“It Just Came Up” and “The Alliance” prove that Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is perhaps the best show on television right now – at the very least it’s the toughest to watch, and the most difficult to think about.
This recap of I May Destroy You episode 5, “It Just Came Up”, and I May Destroy You episode 6, “The Alliance”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous two episodes by clicking these words.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You might be the best show on television right now, but it’s also the hardest to watch, the most painful to think about, and the most uncomfortably truthful. And what might be most striking about it is how it continues to be consistently funny even as it depicts extreme trauma and unpacks deep-seated corrosion at the heart of our culture. The show understands what a vital tool humor is, both as a sword to be wielded in attack and a shield to be raised in defense. The frequency with which jokes are deployed here, in both forms, only reinforces the idea that people, particularly women, people of color, and anyone who falls outside of the confines of heteronormativity, are constantly in conflict.
Primarily, the show uses sex, and especially the idea of consent, as its core subject, but in much the same way that the piecing together of Arabella’s sexual assault often gives way to episodes set many months or years before it, so too do different themes branch out of that central umbrella topic. I May Destroy You episode 5, “It Just Came Up”, is pretty in keeping with the show’s core ideals though, as Bella inadvertently realizes that her new fling, Cambridge-educated creative writer Zain, might have raped her too.
Zain’s assault is subtler and more insidious than an outright attack, but his removal of a condom midway through sex without informing Bella, and then gaslighting her into thinking it was her responsibility with hapless statements such as, “I thought you knew,” and, “Couldn’t you feel it?”, constitutes rape, both legally and morally. When Bella publicly outs him, she becomes a social media celebrity and a minor hero.
This contrasts starkly with what Kwame experiences in “It Just Came Up”. He’s also struggling with the idea of an unconventional violation that he was subjected to in the previous episode by his Grindr hook-up, and after googling whether humping without consent constitutes rape, he decides to follow Bella’s example and report it. Yet in doing so he opens himself up to further humiliation at the hands of a useless police officer – a black one, one imagines intentionally – who shows no sympathy or sincerity in asking for the details of what happened. Here, I May Destroy You episode 5 is showing a different kind of bias; where Bella’s assault was taken even more seriously by the police than she herself seemed to be taking it, Kwame’s, because he’s a man, and because he’s gay, and because he was assaulted during a deliberately discreet anonymous meeting, is mocked and dismissed.
I May Destroy You episode 6, “The Alliance”, continues this complexity in a half-hour primarily devoted to a flashback. The justification is that Bella is now attending a support group for survivors of sexual assault that is chaired by a former classmate, Theo; we visit their high school during their teenage years. Theo lives with her mother, step-father, and younger brother in a strained and, we learn later, a very complicated familial setup that might itself be predicated on false accusations of assault. Theo rebels by having casual sex at school with another student who pays her to take photos of the experience; she doesn’t want to, but he bribes her into doing it, and then in response, she claims he raped her.
Theo is white; the boy she accuses is black. At first, this seems like a surface-level distinction, but as a young Bella and Terry work to expose the lies in Theo’s story, it becomes a charged tale of racial politics; as Theo is being led away from school after having her claim exposed, she’s verbally abused by “The Alliance”, an exclusively black group of friends that includes Bella, Terry, and the boy she accused, and mutters, “F*cking monkeys” under her breath.
The grim irony in I May Destroy You episode 6 is that Theo was caught in a lie because the photos of what happened were shared against her wishes. It muddies the already complicated issues of consent and privilege even further; Theo was peddling her “white girl tears” as high currency, as she was accused of doing, but the situation wasn’t as clear-cut as a girl with privilege crying rape to destroy a minority for no reason. That Bella and Theo find solace in each other so many years later proves that, on some level, these issues are bound to maturity; they are not the same among cackling schoolchildren as they are among adult women who are realizing that their age, career, and life experiences don’t inure them against further abuses. In the present day, “The Alliance” is Bella and Theo.
Incredibly, we’re only halfway through the season. But I May Destroy You has already displayed a level of forthrightness that most shows are too cowardly to exhibit, and a willingness not just to broach difficult subjects but to observe them from all angles and offer no easy answers to them. What happens next is anyone’s guess. I’m almost afraid to ask.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.