This I May Destroy You essay contains spoilers for Michaela Coel’s HBO series. Check out the VV home page for film reviews, cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
In the five years since the allegations of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse, the #MeToo explosion has exposed widespread toxic masculinity in its most frightening form — as the big entertainment business’ head of the table, as the fabric holding together the entire cultural sector. But the list of names that have fallen from grace post-Weinstein represent a vital opening of the floodgates. It is a wake-up call signaling how workplace abuse will no longer be tolerated, concerning the world of producers, directors and actors responsible for how we give our lives and money to the small or big screen. For five years, spectators have been left wondering whether the men bred by this broken system have daughters, wives, mothers. We have been left wondering how they were able to ruin so many women’s lives so easily.
Retaliation has taken many forms, but one of the most purposeful has been within cultural production itself. Films and television series have showed no hesitation in addressing #MeToo head-on — take Jay Roach’s Bombshell (2019), based on the accounts of the Fox News women victim to CEO Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment, or the more effective The Loudest Voice, the miniseries released in the same year tackling the same case. Another televisual example would be The Morning Show (2019-), starring Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell and centered on a fictionalized equivalent of the Weinstein case. As for cinema, notable releases include Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, an ambitious revenge comedy that was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2021, Kitty Green’s The Assistant (2019), an impressive exercise in narrative economy poised between fact and fiction, skewering the elephant in the room while he is entirely absent from it, and last year’s She Said, the Maria Schrader film that directly tackles the Weinstein case.
These and other #MeToo works vary in approach, style and quality. The epitome of their contributions to this debate and of their storytelling experiments is Michaela Coel’s masterful I May Destroy You, a miniseries which debuted on BBC One and HBO in the summer of 2020. Coel creates, produces, writes, directs and stars as Arabella Essiedu, a Twitter-sensation-turned-novelist who tries to rebuild her life after being raped on a night out in London. Armed with friends, therapy and the officers assigned to her case, Arabella pieces herself back together over 12 half-hour episodes while tracking down her male attacker. She replays the night in her head alongside visits to the Soho bar she last remembers being at. Arabella tells best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) her reasoning when the stage is being set for reencountering her rapist, in the opening moments of the season finale: “A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.”
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First, however, Arabella must remember what that criminal looks like. Memory is what ties episode 12 back to one, drawing on the 11 in-between as reference points. In its first moments in episode one (“Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes”), I May Destroy You establishes an equilibrium only to devote the rest of a television season to unravelling it. Under this internal logic, the series immediately slices up its geography into distinct dramatic spheres: the viewer is introduced to Arabella in Italy, saying goodbye to an ostensible boyfriend before she is transported back to her hometown of London. Here, by the time the episode mid-point is reached, she has returned to where Terry and flatmate Ben (Stephen Wight) are waiting. In this time, Arabella has received multiple phone calls from her agent probing for second book draft progress.
I May Destroy You wastes no time demonstrating its own narrative instability — geographically, professionally (on Arabella’s terms) and socially (on her friends’ — after Terry and Ben, viewers quickly meet an entirely different group on Arabella’s first night out back). The audience is already invited to look closer and ask questions despite not knowing where the drama is headed, or when exactly it is headed, if they do have prior knowledge of the subject matter. One assumes details about Arabella’s romantic relationship in Italy but might be confused by her mumbled aside during the exchange with Biagio (Marouane Zotti): “So… are we boyfriend and girlfriend?” The uncertainty is consolidated by his response to her attempts of ensuring a fixed line of contact: “When I’m ready to call you, I call.” In these early moments, I May Destroy You undermines its own scene setting responsibilities by reverse engineering and foreshadowing Arabella’s fractured post-traumatic experience. It introduces its viewer to a narrative situation defined by the exact impending instability they will soon pinpoint the source of.
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The situation is far from any calm pre-storm, far from any liberated sense of security before I May Destroy You’s dramatic pivot. Rather, injustices prevail on each level of the storytelling even as Coel lifts her curtain and the cast first decorate the stage. As it must, justice will come, but her drama begins by accentuating the distance from redemption, catharsis or closure, so is at this point best understood as a duplicate of her character’s work-in-progress. Arabella reassures her agent that there are “some minor revisions and then we’re ready to go,” but like the viewer, he can see through the lie — suspicion that is confirmed by the end of the first episode after her agent finally reads the draft. There is much work to be done and a lot of ground to cover here, but only 11 fleeting half-hour windows in which to do it.
