close reads

Let’s Talk About That I May Destroy You Ending

Another night at Ego Death Bar. Or is it? Photo: HBO

“Ego Death,” the final episode of I May Destroy You, cements the genius of Michaela Coel with its nimble handling of a subject of considerable magnitude, both cultural and emotional. Within the folds of this single season of television is one of the most profound considerations of not only the stories we tell about sexual assault, but the stories we tell ourselves — and others — in order to process trauma, to move through it, if not necessarily beyond it. Undergirding the finale’s neon-lit escapades is a series of questions that don’t have easy answers: Is closure a reality, or is it a lie that life can abide by neat narratives? Are we bound forever to our traumas, or is it possible to heal from them? And, if we can, how do we make that a reality?

In the finale, Arabella is confronted by the memories of the night she was drugged and raped — memories that have been out of her grasp throughout the show, save for one lucid image of her attacker, David, looming over her in a bathroom stall. After hanging around the titular bar for nights on end, Arabella finally sees her attacker at the bar with his friend and is overcome by a rush of memories, seemingly jarred loose by her epiphany about her book in the penultimate episode. What follows, though, isn’t a simple narrative of vengeance and closure, but something far more ambitious and trickier to parse.

“Ego Death” comprises three fantasies and a coda, each fantasy echoing the others and pushing the show further into uncomfortable territory, questioning what it means to find closure. Of course, Coel, who not only stars in the series but wrote and co-directed each episode, doesn’t tip her hand immediately to let us know that what we’re watching isn’t strictly reality. Instead, she allows the viewers to sit with the violence they witness long enough to understand its grooves and reverberations.

After the initial rush of remembrance, Arabella and Terry rush into Ego Death’s bathroom, where Arabella reveals she has a plan. Rummaging through her bag, Arabella dons an inky black vinyl dress and a snow white wig (the costume design by Lynsey Moore deserves so much praise for its precision in echoing the personas these characters sometimes try on). She completes the team by making a call, roping in former high-school peer/current group-therapy head, Theo. The three women, clad in black like avenging angels, watch David as he hovers around the bar. Arabella approaches, hesitant at first, anxiety written across her face and visible in the tight movement of her body. She even stumbles over her words, asking for a “gin and orange” before she corrects and says “gin and tonic” (a detail echoed in the third fantasy). She’s meant to garner David’s attention in order for Theo to see where he has the drugs he uses to roofie women and swipe it from him so he can understand the horror he has put others through. Meanwhile, Terry distracts David’s friend Tariq, allowing the plan to go smoothly — which it does, at first.

While Theo mixes the drugs with toilet water (gross) and fills a syringe, Arabella pretends to be drugged — despite finding comical ways to not drink the spiked gin and tonic — and David trails behind her, pretending to be gallant and caring. Then David drags Arabella into the restroom, her body like putty in his hands. He takes off her underwear, but before he can do anything more she looks at him with pointed recognition, freezing him in place. “The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, but who’s the criminal? You or me?” she says, just before Theo stabs him with the syringe. “Hello, David,” Arabella says solemnly before harshly kissing him.

The celebratory adrenaline rush shared by Theo, Terry, and Arabella is cut short when our prickly lead mentions that David has her underwear, which could be evidence. So the women follow him, meandering the London streets until he finally staggers, looks Arabella in the eye, and crumbles to the ground. Theo finds Arabella’s underwear, which should be the end of the story. But when has Arabella ever been a dame to play it simply? She declares that she wants to see his penis, and just as she’s taking a look, he regains consciousness. Theo and Arabella react instinctively as Terry watches on, Theo strangling David with the underwear while Arabella pounds him with her fists until his face is bloody and raw. She eventually drags him into her home and hides him in the place where she dares not look, both literally and symbolically: under her bed. But his blood continues to seep outward even as Arabella adds more notecards to her book outline, establishing the meta quality of this sequence — Arabella is writing what we’re witnessing.

This first fantasy creates resolution at the pitch of vengeance. It’s the kind of ending to a consent story we have been trained to want, in which those harmed adopt violence to find an answer that the usual roads to justice don’t allow. But is it satisfying? On one level, it can feel satisfying for life to exist in such neat binaries: victim/rapist, avenger/target. But if I May Destroy You has demonstrated anything in its efforts to eke out nuance from every scenario, it’s that life doesn’t work so neatly. If anything, such boundaries dissipate the moment you try to grab hold of them, the show pointedly argues.

