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Columns, Opinions

Han ’23: HBO’s best shows are more raw than ever

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, October 15, 2020

This opinion contains spoilers from “Succession” and “I May Destroy You” and discusses sexual assault.

Nearly a year and a half ago, the dominant story in pop culture was the conclusion of “Game of Thrones,” a television show that had transcended what we thought television could be. HBO brought a silver-screen spectacle to the small screen, and the show’s immense popularity and cultural significance resulted in HBO becoming colloquially known as “the ‘Game of Thrones’ network.” When the show was wrapping up its eight-season run, John Oliver, whose late-night show “Last Week Tonight” aired directly after “Thrones,” quipped that, “in two weeks’ time, this network is so deeply f*****.” HBO isn’t quite the pop culture behemoth that it was during the reign of “Game of Thrones.” But for those like me who are interested in watching and writing about TV shows that are both well-made and have a definite societal message, HBO’s best is still unmatched in the ever-expanding television landscape.

But what I consider to be its best has changed, from the fantastical spectacle that was “Game of Thrones” to two shows that, while less popular, are more incisive and directly relevant to what it means to be alive in this moment of time — “Succession” and “I May Destroy You.” Both provide unique, engrossing viewing experiences on their own, but the two shows also create a fascinating double feature. They are completely different in terms of tone, pacing and focus, executing the different visions of two creators, Jesse Armstrong and Michaela Coel, respectively, whose only similarity might be their English roots. But they deliver two sides of a message that is necessary now more than ever: Living in this world is often agonizing and brutal, briefly beautiful and vulnerable, and overwhelmingly messy. “Succession” focuses on those in power who have purposely created a cruel world. Meanwhile, “I May Destroy You” trains its eye on the destructive effect that the world can have on normal people. Together, they create a vision of how our harsh reality came to be and what we might have to do to exist in it.

If I had to describe the most recent season of “Succession” in one word, it would be unrelenting. Between the razor-sharp dialogue, the piercing glares and the breakneck pacing that accurately captures the callous spirit of corporate life, made entertaining by the show’s flair for profanity-laden dark humor. “Succession” is essentially about the struggle for control over a legacy media company owned by the Roys, a family loosely based on the Murdochs. Never before has a show about rich white people felt so urgently necessary — and the Emmys agree. It turns out that, in the right creators’ hands, a show about the conversations between the obscenely rich and powerful can inform us all about the forces that created the world we live in while also providing a hugely enjoyable hate watch. 

Central to the second and most recent season of “Succession” is a scandal: The company’s leadership has long covered up the rampant sexual assaults committed on its cruise line, many of them by a former executive who coerced workers into sex in the 1990s. When the story breaks, the patriarch, Logan Roy, quickly emphasizes the family’s PR strategy: “It’s cultural splash back. We’re being punished for the sins of others. No one real gives a f*** … Condemn and move on.” A couple of episodes later, the Roys are hit with a second gut punch: A former employee exposes a company policy known as NRPI, or “No Real Person Involved,” which is how the company describes assaults involving sex workers or immigrant employees at foreign ports. The indifference with which “Succession” brushes off the disgusting nature of its characters’ actions and attitudes toward such unforgivable crimes shines a harsh light on the true corporate stance on sexual assault: It’s worth the effort to pretend to care, but not worth it to actually do so, because “no one real gives a f***,” because there was no “real” person involved. 

If “Succession” treats sexual assault with a callous, dishearteningly accurate reflection of reality, “I May Destroy You” fully leans into the other side of that truth: the utter anguish and ruin that an assault leaves in its wake. The exact same heinous act is weighty rather than brushed off, traumatic rather than unimportant. Michaela Coel writes and stars as Arabella, a burgeoning writer whose quest to figure out what happened on a night when she was roofied and raped is central to the show. “I May Destroy You is an achingly beautiful portrait of how exhausting it is to try to be a good person in a cruel world. It is overwhelming, and deliberately so. The show touches on all of today’s most complex issues and emotions in one way or another, and it visibly drains both its viewers and characters as they attempt to figure out how they are supposed to care about so many problems at once. In her brilliant, singular voice, Coel’s fictional story, based on her real-life sexual assault, offers no easy conclusions. As a viewer, “I May Destroy You” is by no means an easy watch, but one that keeps viewers on their toes and displays a full variety of experiences, particularly Black experiences, set in a vibrant London, almost unrecognizable from the glossy city that often appears on our television screens. 

“I May Destroy You” is a collection of moments, each one more viscerally authentic than the next. Consider one moment when Arabella indifferently locks her friend Kwame in a room with another man, thinking she was facilitating a normal hookup. In reality, Kwame is terrorized by flashbacks to his own sexual assault. A few episodes later, Arabella discovers the truth and is wracked by guilt. Rather than admonishing her, Kwame embraces her, saying that it’s all okay, that he understands what she’s been going through. In those small, understanding and forgiving moments between friends, we are able to see the warmth within the pain. More than anything, this show does justice to the complexity of modern life. “I May Destroy You” continually asks its viewers to trust no one while empathizing with everyone — even and especially ourselves. Memories and concepts of self are fallible, and sometimes we bury the things that we don’t want to remember so deeply that we convince ourselves they never happened. And sometimes, the full context of a moment is revealed so suddenly that it tilts the ground underneath our feet, forcing us to reevaluate who we are and whether we are doing the right thing. 

Like anyone who enjoys analyzing and writing about pop culture, I am biased toward specific themes. I prefer works that depict what I describe as “ordinary cruelty” — something common rather than rare, like indifferent glances rather than grisly murders, and a concept that is crucial to both “Succession” and “I May Destroy You.” It’s rarer in film and television than I would like: Many of the foremost creators of our time seem to prefer to use graphic violence instead. Think Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and, yes, “Game of Thrones” itself. Violence is both the surest way to make an impact on the viewer and a fascinating delve into the depths of human depravity; it is an effective tool of filmmaking, and honestly, who am I to argue with the methods of such masters? But as a pretty normal human being, I’ve always been more interested in what normal people are capable of doing to each other without blinking an eye. Unfortunately, if “Succession” and “I May Destroy You” truly represent that kind of ordinary cruelty, the everyman is capable of extraordinarily destructive actions. If committing and covering up sexual violence is in any way ordinary, what have we come to as humans? And it is, in fact, devastatingly “normal” and way closer to home on this campus than some might think.

In my last column, I wrote about “The Good Place,” and its message about basic human decency as our only hope to save each other from ourselves. But there’s a caveat to that uplifting message: All of the decency in that show happens after the characters have already died, when they have millennia to figure out “what they owe to each other.” But HBO’s “Succession” and “I May Destroy You” illustrate why it’s not quite so easy to be decent to each other during our time on Earth. Some people refuse to do decent things in order to hold onto money and power. With this behavior, they create a world where people who are trying to be decent find it almost impossible to do so. “Succession” enlightens and educates; “I May Destroy You” makes the viewer’s innermost struggles feel seen. They are both shows worthy of your attention.

Bliss Han ’23 can be reached at bliss_han@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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