tv review

I May Destroy You Confirms Michaela Coel’s Stunning Talent

Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) writes, co-directs, and stars in I May Destroy You as lushly hedonistic writer Arabella. Photo: HBO

In the spring of 2015, my life split in two. Trying to find the language to describe this splintering has taken a long time, and it’s taken even longer to heal. It was a night like any other, spending time with a friend in a dim, crowded bar that felt enough like a second home to get comfortable. Somewhere in the course of that night, my drink was drugged and a man I didn’t know came home with me. The night exists in my memory only in bright, hazy shards. I can remember the feeling of my words slurring in my mouth like sludge, my body no longer in my control. I can remember his hands on me. I can remember the sorrow and anger and guilt that rose to the surface the next morning as I tried to piece together what exactly happened. I will never find the memories of that evening wholesale, no matter how hard I try.

Watching Michaela Coel’s tremendously wrenching, comedically edged I May Destroy You, I couldn’t help but travel back to that night in 2015 and think of all the ways my life could be different if that never happened. The moment toward the end of the first episode when Arabella, Michaela Coel’s lushly hedonistic writer protagonist, loosely stumbles in a bar named Ego Death, I knew what happened. Her physicality makes legible what the plot reveals later: Her drink has been drugged, she’s been raped, and her road to recovery will be winding.

The new HBO series, debuting Sunday, has been described as a series about consent, but that feels too narrow a rendering for what I May Destroy You is doing — narratively, tonally, and visually. As Arabella tries to write her second book under the tutelage of pressing literary agents and investigates what happened to her the night her drink was spiked, the show goes down a multitude of avenues in order to explore not just the nature of consent but the dynamics of modern dating and desire itself. The show operates on multiple levels: as a love letter to the power of friendship, as an exploration of the slipperiness of memory and how it informs identity, and as a consideration of the writing life. Coel, who writes, stars in, and occasionally directs the series, once again proves her stunning talent as an artist in the wake of her sprightly British comedy Chewing Gum, about a young woman hell-bent on losing her virginity. I May Destroy You isn’t trying to teach audiences a lesson, but put them on a journey that challenges our assumptions. Each of the 12 30-minute episodes proves adept at wrenching hearts and evoking laughter in equal measure.

One of the most immediately striking things about I May Destroy You is its tone. The first episode almost has a hangout vibe as it charts the scope of Arabella’s life: her close friendships, her wry humor, her work as a writer, which includes a book that brought her internet fame, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. Then it turns on its axis with the single, brief moment of Arabella remembering a shard of her assault in a bathroom stall, a man looming above her with a sick grin. This play on tonality runs the course of the series — scenes that start out as sexy only to become harrowing, dark moments are edged by the comedic without losing sight of the rich dramatic stakes.

Memory provides fertile ground for I May Destroy You. It skitters, it illuminates, it darkens, it obscures. This is where the show shines — in depicting what it feels like when your mind is working against you in the wake of trauma and your body no longer feels like your own. Sometimes, a noise akin to a ringing in your ear strikes through a scene alongside bodies moving slowly in a way that gets at Arabella’s experience of moving through a world that no longer fully makes sense.

Perhaps the show’s greatest strength beyond its precise handling of its various tonalities is how it charts the dynamic between Arabella and her two best friends, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), an aerobics instructor perpetually on Grindr, and Terry (Weruche Opia), an exuberant actress who retains a sincere sensibility. Each character opens up new avenues for the series to explore questions of consent and desire, sometimes to a heartbreaking degree. Both Essiedu and Opia shade their characters with longing and vulnerable introspection alongside the more raucous qualities that make them compatible friends for the sometimes-frantic Arabella.

But the show stands, ultimately, on the strength of Coel’s work as a writer, director, and performer. The direction is lucid, employing a camera that is both curious and kind. The writing is striking for its willingness to delve into uncomfortable territory without ever flinching from the emotional bramble at hand. But what I keep coming back to when I think of I May Destroy You is Coel’s performance. She’s wild, charismatic, yearning, and able to shift emotional states on a dime. During scenes in which she’s dealing with the fallout from trying to tell her Italy-based situationship about what happened to her (which he responds to by blaming her for her own rape), or when she’s in group therapy, I was taken aback by the clarity of her emotion, the way a small shift in her manner or faraway glance could reveal the fraught emotional reality of Arabella’s situation.

Watching Coel’s performance, I could see the physical and verbal language of my own trauma reflected back at me with lightning-bright precision. Often, trying to find accurate language to encompass the totality of rape feels impossible. How can you make sense of the physical remembrances that reverberate back to that night? How can you grapple with the flurry of emotions that slip from your hands the moment you try to grab hold of them? How can you fully evoke the churn of sorrow and anger and feeling like a stranger in your own skin? I May Destroy You provides the answer. It is through Coel’s tremendous performance that the wrenching complications of healing from sexual trauma are seen clearly in the light of day, with an honesty and complexity other series could learn from.

If you are in crisis, please call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE for free, anonymous support and resources.

I May Destroy You Confirms Michaela Coel’s Stunning Talent