I May Destroy You is unabashed and provocative in tackling the concept of consent. It follows Arabella, a young writer in London, as she pieces together the events of a night out in which she is drugged and sexually assaulted. Michaela Coel, (the creative force behind Chewing Gum), not only plays Arabella, but is also the writer, executive producer and co-director of the HBO/ BBC One drama. Some aspects of the story are based on Coel’s own experiences, which makes her voice all the more unwavering. There’s a message and a powerful story that forces reflection. No-one’s perfect, but listening and starting to understand the narrative is part of the work. I was worried about watching I May Destroy You because I knew it handled a heavy subject, and it does; it’s dark and unnerving, but necessary. Having these conversations surrounding consent and the various forms it can take, that don’t usually get discussed, is crucial.
Coel is unafraid to go to places that make people uncomfortable. Questions regarding consent, what it means and how this space can be navigated all arise in the series. From the end of the first episode ‘Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes’, a tension is created that never lets up. It starts when Arabella goes on a night out with friends, a break from her desperate all-nighter writing a first draft. When we see her again the next morning there’s an eerie and disturbing tension, as blood trickles from a fresh wound on her forehead and she tries to convince her publishers she’s okay. From this moment on unease creeps into the series. In the closing moments of the first episode she remembers a glimpse of a traumatic memory from the night before that leaves her confounded and as the story progresses we’re shown more of these moments that play on her mind. But she doesn’t have the full picture and also has no control over when she’ll be hit with these scenes. It’s heartbreaking the way she disassociates from it and awful to see the moment she realises that what she’s remembering is her own abuse. These images are disturbing and lasting for viewers. I found the fourth episode ‘That was Fun’ to be particularly hard to watch with Kwame’s (Paapa Essiedu) assault. The lack of support he gets from the police in the following episode ‘It Just Came Up’ is absolutely disgusting. They keep him waiting for ages, ask him insensitive questions and act like reporting it is pointless, even though he has the guy’s address. This contrasts to the way Arabella is treated by the police, who are compassionate and sympathetic. Yet, sadly in neither case is the perpetrator arrested, a statement in itself.
One way in which Arabella confronts her trauma is by becoming absorbed in social media, which she uses to expose and shame predators. Focused on in episode nine, ‘Social media Is a Great Way to Connect’, the toll of social media is explored, as Arabella takes on more of a public persona and voice. She becomes overwhelmed by the feeling that she has a responsibility to speak up on all injustice. Twitter is presented as serving a dual function for Arabella. It’s the platform in which she published her first novel Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial (as such helped her start her career and gain recognition), but is also an intense and pressured space in which she feels she must engage with all that share their experiences of sexual assault. Not only is she dealing with the pressures of maintaining this social media presence, but she’s also pressured by the publishing company Henny House to finish a first draft. They’re an annoying presence in the show; they keep popping up asking Arabella for content, with no real understanding of what she’s undergone. They put her in contact with Zain, and more questions arise as to what consent means and instances in which it is overlooked. Zain is able to continue writing for the publishing company even though he has been outed as having gaslighted Arabella and perpetrated an act of rape. Whereas Arabella is let go because they don’t think their expectations align. For money Arabella takes a temporary position at a vegan grocery delivery service and this sparks a conversation amongst a wider group of friends over what spaces are black spaces, who controls the narrative and who is profiting from black voices. Arabella is called out for this and becomes aware of how she is used by the company to create a certain image, which she then rebels against with some fried chicken.
It feels that Arabella is misunderstood throughout the show, not just in relation to her work, but also in terms of her relationships. Complexities of character add to the intricacies of the show, as character’s develop and facets of their personality become more exposed with time. I found Biagio, the recurring fling Arabella has in Italy, to morph over the twelve episodes into someone I found completely vile. Initially I found his presence to be positive as he looked out for Arabella on a drunken night out and seemed to offer another outlook. Coupled with the escapism Italy offers I thought that he would become more significant in being a rock for Arabella as the series progressed. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. He blames Arabella for her rape (his logic is that if she’d gotten her own drink she wouldn’t have been spiked). He disconnects from her after hearing of it and it’s clear that his feelings towards her have changed. Never is it okay to victim-blame and the shift that takes place in Biagio shows the stigma attached with sexual assault; that it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re not. This propagates the harmful notion that there are certain things you should or shouldn’t do to avoid sexual assault, when quite simply it should never be perpetrated – there is NO excuse or way to rationalise it.
