Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
With the finale of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel leads us away from finality and completeness in the most satisfying way. Best known for her breakout Netflix series, Chewing Gum, the British writer/actress has returned with a hilariously clever and explosive series about the thorny nature of consent, now streaming on HBO.
Chronicling a young writer’s experience in the aftermath of a sexual assault, I May Destroy You captures the pain, absurdity, and murkiness of rape culture. With the help of her eccentric, vivacious, sister-friend Terry (Weruche Opia) and confident, active gay bestie, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella, played by Coel herself, must piece together what exactly has happened to her. Through complicated and layered relationships shared by the show’s central characters, Coel lays bare the layered power dynamics and varied experiences of sexual violence. Very much in conversation with cultural touchstones like Memento and Get Out, Coel uses deadpan humor and her deft understanding of human relationships and societal structures to reveal another level of Black interiority and personal terror.
From its first episode, I May Destroy You submerges us in the act of processing. It’s narrative is fueled by mystery, with the momentum of the show propelled by an ominous feeling that at any point something you weren’t watching for — a jacket, a quick glance, a forgettable face around a table — will suddenly offer a pivotal clue.
Yet, the mystery is never a question of whether an assault occurred or even really who did it. Rather, the show poses deeper questions, concerning what it takes to reckon with and begin to heal from trauma. In an early scene from the first episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” Arabella’s literary agent, Julian (Adam James) sheepishly interrogates the young writer about her elusive manuscript-in-process, introducing the series’ driving question: “Where does it go?”
For Coel, the answer is down a path of healing and dealing with trauma. Over the season, Arabella and other characters return to the scene and visions of the crime over and over, attempting to excavate new information, As Coel recently explained to GQ, “The past isn’t ever really past. […]You have to learn to have power over the thing instead of it having power over you.” Coel’s personal experience with rape informs the depth and accuracy with which she captures the weight of traumatic moments through key plot decisions, and aptly technicolored lighting.
I May Destroy You gives us Black feminist storytelling in a way that is beautifully timely, raw, and unwavering. It pushes us to simultaneously sympathize with Arabella’s pain following her own assaults and to question her lack of care for her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) after his own rape, meanwhile contentious characters like Zain (Karan Gill) and Theo (Harriet Webb) are spared their humanity.
When it comes to capturing the flawed, human aspects of the healing process, so much of the show’s success hinges on Coel’s ability to lay bare ideas of structure. The season’s penultimate episode (“Would You Like to Know the Sex?”) captures this idea well as we witness an epiphanic moment for its main character in processing and writing about her rape. As she rearranges plot points on a wall — preparation for her fitful manuscript — she never changes the facts of what has happened but rather reckons with the relationships she sees among them, allowing her disorientation and anger to begin to clear.
“Ego Death,” the season finale, picks up just there as Arabella finally confronts her rapist, ensnaring him with the help of Terry and Theo so that she can enact a series of revenge fantasies — some terrifically violent, some terrifyingly tender. By replaying the last moments of the previous episode seemingly as a recap, Coel adeptly uses the serial form to trick us down a rabbit hole. Over and over, Arabella relives her assailant fumbling to remove her clothes, the twinge of panic that she might not get away, and despite different maneuverings, arrives at endings that are each equally successful and empty. The repetitive nature of the episode’s arch precisely captures myriad cycles of sexual violence in their chaotic, all-consuming truth.
I can only speculate what happens if and when Arabella finally encounters her rapist in a crowded pub one random night or how she manages to self-publish her book. Yet that lack of resolution is perhaps Coel’s strongest and most defining decision. In refusing to tie a neat bow at the end of this process, she has continued to catapult us into the grayness of how rape culture actually operates.
The season finale of I May Destroy You (2020) streams on August 24 on HBO Max.