The picaresque quality to the opening episode sees Arabella, just on the night out back in London, be stopped by a fan who quotes her book back to her (in full and unison, as its author joins in), pause on the streets of London to bump a line off a friend’s knuckle, briefly attend (and participate in) an open-mic night… all before arriving at the bar where the night takes its sinister turn. The series’ remainder is interspersed with Arabella’s frequent returns to this crime scene, so here in episode one it underlines that setting’s dramatic importance. Adopting a montage effect, I May Destroy You shows Cole’s protagonist drinking and dancing, before a harsh cut to the Morning After. Arabella types at her laptop before snapping back into reality and, like the viewer, wondering how she got here. Arabella sniffs her armpit — both confirmation that last night happened and resistance of full disclosure regarding how it ended. After she feels disoriented and unwell in the meeting with her agent, then out on the streets when it is cut short, the episode briefly reveals what actually happened thanks to her half-formed memory of it: locked in a cubicle in the bar, a man rapes Arabella as she regains enough consciousness required to realize what he is doing despite being unable to stop it.
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Another episode that is central to the way Coel’s series constructs trauma comes at its halfway point: episode six, “The Alliance.”The viewer is introduced to the character of Theodora (Harriet Webb), or “Theo” for short. Arabella comes across her support group for rape and sexual assault survivors on social media after seeing what old classmates are up to. Attending a session at the beginning of the episode, Arabella gathers evidence against Terry’s claim that “the poster girl for Childline can’t help anyone in trauma.” After a thoroughly productive experience, Arabella confesses “I wish I got to know you in school.” In response, Theo reassures her that “We’ll just start now.”
The scene ends, prompting an extended flashback similar to episode three’s jump back to Arabella’s time in Italy. This time, the flashback goes back further, to 2004 and the high school that she and Theo attended together. The timings of Coel’s writing’s temporal fracturing are perfect, daring to pull the rug from underneath her viewer after the comfortable rhythm of a consistent narrative tense. These two effective standalone episodes — three and six — slot perfectly into the series’ formal replication of Arabella’s experience of memory reconstruction. This offers a stage for reveals or necessary insights into backstory but only when Arabella’s mind goes to them itself.
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Thematically, I May Destroy You is unconditionally preoccupied by Arabella’s struggle, but it is as committed to it formally. The organization, space and weight of Coel’s writing is empathetic to the universality of Arabella’s struggle because its reconstruction imagines it both as subject and aesthetic. It is as much a conversation topic or story pivot as it is a platform for frenetic cinematography (see the depiction of Arabella’s drunk state in episodes one and 12) or on-screen layering and visual incongruity (see the proliferation of tweets and emojis during episode nine). The authentic capture of disorientation is only accentuated by the series’ autobiographical truth, drawing on when Coel herself was victim to sexual assault during the writing of previous series Chewing Gum, as she first discussed publicly in 2018 at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.
Concerning “The Alliance,” this authenticity and humanism see I May Destroy You shift perspective to fellow survivors. The viewer sees precisely what led to Theo’s need to run the support group — her difficult upbringing by a single mother and stepdad; her non-existent relationship with a father denied split custody after Theo was coerced into lying that he abused her, by her mother. The episode shows a confused child’s lack of education and support as she discovers her own sexual identity in a teenage minefield. Here, I May Destroy You touches on some of the uncomfortable realities of high school, particularly for girls, which the system is not doing enough to address. The most central involves Ryan (Josiah Mutupa), who betrays Theo’s trust when he shares illicit photos of her after the pair have sex in the school toilets in-between classes.
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Ryan’s deception provokes Theo’s own: she accuses him of rape. The episode flips the narrative on consensual sex, informing the primary storyline in the present tense while emphasizing the complexity of the issue via Theo’s individual past, the issue here manifesting as possible situational alternatives. There is no such ambiguity or unreliability in the facts of Arabella’s experience of consent, but the doubts, contradictions and uncertainties that the external world suffocates rape survivors with means that these occupy her headspace despite being unwelcome.
