How Michaela Coel Wrote I May Destroy You’s Dreamlike Ending

Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

The original working title for I May Destroy You was January 22. Michaela Coel eventually scrapped it, in part, because she felt it would invite too many questions about how her own experience with sexual assault informed the series. (That was the date when she was drugged and assaulted while working on her previous show, Chewing Gum.) Still, the title eventually makes its way into the show in the finale as the title of her character Arabella’s long-gestating book. A nod to the reality of fiction. (Another title possibility was This Story is Not Based on True Events.) The beauty of the ending is in how it contains shards of reality, but expands them into strange, surprising shapes, like blowing hot glass.

The finale picks up right where the penultimate episode leaves off: Arabella and Terry (Weruche Opia) are at the bar, Ego Death, and Arabella sees her assailant, David, back at the scene of the crime. A cliffhanger. After all this time, all this waiting, what does she do? The finale answers that question again and again and again, in various scenarios that grow more surreal and challenging with each iteration. The first scene is pure revenge fantasy: three women doling out justice like vigilante crime fighters. The second is another twist: David has a breakdown in the bathroom stall. He becomes more metaphorical, a manifestation of her trauma rather than a real person. The third detaches further from reality; Arabella buys him a drink, and they make love, with her penetrating him in her bed. In the final beat, Arabella decides not to return to the bar. She chooses, instead, to spend time with her friend and housemate Ben.

During the first of seven interviews I did with Coel about I May Destroy You in May, she wanted to know whether I had watched the finale. (I had only watched six episodes at that point.) We couldn’t really talk about the show yet, she said, because the entire thing had to be seen in the aggregate — all of the journey, its pitfalls, joys, and tribulations. She wanted the viewer to feel how she felt when she finished writing the piece, and in some ways, how she had brought peace to her own life. “I, Michaela, have had to let it go,” she said. “I had to let it go, and realize that I was still alive if I let it go, and the trauma did not need to define me. I could let go of the trauma and I would still be here.”

Okay, so let’s talk about the ending! How did you start writing it?
I was in Michigan, and I remember writing the final episode, and I had an ending. I had told the couple that lived in the big house that I was writing a story on sexual assault. I was thinking about these scenarios where I could get justice, and I would put them forward to Sally [McCaughan, who owns the property] when I saw her. “Sally, how about this? Here’s a way where no one has to die but there’s still justice.” And I would see her reaction. I realized what I thought was much more interesting was exploring every single one of these scenarios.

I mean, I had so many versions. In my original version, Arabella and David sat on a park bench about to communicate. I have versions where her and Terry and Theo carry his dead body into a dumpster and burn the dumpster [laughs], and there’s a big bonfire, and Arabella’s at the bonfire, and Terry’s like, “You’re a murderer! Get away!” And then I realized that Arabella has to live with the murder … so then she just lives as a murderer? This feels stressful! [Laughs.]

I had another version where she drugs him and took him home and was trying to wake him up and then — while he was under this drug — convinced him to go to the police station and admit to the rape. So then she calls the police up and says, “He’s on the way! I’ve got him in an Uber!” Then I was imagining the police officer receiving this call, thinking, Arabella’s crazy! Arabella really went to some measures for justice, maybe at the cost of her sanity. It’s quite a lot, isn’t it, to take him home? It’s crazy. Then I went from “Oh my God, now that I understand this whole feeling of, like, forgiveness and love, let me love David! I’m going to have sex with David!” It still seems crazy, doesn’t it?

David is the rapist of Arabella, and she makes love to him.

But his name is sometimes Patrick?
Yes, it’s sometimes Patrick [laughs]. The first name she gets in episode one is David, and he gives her a fake name sometimes where he’s Patrick. It’s a lie. Yes, his name is David, so let’s go with David. This caused contention in the drafting and the postproduction process. I was like, “Guys, what do we do with the name? I’m panicking.” So then we find a reason to justify why it’s David but sometimes he’s called Patrick and sometimes he’s called David — but, really, he’s David.

Then Phil Clarke, who’s my co-executive, one day — it must have been quite late into the drafting process — said, “What about if Arabella just doesn’t go back to Ego Death?” And I was like, “Wait, oh my God. Yeah. She just lets it go.” And it felt like … that was the moment I also let go. I got emotional. I began to cry. I’m getting emotional talking about it, because it was like, “Oh my God. She’s done it all. She’s gone through all the different things, holding on to it in whatever way you’re trying to hold on to it.”

So this idea of just freezing in the garden … and the garden was actually very much based on a real moment I had with the real Ben, whose name is Ashe, who was my housemate for like four and a half years. We were out in the garden one day and he’s from somewhere outside of the city, so trees and plants are always on his mind. You know, he talks about birds, and I remember being like, “God, that is a loud bird! Where’s it?” And that moment, we probably spent over an hour trying to figure out which tree in the distance this bird might be sitting on. You’re in the present. This felt like peace, and I think it’s a moment of peace for Arabella as well when she decides to stop looking back.

