[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Monday's episode I May Destroy You. Read at your own risk!]
Those of us who have been keeping up with Michaela Coel's genre-shattering and groundbreaking dark comedy I May Destroy You are by now accustomed to having our perspective turned upside down as we watch its lead characters Arabella (Coel), Terry (Weruche Opia), and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) reckon with varying dimensions of sexual assault. In "The Alliance," the sixth episode of the season, the series once again yanks viewers through an unsettling ride — this time through a haunted past.
"The Alliance," starts out pleasant enough, in the present day. Terry, the ball of fun and good vibes she is, has shown up with Kwame to attend some sort of hipster self-care graffiti art exercise alongside Bella. Bella, off to herself on her phone, reveals that she's going to a proper survivors' group therapy hosted by a woman named Theodora (Harriet Webb) which immediately sets off alarms for Terry and we soon learn why: these women attended secondary school together, and back in the day, Theo tried to frame one of their friends––a black boy––for rape.
We don't know this right away; our first glimpse of Theo, a white woman, catches her leading the survivors' group she started, claiming that she believes grooming, sexual assault, and domestic violence are "the most vile, abhorrent qualities of our species." She mentions her own experiences with abuse, and as Arabella explains her motives for being there––she has, you'll remember, experienced a second rape this season when her partner removed a condom during sex in a practice called "stealthing"––our hearts break for Arabella. We hope Theo's group can offer her some measure of healing and it sure looks that way at first. They hug and Arabella tells her, "I wish I'd gotten to know you more in school." Things take a dark turn from there, though, and in short order we are once again reeling from what this show does best: illustrate the various ways sexual assault dehumanizes people, and prompt more questions than answers.
Flashing back to 2004, with some primo retro UK garage music (Kristine Blond's "Love Shy") whisking us back to the era of AIM and low-rise boot cut denim, we see evidence that Theo is a girl in trouble. She's sneaking in from an all-nighter with something she stole, and she's horrible to her parents. At school, she and another boy named Ryan engage in high-risk sex and he starts taking pictures of her without her consent. She's rightfully horrified, but thanks to her own cunning and his manipulative ways, a deal is brokered for her to at least get paid for the encounter. Nothing about this looks pleasurable or enjoyable for her; she can't even see Ryan through most of it, only revealing her face to him so he can get a better picture of her bent over like a mule. "I really like you," he says, and he seems to believe it in spite of treating her like a receptacle. It appears likely that this isn't the first boy Theo has done this kind of thing with, as this encounter is by no means a normal hookup between two horny teens on equal footing. She's acting out. She's in real pain, but our sympathies for her dissolve quickly. Moments later, she's at her desk sobbing and claims Ryan raped her at knifepoint.
As a clueless Ryan sits in the administrator's office, learning the police are on the way, the magnitude of what Theo has done could not be more clear, or more terrifying. Michaela Coel couldn't have known when she wrote and shot this episode that the Black Lives Matter movement would find new resonance and support for criminal justice reform around the world, but this story didn't need a news hook. It's an old one. A white woman's accusation of rape by a Black man has been one of the most assured and efficient ways of ensuring their arrest or murder for centuries. It was the mere suggestion of speaking to a white woman that got Emmett Till killed in the 1955 case that helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement; sexual violence was the unarticulated fear in the hysterical call Amy Cooper made in her now-infamous meeting with Christian Cooper in Central Park. Theo weaponized her whiteness, and her tears, to ensure Ryan would pay for treating her horribly, even though she'd willingly participated in a demeaning sexual act. It's a despicable act of Karen-dom that occurred before "Karen" had been coined as a term for this kind of behavior but, as it has in all its previous episodes, I May Destroy You complicates everyone's motives and responses, leaving us to grapple with what we've seen.
Thankfully, Arabella and Terry hatch a plan to get Ryan out of trouble––and it works. (The young actors are all fantastic here, and as fun as these scenes are, they more importantly require us to look at the ways Black women often reflexively step up to save Black men, but with sometimes questionable return on investment.) Theo utters an unspeakably racist slur under her breath as the teens taunt her when she's caught, and we're beyond disgusted with her...until she's back at home. There, Theo's stepdad pries open a Pandora's box and learns that the sexual abuse he thought Theo suffered at the hands of her father never happened; It had been a sordid lie her mother forced Theo to tell as a way to punish Theo's father and make him suffer. It is a sick, final twist that swings empathy, or at least understanding, back in Theo's direction. Awful as her behavior was, it has some impetus: abused people abuse people, and the psychological crimes her mother committed against her were very much abuse. It's a little harder to hate her now, and I May Destroy You keeps its reputation for snatching wigs off intact.
What do we do with this information? Are we to assume Arabella knew this part of Theo's story? Can we assume Theo would've pulled this same stunt with a white boy — that the implications of race in this scenario are somewhat diminished because Theo is merely doing what her mom showed her how to do? Can Theo be trusted, and of all the support groups Arabella could find in London, why must she attend this particular one? Terry clearly hasn't forgotten or forgiven Theo for what she did. Why would Arabella? The more I May Destroy You reveals, the less it fully explains, but it's a thrill to watch unfold.
I May Destroy You airs Mondays a 9/8c on HBO.