Luckily Arabella isn’t just surrounded by this ignorance and has uplifting friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame that are there to support her. They encourage growth as they check each other’s behaviour and help guide each other when they’ve strayed. These friendships feel real because all of them have flaws and as such a friction arises between the trio for various reasons. After being sexually assaulted Kwame, who is openly gay and proud, explores what it’s like being with a woman. This causes Arabella to question his motives and judge him quite harshly, when he’s simply trying to work through his problems. Arabella’s reaction causes her to reflect and question her own past choices, as she realises she’s become stuck in a hypercritical mode of thinking, which leaves no room for nuance. Terry is there to support Arabella through it all, but in so doing becomes overbearing and controlling. She insists it won’t help Arabella to attend a sexual assault victims support group run by Theo, an old acquaintance from school. (But indeed it does, as it allows her a safe space to feel heard and to discuss consent). As is revealed at the end of the series, Terry told Simon (Aml Ameen) to leave Arabella the night she was assaulted, and as a result of her guilty conscience she smothers Arabella with good intentions. Despite it all, the three continue to share a tight bond and look out for each other.
Throughout the series Arabella and her friends are constantly attending art classes and other creative self-care sessions, in order to try and find an expressive medium to help Arabella. She also attends therapy, and I really appreciated the discussions regarding her mental health, whether that be in regards to social media, or her speaking to therapist Carrie (Andi Osho), to help her process her trauma and gain perspective. Carrie says in an impromptu session that Arabella has cut herself off from painful memories, as she has mentally and physically buried what she doesn’t want to confront. We see her push the clothes she wore that night under her bed in an attempt to forget. But at the end of the series we watch as she starts to unpack the things she’s suppressed, and find clarity in all the things she’s become detached from.
I thought that the last episode of the series ‘Ego Death’ was perfect, as it offers multiple options for how her confronting her rapist could go, playing into the expectations of what the ending should be. There’s a version where she enacts revenge, drugs the rapist and beats him to death. There’s a version where he is painted in a sympathetic light, a victim of abuse himself. Then there’s the abstract fated version in which they have a deeper connection, the gender roles are reversed and they have consensual sex. But the true ending is her deciding to stop fantasising about him. She chooses herself, and finds peace in not chasing the illusion of his redemption or comeuppance. All of the scenarios she imagines have a daring perspective: men and women’s roles are reversed, there are extravagant outfits, symbolism and subtle details that could go unnoticed. One of which sees Arabella briefly interacting with a woman on the dance-floor who looks exactly like the Arabella of episode one, with the same clothes and hairstyle. To me this shows the multiplicity and dynamic nature of Arabella, while also showing the fact that there are others whose stories we don’t hear, but very much mirror our own. Arabella’s story unfortunately plays repeatedly unbeknownst to us. The scenarios feel a fitting way to show her thought process, and how she comes to realise that none of these scenarios will help her through what she’s suffered. The rapist gets away with it, as is too often the case and the ending shows her internalisation of this.
The series is hard-hitting and uncomfortable to watch, but you want to see it through and watch Arabella’s journey. It touches upon so many different topics and invites discussion, while forcing the viewer to self-reflect. As the show touches on so many issues, there are a few storylines and people that fade into the background, like Simon and Kat (Lara Rossi). Even though I expected more of them, the show is very clear in its focus on Arabella, and thus it makes sense what’s focused on in terms of her narrative. There were also a few instances in which a minor characters acting felt a bit exaggerated and out of place to me in terms of performance. None of this in anyway tarnishes the incredibly magnetic performance Michaela Coel gives and the impactful story.
There’s an ambiguity in the show that is manifest in the title I May Destroy You, as we don’t know who the speaker is or who they’re speaking too (as the title card graphic at the start of the show highlights with the ‘you’ being deleted). Perhaps indicating it’s more about the power she holds and where she chooses to channel this – is destroying someone going to bring her catharsis? She’s a complex and multi-layered character and we see her through it all – moments when she’s fearless and others when she’s crushed. The show is about her processing the painful parts, but there are also much needed moments of comic relief and joy. Arabella is magnetic and the show is fresh. Michaela Coel wrote 191 drafts of I May Destroy You and the way she has pushed to keep her rights and creative control over her work shows what can be created when creatives are allowed to execute their vision. And my, what a vision.