I May Destroy You Gives Television Its First Watchmen
I May Destroy You is a new twelve-part TV series written by and starring Michaela Coel from the BBC, with HBO buy-in. It is sensational, is a remarkable achievement in television and, yes because this is Bleeding Cool, I am describing it as TV's first Watchmen. Which for some may see as inappropriate, given that Watchmen is a just superhero comic and I May Destroy You is a drama about rape and its consequences. And, as BC TV editor Ray Flook put it, 'doesn't TV already have a Watchmen?'
No, because Watchmen pioneered techniques in comic book storytelling and graphic storytelling in general. It represented a maturing of the medium, regardless of content. Certainly television had those moments – the likes of Pennies From Heaven/The Singing Detective, Brass Eye and Q5 come to mind. But there hasn't been as significant a leap since then – I May Destroy You may have all those elements.
What Watchmen did, in 1986, was to reinvent what comic books could be. It brought in repeatedly different storytelling techniques never seen in conjunction together before, and played with the form in new ways that all dovetailed back into serving the narrative. It was a mature, confident, compete and transgressive work that gave the medium all sorts of new tools. It is to the industry's shame that the biggest lessons learned from Watchmen was that darker, grittier superhero tales were the bee's knees, rather than there were new ways to tell stories in comic books.
There are some surface familiarities, sure. The word Watchmen is never said or appears completed on the page in the comic book. It related to the quote asking 'who guards the guards', used the superhero name trope, and also described the audience – we are the ones who are literally watching the Watchmen. The words I May Destroy You are never said in the show but are typed out in the title, before the 'you' is deleted, leaving I May Destroy. Who is saying these words is unclear and could relate to many people – rapists, victims, those using social media, the writer, and even the viewers. It takes away the target and turns it into nihilism and rage.
Like Watchmen, I May Destroy You uses its twelve episodes to expand the linear narrative. An episode that takes place just before the first. An episode that takes place a decade ago. The kind of tricks that Damon Lindelhof would lift from Watchmen for Lost – and then for his HBO Watchmen series. I May Destroy You uses this technique with an actual plan rather than to just complicate the narrative and prolong the inevitable, and it all comes together in synch in the final twelfth episode. We dive into the lead character Arabella's life and those around her, she is exciting, unpredictable and jumps from being annoyingly self-centred, to impassioned for others, to a damaging excess, and the show manages to show how people often merge between those states.
The details of scenes also reflect the world and mental states of those around them. The poster on the wall that never stays up, the use of water and the division of states it shows, echoed repeatedly through the show, even a sip of water taken by Arabella can be a dividing line between one way of being and another. The choice of Hallowe'en costumes mixes with Arabella's behaviour online – does she take the halo or the horns? The moment Arabella is portrayed as a monster of her own, in pursuit of a monster in her life. And how something that happened before, keeps returning in a non-linear fashion in her life. Watchmen is a murder mystery disguised as a superhero comic book, that becomes a treatise on humanity. I May Destroy You presents a complicated life story disguised as an investigation of her own body, we are tricked into believing this is a detective story, with Arabella as the scene of the crime – and somewhere that the villain will return. Instead, it is so much more.
Both also contain a meta-narrative, Watchmen gives Dr Manhattan the power of the reader, able to read the story in any order, at any speed that they wish, but not able to affect it. I May Destroy You explores what the viewer, what the audience wants from the show. Its lead character being a writer affects the way the story is told and it becomes a critique of the audience as much as it does the characters and actions within the show. The final episode rewrites the kind of narratives that are expected, and that audiences can accept.
I May Destroy You is the best television show of the year. I just hope that unlike Watchmen, those who are influenced by it take the right lessons about making more shows inspired by this, that explore the potential that I May Destroy You carves out, for the way narratives can be told in television. Rather than just decide that rape shows are in.
There is one very important way in which they are very different. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons signed a creator-owned deal for Watchmen that ended up never returning the rights to them, the opposite of was originally intended by all parties. Michaela Coel turned down a million-pound deal for this show because Netflix wouldn't allow her even 5% ownership in the show. The BBC gave her less cash but full ownership and control. She took it – and then HBO came calling as well for her international rights. That's one lesson that has been learned in the last 35 years, at least.
I May Destroy You airs on HBO and is available complete now on the BBC iPlayer.