Television

I May Destroy You Is About More Than Consent

Michaela Coel’s series is a complex drama about sexual assault and its aftermath—but that’s not the only reason it’s great.

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel. Natalie Seery/HBO

We first see Arabella Essidieu, played by Michaela Coel, who also wrote and created the electric I May Destroy You, waiting for a taxi on the street in Ostia, Italy. She’s wearing a knit Ikat bomber jacket over a floral button-down tucked into loose white pants that end an inch or so above her combat boots and are held up by an oversized black belt. Her hair is cotton-candy pink. She looks incredible, as fresh as the show she stars in.

I May Destroy You, which is two weeks into its run on HBO, has been widely described as a consent drama, a 12-episode, 30-minute series that takes a prismatic view of sexual assault and its ramifications. The show absolutely is that, but this description can sound like damning it with moral praise, like what I’m really trying to tell you is that it’s good for you, instead of that it’s good. I May Destroy You, though, is fantastic, in ways that both do and do not have anything to do with its multivalent treatment of rape and trauma.

It’s all there in the first episode. Arabella lives in London, but she was in Ostia visiting her Italian boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti)—a drug dealer who warns her not to do drugs—and supposedly writing her book expansion of a viral Twitter thread, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Black women in particular approach Arabella on the streets of London and recite lines from her work back to her, and her white literary agents are nervous she’s going to blow her deadline, which she’s absolutely in the middle of doing. As she takes a call from her agents while sitting on the toilet, her underwear around her ankles, smoking a joint, deftly deflecting their passive-aggressive inquiries and fully intending to finish the book in an all-night writing jag, she snaps into focus. It’s all there, from the start: her verve and her mercuriality, her talent and lack of discipline, her charismatic rebelliousness..

Over the course of the pilot, we’re introduced to Michaela’s social world: Terry (Weruche Opia), her best-friend since high school and a high-strung aspiring actress; Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a low-key personal trainer constantly looking for hookups on his phone; Ben (Stephen Wight) her desexed and benign white roommate; Simon (Aml Ameen), in a busted long term relationship. Arabella interacts with all all of them with a kind of irrepressible energy. She’s fun, she’s funny, and she’s capable at any moment of peeling off to do her own thing. At her agent’s office she readies herself for an all-nighter, but she can’t write a word. She sets her timer for an hour and goes out and to meet Simon at a bar called Ego Death Trip. (The episode is called “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” and though I haven’t done it myself, I would bet money there’s an “I” treasure hunt in it.)

If the show thus far seems like a slice-of-life series about a group of creative friends in London, a kind of a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Millennial Woman, it also at no point seems like “just” another version of these things. It is an extremely good version of them. Coel, who previously starred in and created Chewing Gum, may be the best actress of any actor–creator out there, and I would happily watch her doing anything—including starring in a show in which her character “just” figures out how to becomes a voice of her generation by comically stumbling around her home city, like some HBO protagonists before her .

But that’s not quite I May Destroy You. At the bar where she’s avoiding writing, Arabella and her friends do shots with some strangers, she gets woozy, and comes to sitting at her computer, with a gash on her head, disoriented and plagued by a vision of man looming over her, thrusting in a bathroom stall. It’s at this point that I May Destroy You reveals itself for what it is, a show about a woman dealing with the fallout of being drugged and raped—Arabella’s experience is based on Coel’s own—even as it introduces half a dozen permutations on rape, consent, and consent gone wrong.

At first, Arabella doesn’t want to think she’s been assaulted. She can’t get the image out of her head, but she doesn’t know what happened, and she doesn’t want to believe what her mind is  telling her, desperate for reassurance everything is fine. Whenever the image pops into her mind, she tries to soothe herself by chanting “there are hungry children” and “not everyone has a smartphone.” It’s only after tracking down another woman from that night that she realizes she was drugged. At the police station, when the female officers suggest there’s a reason she can’t remember her attacker’s eyes—he was looming above her—she loses it, breaking down in tears that she hides in her shirt.

Over the next 10 episodes, she deals with the fallout, which manifests itself in her friendships, her work, and her social media presence. “I never noticed being a woman,” Arabella writes, “I was too busy being poor and black.” But now that she’s noticed she can’t stop noticing. She sees a therapist, she tries coloring, she stops drinking. She doesn’t stop having sex. Terry and Kwame pull closer to her, even as they also begin to have unsettling and frightening sexual encounters.

After another sexual encounter gone way wrong, Arabella, already a social media star, becomes an even bigger one, a warrior for sexually abused women everywhere. The show is extremely sharp about how she uses platforms to enhance her ego, comfort herself, and bear witness, a constant feedback loop that quiets her anxieties and inflames them, makes her solipsistic and empathetic all at once. Publicly, she’s an avatar of vengeance, fierce and strident; privately, she’s livestreaming in the middle of a doctor’s appointment and pushing her friends to acknowledge their failings, even as she selectively blots out her own behavior.

She’s not only working things out online. Her hair changes: at one point she shaves it all off (someone makes a Britney joke) and then switches wigs, part of the show’s general matter-of-factness about black hair and blackness in general. The cast is almost entirely black, with a smattering of white people thrown in, including Arabella’s first rapist. In an audition, Terry is asked by a white casting agent if she can and will remove her wig, right then and there. Arabella thrills when she learns her publisher is a black woman: She seems to love Arabella’s newly shorn head, but she’s not quite the ally she seems.

The show takes a bit of a dip in the middle of the season, when the variations on the consent theme can start to feel a little forced, but even then there’s usually something lively or graceful about it. The show flashes back occasionally to high school and a complicated situation in which a white girl, who grows up to run Arabella’s support group, accuses a black boy of assault. It also flashes back to Italy, where Arabella’s blackout partying ways are presented with affectionate truthfulness. There’s a funny-weird interlude that is extremely graphic about period blood. As Terry, Weruche Opia is perfectly, hilariously annoying, a mother hen who needs to be Arabella’s number one. Their friendship is real and deep for all Terry’s clingy bossing—“your blood is my blood, your death is my death,” they repeat to each other, constantly—and one of the most moving moments in the whole series is when the two simply decide not to fight.

At a certain point, I May Destroy You reveals itself to be something of a poioumenon, “the rhetorical term for a work of art that tells the story of its own making,” and one I learned from my colleague Dana Stevens’ review of Little Women. As Arabella’s memory of exactly what happened the night of her assault returns, she doesn’t share it with us directly: e instead she fictionalizes it, finally artist enough to take what happened to her and make it her own. Late in the show she tacks index cards with her notes, her words, her work, on the walls of her room, which helps her to see a whole new structure for her book. A shot of these same cards opens the whole series, though it doesn’t mean anything the first time you see it. “I thought you were writing about consent,” someone says, looking at cards. “So did I,” Arabella replies. It turned out to be more.