Television

I May Destroy You’s Ending Resists Tidy Explanations

The daring, complex finale rewards close reading, but it’s not interested in simple answers.

Black woman in a coat looking upset in front of a bar.
HBO

In the final moments of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s Arabella Essiedu prepares to read from her new book, January 22nd. “Thanks for coming, by the way,” she says, nervously, to the crowd crammed into a narrow bookstore. She takes a breath and begins to read. Before the words come out, the camera cuts to Arabella, in a purple ombre wig in Italy, much as she was in the series’ opening moments. We don’t have to hear her speak to know the story she’s going to tell: We just watched it. I May Destroy You is a poioumenon, a work that tells the story of its own making, and January 22nd’s very existence makes for a triumphant if not exactly happy ending: Arabella can never undo her sexual assault, but now she can use it to tell her own stories.

The finale explores how Arabella finally gets all the way there. At the end of the previous episode, she remembered the details of her sexual assault. In this episode, she confronts her attacker in what first seems to be reality but is instead her imagination. It’s the first of three scenarios that play through Arabella’s mind as she sits in her cement backyard, in the quiet company of her kindly roommate Ben. (Ben is a saintly white-guy goof on the Black best friend trope who also stands in implicit comparison with the rapist. On another show, he’d turn out to be the culprit, but here he’s a red herring, a #NotAllWhiteMen counterweight, a safe space, and himself all at once.) Arabella conjures a bloody revenge sequence, a sentimental melodrama, and finally a romantic role reversal, a triptych that explores and explodes clichés, and in which no questions, no thoughts, no feelings are off-limits.

In E. Alex Jung’s profile of Coel for New York magazine, he describes her writing the finale at an Airbnb in rural Michigan, where her host recommended a Margaret Atwood story about a woman encountering her attacker. Coel asks if it ends in murder. It does. Coel says she’s trying not to do that, but apparently only, first, by doing it. In the initial scenario, upon recognizing her rapist, Arabella drags an uncertain Terry down to the bathroom of the Ego Death Bar and explains her plan: hook, line, sink him. They call Theo, and the three of them watch the rapist, David, at the bar. Arabella approaches him, hilariously pretending to sip her drink—Coel’s physical comedy never fails—while Terry distracts his co-conspirator with a dance and Theo steals his drugs. David takes a seemingly spiked Arabella down to the bathroom. As he begins to undo his pants, she opens her eyes and asks “Who is the criminal, you or me?” just as Theo reaches out from the next bathroom stall and injects him with his own drugs. The women’s giddiness fades when Arabella remembers that he has taken her underwear. They follow him through the city, and after he collapses on the street, Arabella holds his flaccid penis and beats him up. She takes him home, pulped on the bus—“boys will be boys,” a woman says to her smilingly—and shoves him under her bed, along with everything else she’s repressing. His blood seeps out in a dark circle. He’s dead, but that doesn’t mean he can be tucked away.

In the next iteration, it’s Terry who has the plan and Arabella who is uncertain. The language of the first sequence is repeated but put in different mouths, with different intonations. Terry makes Arabella snort an enormous amount of coke, and she energetically dances in front of David, as another version of herself—the one who was raped, in that fuzzy red jacket, with the purple hair—dances behind her. This time, when David takes her down to the bathroom to rape her and she opens her eyes, alert, he launches into a monologue. He grabs her face, calls her a whore, and says, “There’s wars going on in Iraq, and you’re making a big old drama ’cause some bloke slipped a pill in your drink and wants to fuck your brains out in a nightclub?” He gets more and more emotional, threatening her, but with commands he seems to have heard before, directed at himself: “Don’t you tell anyone, David, and if you tell anyone, I will kill you. You’re worthless, David. You’re worthless.” Then he breaks down in sobs.