Did you run through every single scenario in life too?
No … my dream scenario was “the police find him and everything is a match and he goes to prison.” That would have been so cool. And then that didn’t happen. So the scenarios weren’t from my reality. Another thing I was curious to do, especially with the first scenario — I think there is this thing that almost permeates through the way we tell stories about people that do terrible things to other people, which is “And now the tables are turned, and now we avenge and arise the blah blah blah!” And I don’t know what that does to the well-being of the watcher, the person experiencing it. Because we’re all going through something in our lives, and having this version where it’s all about flipping the tables — all we are doing is becoming the thing we hate. I don’t know if it serves us. I don’t know if it serves the individual to ride on the horse of comeuppance and It’s my turn, and now you are going to be finished and lying in the dust. Sometimes I watch things, and by the end, I’m like, You’ve left me feeling tangled up and anxious and hopeless. And I think our well-being is important, so as I’m telling this story, I’m thinking about how I leave the audience. Do I leave you terrified? Do I leave you outraged? Do I leave you a mess? Or do I leave you feeling this thing that, for some reason, isn’t bad? You didn’t have a bad feeling when you finished it, didn’t you?

Even though bad things happen.

It’s interesting because the first scenario is a revenge fantasy we’re familiar with. Even the outfit, the wig, it really feeds into the fantasy.

But there is this unease through Terry, where you sense that this is not the way it should be going, where it’s going to a dark place where she is becoming the thing that she hates.
Yes, which also does happen. She slowly works her way toward being that kind of person, doesn’t she? It probably begins around episode seven, when she locks Kwame in the room. There are these offshoots and possibilities of the kind of person Arabella may become. She has no regard or real empathy for him. She’s self-centered; she is the only victim in the world. Then she talks about Bob in episode eight. She talks about violation, crossing the line. And what does she do? She breaks into Biagio’s house, unannounced, to make her way into his life. So she’s slowly going on a train that easily ends up finding no problem with accidentally murdering and drugging the man that attacked you because he hurt you. And then she has to decide what kind of person she wants to be. And yes, Terry in that scenario is a way that we could observe what Arabella’s doing so we can get lost in the revenge. Finally we found him, and there is the “Oh, this is amazing, go go go,” or there is “Hey, you have a man on the streets, and you’re undoing his trousers, picking up his penis. What are you doing?”

And then the second scenario …
What is that again? What is the second scenario? Oh yeah! [Laughs.]

David has a breakdown.
Yes, yes.

What was the goal there?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? This also speaks to that thing she says in episode four in therapy, where she says, “Oh, there’s a war in Syria. Children are dying and everyone has a smartphone.” There will always be this version where “Well, you don’t know how it feels for David. Let’s have a look and platform his story in all of this, and let’s see what happens if, human to human, David and Arabella can have a moment where they aren’t playing ‘bad rapist guy and hurt victim,’ and let’s see what happens if they catch themselves by surprise and something else happens.”

This is actually how this scenario came about. I was writing in this café called Guava, near where I used to live, and I went outside to take a break with my earphones. I love music, so on my break I’m standing outside and kind of swaying a bit on the street. And a guy walked by with a beanbag in his hand and said, “You’re dancing on the street?” And I said, “Oh, yes.” He said, “London’s crazy.” It turned out he had just gotten out of prison. And I was like, “Oh, wow! Okay, cool.” He said, “Yeah, they moved me to this area. I’ve never lived here.” I was like, “Well, I live here! Here’s my number if you want to hang out!” [Laughs.] He called me and I was with my friends at my house, and I said, “Yeah, I’m with my friends right now. You want to come over and say hi?” So he came over, and my friends were actually reading my scripts. So we were reading my scripts, and this guy came over, and he didn’t know how to behave. He said a lot of the things that David said. He said, “People don’t normally let me into their homes. This is all a bit weird for me. This is like God for me.” And I remember thinking, This is fucking amazing but also quite weird. And my friends got quite worried, so I said, “I think you have to go now,” and he said, “Why?” “Because my friends are quite worried.” “Oh, yeah. I can tell. I could tell you’re really, really worried.” And I said, “Yeah, it’s because I’ve been sexually assaulted before, so I think they’re just quite protective of me.” And he said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry. I’ve been shot three times!” And he was showing me his wounds, and I was like, “Oh my God! That’s awful!” And he was like, “You’re crazy!” I go, “You’re crazy too!” And he goes, “You’re a bit androgynous!” And I was like, “Am I?” And he goes, “Yeah, you are a bit androgynous!” He just kept saying that. And then he left. And then he came the next day and left me a T-shirt and some apples. I never saw him again! That’s it! Jamie. James Sheeran. Irish. So that! I think that did something [laughs].

And then scenario three?
I guess we’ve led into that even by me saying that bit about Jamie saying I’m androgynous. Obviously, it’s very clear that David is becoming not so much a person but more an idea, a memory. It’s a mental trauma in her head, and she’s almost devouring it to master it. She devours it because it’s a part of her.

