The Drama Triangle and 'I May Destroy You' (BBC)
Or the Pen as the Extension of the Body, and our Redeeming Sword. (Spoiler alert)
In the last episode of I May Destroy You, Mikaela Coel wraps up this nuanced, free, mesmerising tale of coercion, freedom, will, and agency. Throughout the series Coel describes the victim of sexual assault in every nuanced possibility — from unaware participation, to full blown assault, through the murky doubt about one’s own role in this humiliating, life-robbing experience. That same nuanced approach is tackles the perpetrators as well - from psychotic disturbed human-beings who derive pleasure from raping a drugged victim, to those who in the heat of the moment make a tiny decision which puts them on the side of the rapist, while their victim isn’t aware. She skilfully raises questions about domination in sex, about deceit, and raises the possibility that some of these perpetrators wouldn’t even consider themselves as such. She does it with her magnetic freedom of expression, both in her body and her pen, with well-rounded characters one cannot doubt for a second. And while her characters and storytelling are painted with every shade of every colour, with layer upon layer, the page of her main character Arabella, remains blank as she struggles to write.
When one of those “unintended” perpetrators comes to try and make amends, by helping Arabella with her writing, the flood of words begins to flow again, and we suddenly enter Arabella’s story.
The story then splits into three different strands, and Arabella’s writing becomes one what we are seeing on screen suggesting her writing is what we have been viewing all along. This has the effect of mixing the story with reality, Arabella’s writing becomes one with Coel’s and the ‘fourth wall’ is broken. Those scenarios are presented to us sequentially, almost like multiple choice, in a way which breaks away with the chronological unfolding of the story until now.
In each of these three scenarios, Arabella discovers her rapist, the one who drugged her and raped her while unconscious. Seeing him in a pub, and finally putting all the pieces together in her head she then has three different ways to redeem herself, her rapist, and us the audience.
In one she becomes the Persecutor, as she gets even, attacks him as he did her, and beats him up, possibly to death. In another she becomes the Rescuer, catching her attacker, taking him home and giving him the stage to repent, apologise, confess, which develops into a dependency of his on her. She literally rescues him from himself, from his circumstances. In the third one, she tricks him into being caught by arranging for the police to apprehend him. While she remains in the role of the Victim, she reclaims her power by bringing him to justice.
Playing out these three roles - the Persecutor, the Victim, the Rescuer - Coel lets us experience the perfect ‘Drama Triangle’ (Karpman, 1968). This model maps the roles of destructive interaction that can occur when people are in conflict. Depending on the context, we are all capable of embodying each of these roles, and sometimes all of them at once.
By internalising each of these “parts” or roles, we often ‘bestow’ other roles on those around us, even without them being aware. For example, if we see ourselves as Rescuers we would often make those around us feel like Persecutors, or Victims. And that sometimes we can stop the pattern, just by letting go of the role we have taken on ourselves, in order to ‘liberate’ those around us of the roles they ended up with as a result.
In each of the three scenarios offered to viewers in the final episode, a different character is being “destroyed” - which may explain the deletionWha of the word “you” in every I May Destroy You opening sequence. By choosing which of the three roles in the triangle we take on, we have the power to alter the story. We can destroy ourselves by over-identifying with each of these roles, and we can redeem ourselves by navigating through them nimbly, by recognising them in others, and by not letting any of them define us and control us. By choosing the narratives carefully, and rejecting those that don’t serve us, we can discover our agency, our will, and our own power.
By presenting all three, and not actually choosing either one of these scenarios, Coel frees herself from the horrific experience of attack and rape. Her writing becomes her freedom, her storytelling, and her redemption. Accepting and allowing nuance and complexity, both in her characters, and in the stories they live, Coel skilfully raises awareness to the range and nuances of assault, harassment and power. She illuminates the blurring of boundaries between people, their experiences and their narratives. She allows life to be messy, while at the same time draws a clear line between right and wrong.
It is these nuances of people's experiences which call for deep, authentic communication, for people actually seeing each other, and seeing the other, so that they themselves can be seen.
Through her pen, like an extension of Arabella’s body, and through her writing (which is also going through external manipulation from agents, publishers, friends and her own self), she finally gets the ultimate redemption by articulating those three scenarios and claiming all three roles. The mere act of writing this show, enables her to stab rape right in its vicious belly and present its varying manifestations in plain sight. Any one of these scenarios would give redemption of sorts on a personal, individual, level. But by not choosing, and raising awareness to the complexity of rape like I May Destroy You does, Coel wields her redeeming sword - her pen - against a culture of rape and coercion.
This is the first of several media posts, which are commentaries of film and TV from a coaching lens. What movies or TV do you suggest I look at with my lens? Comment , and please share if it is of value to you.
Illustration by Evie Fridel