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The third and sixth episodes of I May Destroy You are beacons for the direction Coel’s series is headed after the groundwork of its first, but they still cannot prepare viewers for the finale. Episode 12 — “Ego Death” — serves as the series in miniature, dramatizing the experiments with time and structure thus far by imploding I May Destroy You’s entire claim of realism. The final episode goes full Groundhog Day (or Palm Springs), but the catch is that the characters do not know they are in a resetting loop. Coel supplies audiences with four versions of Arabella, Terry and Theo’s method of dealing with David (Lewis Reeves) after he is identified as her rapist at the end of episode 11. As a collection, the four vignettes point to justice’s multivalence, its status a destination difficult to isolate and far from straightforward to reach — one that is constantly distracted, complicated, exacerbated.
Firstly, the trio drug the criminal and accidentally murder him. It is a Coen brothers film of the crime gone wrong, leaving Arabella pummeling David’s unconscious body without realizing she is killing him until it is too late. She slings his corpse underneath her bed and everything resets. The finale then adopts an entirely different stance, a far cry from the rage and intent of the first and Arabella’s demand during it, that “I wanna see his penis; he saw my thing.” Instead, the operation this time runs completely smoothly, but once Arabella finds herself in the cubicle with David, he breaks down crying, full of remorse for what he has been doing to women on nights out (and what by extension he was planning to do to Arabella). She takes him back to her place, but not for sex: they sit on a made bed and talk it out, all while she buys time for the police to arrive and burst in, carrying out the arrest.
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Thirdly, Arabella subverts the loop model and initiates everything before David even can. She approaches him at the bar, buys the drinks, goes in for the kiss, suggests they go back to her place. The viewer even glimpses his friend lap dance on Terry rather than the reverse: an identical marker in the loop’s previous iterations except that he was the one seated. In this version, Arabella falls in love with David — naturally, this is wrong, so the pieces are swept from the board and rearranged for one final version of events. Scenario four, either the confirmation of what happened or the implication that this loop will go on ad infinitum, sees Arabella not even go to the bar in the first place. As in versions one to three, Ben the flatmate asks “What’s on the menu tonight then? Your bar watch thing?” Arabella changes her response from “Wanna come?” to something new: “I’m actually not going out. I’m just chilling.” I May Destroy You then fast forwards to Arabella’s book launch at East London’s Libreria Bookshop. If the series can be read as duplicating the process of turning work-in-progress into published book, then both are finally complete. The answer to the questions Coel and her protagonist have asked over 12 episodes — which can be summarized by a univocal one: how can you pick up your life after being sexually assaulted? — seems to be not seeking justice by wishing the same fate on someone else.
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On I May Destroy You’s terms, exacting revenge is not the solution. But even if the finale’s loop is broken by this epiphany, the series acknowledges that the problem does not then vanish forever. Arriving at this understanding, I May Destroy You’s 12-episode trajectory leads to wiping the slate clean and giving Arabella a second chance: book two is finished, on the shelves and stirring people’s interest, but it is only a matter of time before manuscript three is underway. It is only a matter of time before her pain resurfaces or she is dealt a new blow as a 21st century Black woman. Arabella and her creator Michaela Coel know this — just look at the environment that I May Destroy You was released into: a summer defined by mass protests and the vital escalation of Black Lives Matter. Not to disingenuously conflate the different issues of racial and gender inequality, but dealing with one wrongdoer or even a whole set of them only turns attention to another one or another set. Problems do not vanish forever, so I May Destroy You is about the constant fight. Repetition becomes revision. Paralysis becomes progress.
George Kowalik (@kowalik_george) is a PhD candidate/graduate teaching assistant at King’s College London, a short fiction writer and a freelance culture writer. He is also an assistant editor at Coastal Shelf. George’s recent and forthcoming publications include Avatar Review, Derailleur Press and Offscreen. In 2020, he was shortlisted for Ouen Press’ Short Story Competition.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 TV Essays, Drama, Featured, HBO Originals, Streaming Originals
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