So you wanted to flip gender roles?
Yes, because for some reason, I wanted Arabella to penetrate David. I just really wanted that [laughs]. And Lewis [Reeves], who plays David, was really excited about that. He was like, “Yeah, okay!” Why did I want to do that? I don’t think it’s about flipping the gender roles. It’s about dissolving the gender roles, about removing the separation that creates the gender roles and connecting the genders. Did you see the thing on the toilet?

I did. The connected bathroom signs. 
At the same time, to dare to engage with your nightmare on such an intimate level is disturbing. This is all in the mind, of course. I’m not saying “Do this in your own life.” But that is, for me, the only way I was able to work my way through, to dare to find the link. And that’s what she does so that she can understand it and temper it.

Find the link to what?
David is a nightmare for Arabella. I’m not talking about other people’s stories, but for Arabella, she has to find the link to her trauma of David instead of constantly drawing up a barrier and running away from it. Because then it’s almost like everybody becomes painted with a brush, and the more she runs from David, the nightmare, the bigger the monster becomes. The more we avoid it, the more we go “Ugh,” the more grotesque it becomes. I wonder if it’s something to do with empathy in there because it empowers her. It empowers Arabella to dare to empathize with David. It’s empowering, and it gives her power.

Can you tell me more about this idea of radical empathy with someone who has violated you?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? It’s really hard. This area feels very delicate. For me, this is the thing that needs a trigger warning, empathy, because it’s uncomfortable. I think it’s a really uncomfortable arena. I spent a lot of my life asking, pleading, hoping for empathy. I am aware of this phrase “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself,” and yet these two things don’t always connect. I’m saying “Empathize with me.” I’m saying “How would you like it if you felt like this and put your feet in my shoes?” If I am pleading for people to do this for me, then it only feels fitting for me to try to do the same thing, to know what that might be like, the act of putting your feet in somebody else’s shoes. I think this is radical empathy, isn’t it? It’s so hard to be understood, so it’s good to practice, for me, the art of trying to understand things outside of myself, to constantly try and understand. And for me, daring to empathize, daring to help other people as well as being helped, it makes me feel better. Arabella buys David a drink. She’s helping, and it makes her feel better. I’m not saying “Go and buy a local rapist a beer.” It’s metaphorical [laughs]. Radical empathy feels sadly taboo, which is odd, isn’t it?

Yeah. I think you’re right that this needs a trigger warning.
Yes! [Laughs.] I hope for a time where this isn’t taboo, and our social media and our algorithms and our YouTubes … [explosion sound effect]. I can’t even think about it anymore, because for me it feels like it’s very hard to engage with the mess that social media and the algorithms have made. I don’t know what it’s going to take to get us to a healthier place mentally. But in my mind, you know, I’ve made this show, and I expect it to not resonate with everyone because radical empathy is very taboo.

But I think what you’re saying too is …
I’ve changed my mind. I do want it to resonate with everybody!

I feel like it becomes about power, because am I understanding that what you’re saying is that it’s actually about self-empowerment?
Yes. Yes. It will do you good. It’s about sleeping better at night. What else can I really say? And when you have a good night’s sleep, you’re also more effective as a human being. You’re more effective in finding ways to help do right in the world, to help be of use in the world.

How did you get there?
I remember writing in my agent’s home (lovely, lovely favor), and when I was reading the scripts, something clicked somewhere in this process. I was looking at all of these characters and realizing that they were quite predictable, so I was able to predict how these little humans, in this world that I created, were dealing with their traumas. And it’s almost like clicking again for me, and when I realized that there was a game, for me, I realized there was a way I could win it and go into the next phase. It’s something to do with growth, and it’s definitely something to do with allowing each of these characters to let go. Kwame has to let go of caring about what people think of him, of feeling like he is a person that should be punished, and that his pleasure is punishment, and that he’s not a nice person. It doesn’t matter that Nilufer thinks that he is basically a rapist; he has to let it go. He has to let it go. All these people have to let things go, but there is a way of viewing that which is deeply offensive.

But I, Michaela, have had to let it go. I’ve had to let it go. I had to let it go and realize that I was still alive if I let it go, and the trauma did not need to define me. I could let go of the trauma, and I would still be here. The trauma — it pulsates, and it’s everywhere, and I’m not trying to dictate anybody’s lives, but speaking for Arabella, the trauma becomes the thing that feeds her, and sometimes the idea of her and me letting it go is scary simply because you don’t know what life is without it. And so it’s like jumping off a cliff. But you know what that was also like for me? It was like deleting my Instagram. That’s like jumping off a cliff and then — still here. Whoa. Here I am [laughs]. Cool! Wow. But it’s a huge deal. I know it’s a huge thing. But for me, I found that other things couldn’t come in because it was blocking my pain, my trauma, my inability to sit with it and let it be, and let it live, let it be in peace. Maybe it’s not about letting it go; it’s just allowing your trauma to sit there. It’s scary to let go of. It’s very hard to convince anybody to jump off a cliff, isn’t it?

How Michaela Coel Wrote I May Destroy You’s Dreamlike Ending