Fortunately, two new television series, the fictional “I May Destroy You,” which wrapped up its run on Monday, and the documentary “The Vow,” which began this weekend, are here to help us do the harder work that lies ahead.
In “I May Destroy You,” inspired by star and creator Michaela Coel’s own experiences, the man who spikes young writer Arabella’s (Coel) drink and then assaults her has committed a real and heinous crime. But what distinguishes the series is the way it places Arabella’s rapist at one end of a continuum of morally vexed behavior, and spends much of the rest of the series exploring actions that range from evil to insensitive.
Arabella can behave carelessly and cruelly, as she does at a party where she locks a friend in a room with another man, suggesting she’s doing it to give them some “alone time.” One of the most painful twists in the series is the revelation that Terry (Weruche Opia), Arabella’s best friend, essentially abandoned Arabella on the night she was assaulted.
In one plot line, Arabella briefly becomes Internet-famous for calling out and doxing alleged rapists. “I May Destroy You” acknowledges the seductive appeal of acting as an avenger, even as it argues that few people actually possess the moral credentials and fortitude to take on that role without abusing the power that comes with it.
That clarity and kindness show up in another set of stories. A former schoolmate of Arabella and Terry’s who lodged a false accusation against a Black classmate grows up to run a support group for assault and abuse survivors that becomes a valuable refuge for Arabella. A man who behaves unethically with Arabella during a liaison ends up helping her to complete her book, and in turn find a way to integrate the attack she experienced into her sense of self without being overwhelmed by it.
And “I May Destroy You” acknowledges how hard it can be to do good, and to feel good, at a moment when sexual norms are in flux. In one episode, Arabella’s exasperation that her partner took off a condom while they were having sex boils into rage after she listens to a podcast that suggests what she experienced was a form of assault, not a misunderstanding. Her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) struggles to name his unease after a man he’s hooking up with pushes past Kwame’s boundaries and portrays his actions as a form of puckishness. Even though Kwame finds the legal language to describe what happened to him through a Google search, he finds the police unwilling or unable to hear him out.
If the central insight of “I May Destroy You” is that anyone is capable of blurring boundaries, especially as those boundaries are being redrawn, “The Vow” gains its power from its ability to explain how people might find themselves doing or covering for more egregious violations.
The documentary explores NXIVM, a self-improvement movement that functions like a multi-level marketing scheme and cult founded by convicted con man Keith Raniere, which became infamous after whistleblowers revealed the existence of a sexually abusive secret society within the organization.
A common, and understandable, response to stories about cults is to suggest that anyone who ends up entangled in them must be weak or foolish. Yet the whistleblowers who escaped NXIVM, and who are key figures in “The Vow,” come across as neither.
People like filmmaker Mark Vicente and his wife, actress Bonnie Piesse, were drawn to the gateway seminars used to hook converts into NXIVM out of a desire to improve their careers or to use their talent and influence for good. Others, like Sarah Edmondson, wanted to improve their self-confidence. NXIVM’s programming was designed to give them a sense of continued accomplishment — and to keep them on a treadmill where further advancements were always within reach. They want foolproof methods to make their lives and relationships work, and really, who wouldn’t?
“The Vow” doesn’t just use interviews with figures like Vicente and Piesse to explain this dynamic: It takes us through a similar journey. In clips of NXIVM recruiting and training videos, figures in the organization such as Nancy Salzman and Raniere seem to talk to us directly, letting us feel the appeal of their pitches rather than denying their power. When Salzman, in one seminar, tells cult members “If you are not uncomfortable, you’re not working on anything,” her language doesn’t sound so different from that of suddenly prominent figures such as “White Fragility” author Robin DiAngelo.
What distinguishes “I May Destroy You” and “The Vow” from more self-flagellating approaches to social change is their combination of accountability and empathy. Rather than suggesting that evil is confined to the monsters, both series acknowledge that we can all do wrong — and that we all have opportunities to do better, if only we’re willing to take them.
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