Michaela Coel - “I May Destroy You” & Writing About Sexual Assault
If you are a woman, this show will make you stronger. If you are a man, this show will make you human, and will teach you what never ever to do to any woman under any circumstances. A fearless, frank and provocative half-hour series exploring the question of sexual consent and where, in the new landscape of dating and relationships, the distinction between liberation and exploitation lies.
Set in London, where gratification is only an app away, the story centers on Arabella (Coel), a carefree, self-assured Londoner with a group of great friends, a boyfriend in Italy, and a burgeoning writing career. But when her drink is spiked with a date-rape drug, she must question and rebuild every element of her life.
HBO’s I May Destroy You might be the best TV show of the year. The British import brings searing emotion and dry wit to a story about sexual assault.
In “Line Spectrum Border,” the eighth episode of Michaela Coel’s mesmerizing, borderline-perfect dramedy, I May Destroy You, Arabella, a young writer played by Coel herself, attempts to kick down a door. She’s been locked out of an apartment where she was intending to crash, and she’s not particularly happy about it. When her stylish boot nearly kicks the door in, the apartment’s occupant, her ex-boyfriend, opens it. He is holding a gun. She turns and runs.
The door-kicking incident is one of the show’s most blatant and physical displays of its core idea: No matter what boundary you put up between yourself and another person, that other person might knock it right down and leave you feeling violated. Arabella’s encounter with her ex isn’t nearly as scarring as other boundary violations on the show, but he’s still going to have to fix his door. Every transgression leaves a mark.
I May Destroy You begins with Arabella’s life being ripped in two by a sexual assault she first tries to compartmentalize, before trying to simply slog through the trauma as best she can. The slog is the only path available to her, but others around her, no matter how sympathetic they are, kind of need her to just be the person she was before her assault. She has a draft due, after all, and her friends need her for emotional support. Yeah, she’s been through a lot, but the world keeps trying to get her to move on, even if nobody would be so gauche as to say that.
At the center of I May Destroy You, which aired on the BBC in the UK (where it was primarily made) and airs on HBO in the US, is the very vagueness contained in its title. Who’s going to destroy who? Each and every episode answers that question a little bit differently. And with nine episodes of its 12-episode first season having aired in the US, it’s safe to say this is one of the best shows of the year.
In addition to starring in I May Destroy You, Coel is the show’s creator, writer, and co-director. The story was loosely inspired by her own sexual assault, which happened when she was at the height of an early career upswing following her critically acclaimed series Chewing Gum.
“A young writer is the victim of rape” is maybe not what you’d expect to be at the center of even a dark comedy, but I May Destroy You’s strength lies in how unflinching it is in staring directly at Arabella’s trauma, while also allowing just enough humor around the edges to keep from becoming pitch black.
The show is not about rape but, rather, survival, and all of the ways we find to withstand even the most mundane violations of our consent. Sexual assault is hundreds of times worse than somebody you’ve asked not to hang out with you continuing to hang out with you — but both violate the boundaries you’ve painstakingly built around yourself. The series is incredibly smart at exploring the ways the world asks us to just let these boundary violations slide, until it actively makes us put up with something we never wanted in the first place.
Every episode features a moment where someone’s consent is violated. Sometimes that violation is obvious and easy to spot — a man non-consensually humping another man. Sometimes, it’s a little harder to notice, as when Arabella’s best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) is asked a series of too-intimate questions at an acting audition. It’s easy to call out the former as sexual assault; it’s far harder to consider the latter as such, especially when Terry offers up more information than she might normally in hopes of getting the job. Isn’t she just playing along?
The details of Arabella’s rape are hazy, lost to a faulty memory. She doesn’t know who raped her, and it seems unlikely she’ll find him. But even when characters are quite aware of who assaulted them, justice is hard to come by. In one episode, Arabella calls out a fellow writer sharing the stage with her who takes off his condom while having sex with her. After she hears from another person that this is a pattern with him, she names him publicly as a rapist (non-consensually removing a condom during sex can be charged as rape in the UK). But doing the right thing rarely feels good in the way we hope it might. Arabella spends that night clicking “like” on all the adoring Instagram comments she receives; it doesn’t stop the emptiness from gnawing at her gut.
None of this would work without Coel, who’s brilliant at little flickers of half-expressions that let you know there’s some vast ocean of rage and sorrow threatening to spill out of Arabella at a moment’s notice. Her performance is essential, but it also wouldn’t work without her writing. No story quite goes where you expect it to — such as when one episode devotes itself to a lengthy flashback of Arabella and some of the show’s other characters in high school.
There are times when the interrogation of consent I May Destroy You is perhaps a bit much — one episode ends with a reminder of all of the ways humans are violating the boundaries the very planet has thrown up in our faces — but at its core, it’s a bracing show about all of the ways power dynamics can go sour. Each and every boundary stretched, each and every door kicked in, each and every bit of consent obliterated is an act of destruction. And because human beings keep constructing hierarchies that give some people undue power over other people, that destruction keeps rippling outward, a stone thrown in a pool.
I May Destroy You can be a tough watch, but it’s also a bracingly human one, because it never looks away where other shows might. It never focuses on the crime when it can focus on the survivor.
I May Destroy You airs Monday nights at 10 pm Eastern on HBO. Its season finale airs Monday, August 24. Catch up with the show on HBO’s streaming platforms.