“Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes” opens up a new, modern, and challenging HBO drama about consent and contemporary dating fronted by an always striking Michaela Coel.
This recap of I May Destroy You season 1, episode 1, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes”, contains spoilers.
We all have nights we can’t remember, those hazy recollections of too many drinks, too few sensible ideas, and things said that probably shouldn’t have been. But none of my night out jigsaws include the looming specter of sexual assault, a piece that is a mainstay of many women whose mental pictures are as much flashbacks as nightmares. This is the premise of Michaela Coel’s new 12-part half-hour HBO drama I May Destroy You, and in its premiere episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes”, she leads the audience through a vision of Millennial dating and right up to a night that might change everything.
Coel’s Arabella is a Twitter-famous author under pressure to keep that creative ball rolling while also navigating the obstacles of contemporary young adulthood. She has a long-distance boyfriend in Biagio (Marouane Zotti), though her love life is something she can’t quite figure out, and friends in Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) who are there for her when she needs to blow off steam rather than meet a deadline.
I May Destroy You episode 1 depicts blowing off steam as a potential minefield, and as the jubilance ticks on each unsteady step leads closer and closer to an explosive outcome. But we don’t see that in “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes”, which shows Arabella begin to lose control of herself but then skips neatly over whatever happened between her rapid decline and her eventual, tentative return to consciousness. It’s an intentional, smart structural choice that allows us to feel the outline of a potential assault in the hesitant, unsure way that she does, a glimmer of harsh reality lancing through the heavy fog of substance misuse.
What comes next isn’t a topic of this opening episode, which allows the sudden realization that something’s amiss to work as its own kind of cliffhanger; a life suddenly, unexpectedly upended. Arabella immediately represents a wide swathe of Millennial working women who have found themselves in similar situations. Coel based the story on her own experience of sexual assault, a trauma she experienced while working on the second season of her breakout hit Chewing Gum, even though her dramatic performance in the BBC’s Black Earth Rising is a closer analog for this one. That personal touch can be especially felt in how Arabella’s predicament occurs in the context of a ceaseless industry that she feels she has a responsibility to, and how she navigates her trauma will, invariably, cross paths with how she’s forced to navigate her career.
Where I May Destroy You episode 1 excels is in its everyday vibe of weeknight partying and the bleary-eyed way you have to answer for it the next day. The idea that this is perfectly normal isn’t challenged; what is, though, is the violation of that partying, a kind of safe, closed-off pocket dimension where the stresses and responsibilities of the real world are put on hold. Whatever happened to Arabella punctures that bubble of security. She hasn’t just been assaulted – the space she perceived as safe was trespassed upon in order for the assault to occur. Nothing is the same in its aftermath, and this is strongly felt in the tone and style of the show shifting to accommodate a harsher, more painful light of day.
Who destroys who is anyone’s guess. But while I May Destroy You season 1, episode 1 is careful not to give away too much, that’s quite clearly the point. “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes” is letting Arabella feel the rug beneath her feet before it’s pulled away; letting us acclimate along with her, meeting her and her friends, seeing her work and responsibilities. The clarity of these early moments will be rigorously re-examined in the wake of trauma, the first step of a self-conscious line of questioning that asks if things could have been done differently or not at all. It’s all part of the process. In first showing the last thing Arabella remembers, it shows how nothing that follows could ever quite be the same.
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