There’s something almost tritely theatrical about this monologue, but, I think, that’s the point. Just as revenge is a clichéd conclusion to stories about rape, so is this one: The rapist is revealed to have his own history of trauma and sexual assault that goes some way toward explaining how he became the way he is. Arabella (and Coel) is working through the modes in which stories like hers are typically “concluded.” Here, even more than with the revenge plot, she brings something new to it. Because I May Destroy You has spent nearly 12 episodes intimately exploring Arabella and her friends and so many different kinds of sexual assault, Coel and Arabella can explore the possible humanity of a serial rapist without it being the third rail it would be in many fictions and media coverage. Of course Arabella has imagined what motivates her rapist, even if there is no such explanation, even if looking for explanations is not what you’re supposed to do: We’re watching Arabella write her own story, just as we’re watching Coel finish hers, and everything is theirs to imagine.

Arabella takes David home, where he explains that he’s served jail time for rape before darkly but humorously listing the various kinds of rape that he’s done. He’s growing more and more attached to Arabella, who isn’t scared of him and so confuses him. Why is she letting him sit on her bed? Why is she letting him speak to her? It’s not right, he says. He’s confounded by her interest in him, by her openness, by her lack of fear. She says almost nothing, making it clear he’s the one with the problem. She’s not only in control—she’s emotionally removed. He begs to be able to stay with her, even as the police come and take him away.

The last iteration is the strangest and dreamiest and reverses almost everything, especially gender. It’s daytime, not night. Arabella approaches David at the bar. He, unlike her, stutters over his drink order. His co-conspirator is dancing for Terry, as opposed to the other way around. Arabella comes on to David, who never even tries to drug her, and they have a fully consensual hookup in the bathroom. She brings him home, and she fucks him. In the morning, they wake up together in bed, and he says adoringly, “I’m not going to leave until you tell me to.” She tells him to leave—and he does. Crawling out behind him is the version of him she had beaten and stowed under her bed, and that version is holding onto the investigation bags as well as the sonogram that’s all that remains of her abortion. She’s commanding the monsters out, and she’s done it by imagining a kind of romantic, recuperative rewrite.

In Jung’s profile, Coel talked about her willingness to see complications, humanity, and explanations even in seemingly awful people. “I learned that when I am traumatized, I make a line and I say dangerous/safe,” she says. “Sometimes when you stay in that mode too long, the line becomes good/bad, nice/evil, angel/devil, not me/me, friends/enemies. But the line is not real. … And when you acknowledge it and look at it—that enemy, that evil, that bad thing—the more you learn how to master it and temper it.” This is what Coel is having Arabella do in this episode: look over the line, and empathically consider the different ways her rapist could be not in actuality but in her own mind, for her own benefit. “Daring to empathize, daring to help other people as well as being helped, it will do you good,” Coel told Jung. “It’s about you.”

There is no “ending” to the story of Arabella’s sexual assault. The fallout of an experience like that never ends. The finale captures this, the infinitely refracting nature of such an experience, while also giving it a functional purpose: It can be the ending to Arabella’s book and of Coel’s show, an elegant, satisfying, truth-telling conclusion made of loose ends. The point isn’t that any one thing needs to have happened to bring Arabella some kind of peace; it’s that considering any and everything, leaving no feeling off-limits, did.

In Episode 9, her therapist had drawn an image on a piece of paper: an A for “Arabella” above a hard line over an X. It looks like a fraction, in which Arabella herself is divided by all of the awful, complicated, difficult feelings she’s shoved underneath the line—in her language, underneath her bed, where monsters go. The therapist says more or less exactly what Coel said in her profile: that people divide themselves and the world, separating everything into dualities, so as to deflect the guilt, uncertainty, and self-blame that sexual assault survivors feel and need to process in order to understand what happened to them. Arabella, sitting at her therapist’s kitchen table, takes her drawing and does one of her own: an A, a line, and an X, all on top of one another, to make a kind of star, a symbol of an integrated self. It’s this shape that is on the cover of Arabella’s book, a star she gave to herself, for doing, and making, the work.

For more on I May Destroy You, listen to Willa Paskin and Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién discuss the show in spoiler-filled detail.