In "I May Destroy You," Music is the Show's Wallpaper
A look at the soundtrack to Michaela Coel's sublime HBO show.
Michaela Coel as "Arabella in HBO's I May Destroy You
Caution: this story contains spoilers!
When we first meet Arabella, the protagonist of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, she has her laptop out in the back of a cab on the way to the airport. “Only Child” by Tierra Whack plays in the background, and Arabella takes a call from her long distance Italian should-be boyfriend. He tells her to remember the sea. She closes her eyes and flashes back to a moment where she sat by the water, and to a time when she drank orange juice in her underwear on a terrace and looked like she was in love. If you’ve ever felt those pangs of love before you know the moment; that one song plays and you’re transported back to a moment of time when things felt perfect. Remember the sea becomes a mantra, a fleeting example of bliss, the thing you’ll conjure up when you need an excuse to cry about a good memory.
I May Destroy You is not an easy show to watch. Largely about Arabella’s sexual assault, much of the show is about consent, power dynamics, and the complexities of working through trauma as a Black woman. Coel is a supernaturally gifted writer, and the show is a semi-autobiographical, careful balancing act of pitch-black humor and the difficult exploration of what it means to have a body that often feels like it is not yours. The music in the show often feels like an omniscient narrator, an ambient exploration of selfhood that often leads Arabella down rabbit holes of understanding what has happened to her. Later, in that same first episode where Arabella is in Italy and Tierra Whack plays and everything feels shiny, she is assaulted in a bar. We watch her stumble home and wake up the next morning in a dissociative fugue. In the midsection of this sequence, a gospel track led by Reverend Milton Brunson splices open Arabella’s life. The juxtaposition is terrifying: Arabella’s life is imploding on itself as a god-like force descends into focus. Watching a drugged Arabella stumble home as the Brunson and his choir sing about running to the proverbial arc before the rain starts feels like advice that has come too late, unsettling and ominous.
Needle drops in the following episodes continue to hone in the show’s central themes. Arabella's life is difficult and becomes informed by trauma, but is also wonderful. We watch her back in Italy, drunk and high, dancing to “Like A G6,” and chatting up dancers on a stage. In that very same episode, the drugs wear off and the sun rises; Arabella is listening to Daft Punk’s “Something About Us,” on the beach with a love-struck look in her eyes. In the episode that follows, Arabella tries to reorient herself with her life again in the aftermath of her assault. In one scene, she has a PTSD flashback. Tears roll down her cheek and a drill track from the South London rapper Blanco plays softly in the background, lilting like a song from a jewelry box. Later in that same episode, Arabella’s best friend Kwame is also assaulted. As he comes to terms with what has just happened, he begins to cry. The episode cuts out, and a somber track by the soul singer Greentea Peng plays. “Woke up today and the sun was shining,” she sings with melancholy in her voice, an uncertain step forward into an unfamiliar future. So much of the role of music in the show is to highlight these oppositions, and situate the characters at their most human. Living with trauma often looks like this. Your life is falling apart, you put on music that is as far away from your mood as possible to try to imbue some source of levity and hope into how you’re feeling, even if it feels unnatural. It often feels like the musical choices in this show are more for the characters than they are for us. It reflects the internal reality of the show's characters in the same way that a subtle facial expression might offer.
For viewers in the U.S., I May Destroy You is only about halfway through. At this point in time in the show, Arabella is on a path to healing, albeit one that is uneven. Music continues to be the show’s wallpaper: you don’t always notice it’s there, but it is so responsible for the overarching mood and texture of these episodes. The songs guide our feelings, they help us understand the emotions of Arabella and the people around her. Listening to music is always a push and pull of sadness and pain and joy, and you can see this reflected clear as day in the show. The work of music in a show is to tell us things that aren’t obvious in dialogue, that in these moments of pain Arabella is healing at the very same time.