‘I May Destroy You’ Shows Us Everything

On the day of the U.S. finale on HBO, what does Michaela Coel have in store?

I May Destroy You is one woman’s story that shows us everything.

The series, whose season finale airs Aug. 24 on HBO, tackles the aftermath of a rape. But it’s also about power, the murky world of consent, and above all, the lies we tell each other and ourselves.

All credit goes to Michaela Coel, I May Destroy You’s star, writer and co-director. Coel, who also wrote the BAFTA-winning television series Chewing Gum, based I May Destroy You on her own assault. One night on a break from writing the second season of Chewing Gum, someone roofied her drink and attacked her.

The same thing happens to Coel’s character in I May Destroy You. Young literary star Arabella is drafting her second book following a successful debut, the Twitter-fueled Confessions of a Fed-Up Millennial. She’s arrived back in London after a jaunt to Italy, and friends plead with her to come out. Moments later, we see her staggering out the bar door, barely able to stand. The next morning, she’s confused and disoriented, with just a brief memory of her attack.

This all occurs in the opening episode, and part of the story is how Arabella deals with what’s happened. But as Coel has said in interviews, she’s interested in the gray areas. And as the series unfolds, she shows us a wide array of hook-ups, relationships and deceptions that resist easy categorization.

Arabella’s best friend, aspiring actress Terry (Weruche Opia), visits her in Italy and ends up in a questionable threesome. The third member of their close-knit trio, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), regularly trolls Grindr for no-strings hookups with men. When one goes wrong, he tells no one except for a police officer, whose reaction discourages him from proceeding with a complaint.

Post-rape, Arabella connects with Zain (Karan Gill), another writer at her publishing house. But when she literally turns her back in bed, he slips off the condom he promised he’d wear, later downplaying his move by saying, “You couldn’t tell?” Zain’s very public comeuppance is one of the rare overt triumphs on the show.

Yet this isn’t a simple rogue’s parade of bad men. In one of a handful of flashback episodes, we see a younger Arabella and Terry in high school, along with Theodora (Harriet Webb), a classmate who now runs the survivor group that Arabella joins. Theo, who is white, sneaks off for sex with Ryan, a Black classmate. The sex is consensual, but Ryan pulls out his flip phone to take a picture, which isn’t. Theo cuts herself with a knife from the cafeteria and deploys her race as a weapon along with tears, telling a teacher Ryan attacked her.

‘I May Destroy You’: Michaela Cole, ready for her close-up. (BBC/HBO)

Everyone on this show falters. Terry, unaware of Kwame’s assault, tells him: “Apart from Arabella, we (Black people) don’t get raped.” Kwame omits a hugely important part of his history when meeting with a new date. And Coel doesn’t exempt herself from missteps. Arabella’s newly adopted “survivor” online persona distances her from the very people who care most about her. She’s rude and phone-obsessed not just with friends, but in her doctor’s office and at a painting retreat. After she spends her last few dollars to return to Italy on her own, she erupts into door-kicking rage when her former lover rejects her.

I haven’t even touched on I May Destroy You’s razor-sharp portrayal of the creative class or the period sex scene early on. This show has so much to say that it would collapse under its own weight if not for Coel. She’s a powerful force onscreen and off, rejecting Netflix’s million-dollar offer for the series in exchange for complete creative control with the BBC. Her insistence on human complexity instead of easy answers elevates the show, winning it famous fans like Seth Rogen, Adele, and Janelle Monáe. Even Jane Fonda raved on Instagram in mid-July that she’d watched each of the aired episodes “3 times to catch all the subtleties.”

BBC released the entire series all at once this summer in England. I’ve intentionally avoided reading about the finale because I want it to surprise me. I know whatever Coel has in store is something I won’t see coming.

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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