella takes selfies with her phone in her left hand. Her right hand assumes different poses, in rapid succession: raised fist, hand to heart, peace sign, middle finger. She uploads one and reads the comments from her supportive followers. A fuchsia heart balloons from her phone and drifts slowly toward Arabella — and she smiles. 

The finale of “I May Destroy You” airs on HBO on Aug. 24 at 9 p.m.

Contact Katherine Chen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @spaghettybaby.