The first fantasy establishes the visual, sonic, and narrative rhythms that the rest of the episode follows: the use of neon-soaked lighting, the thrum of engrossing, sometimes even overbearing music, the idea that we wear masks on our road to recovery. And the second fantasy begins much like the first: After Arabella sees David across the bar and is flooded with a rush of memories, she stumbles with Terry into the bathroom, where they discuss what to do. But this time, Arabella doesn’t have a plan, leading Terry to wonder aloud why she was coming to the bar every night if she didn’t know what she wanted to do about things. “Because I’m deranged, Terry. That’s never up for discussion. Why am I here? Because I’m fixated on the past, not a future in which I’m reunited with my raper,” Arabella ecstatically says. There’s something about her use of the word raper instead of rapist that pointedly makes the word feel like an action rather than identity, something continuously in the present tense.

This time it’s Terry who has a plan, which involves Arabella snorting her weight in cocaine to stay awake — although, like Arabella, I’m not sure about the efficacy of this part of the plan. High as Hera, Arabella enthusiastically dances to “Firestarter” by Prodigy as she approaches David. At one point, dancing beside her is her past self from the night she was drugged, identifiable by her pink wig. David is intrigued, of course. She pretends not to notice when he puts something in her gin and tonic, which Arabella drinks, the cocaine presumably offsetting the drug’s effects as David guides her into the men’s bathroom.

There’s an intriguing filmmaking choice before they get to the bathroom — a closeup of David staring at the camera as if he’s looking at Arabella, echoing the material effect of the memory Arabella nursed of him looming over her. As he takes down her pants and his own, she turns around with an incongruous lucidity, letting the mask slip: “Hello, David. You put something in my drink.” David’s violence erupts. He pushes Arabella against the wall, calling her a whore and undermining her experience because there are “wars in Iraq” and homeless people struggling. How much does her pain matter in the face of such atrocities? The question hangs in the air between them, evoking similar language Arabella used earlier in the series when minimizing her own assault to her therapist.

Just as David seems to be revealing himself as a simple predator (if such a thing exists), the scene turns. “That’s what you are,” David says, staring into Arabella intently, “a dumb, stupid, little whore, David. Don’t you tell anyone, David.” His anger gives way to a teary apology. When the police (who Terry called earlier) rush into the bathroom, Arabella and David are already gone. She brings him back to her bedroom, extending him grace as he discusses the therapy he had in prison for a multitude of different kinds of rape. “Date rape. Spousal rape. Prison rape. Rape by deception. Corrective rape,” he prattles on in a darkly comic fashion. He doesn’t understand why she’s not scared. More importantly, he doesn’t know who to be now that she isn’t.

This fantasy parrots another common narrative in conversations of assault, in which revealing that the perpetrator is also a victim provides an answer as to why the violence happened in the first place. It draws a line from trauma endured to trauma enacted, suggesting that David himself has dealt with sexual violence, which is why he uses it now as a tool to move through the world and hurt others. But while that may be an answer to why this happened to Arabella, it doesn’t feel all that satisfying. If anything, it feels a little too neat, even insulting — an easy ploy for nuance that helps David shirk accountability merely he has traumas of his own. The police eventually break into Arabella’s apartment and drag David away, and she once again jots down notes on scraps of paper she pastes to her wall. But, again, we’re left to wonder: Does entering David into a carceral state heal Arabella, or does it just perpetuate more harm?

The fantasies up until this point have been about Arabella reclaiming the power and control she lost in the premiere — first by killing David, then by extending him kindness. But the third fantasy feels like the most audacious, for its acts of reclamation are emotional and sexual, revelatory and complex. The third fantasy brushes past the particulars of the setup of the preceding versions. Arabella is confronted by her memories, which echo sonically but aren’t shown visually. Then we see her and Terry in the bathroom. As Terry wonders aloud about her Italian threesome and considers joining Theo’s group, a woman brushes past Arabella. So Arabella opens the doors to the stalls. In the first is the woman she met at the hospital after her rape kit was taken — she’s in a hospital gown and bleeding from her groin. In the second stall, Arabella sees the childhood versions of herself, Terry, and Theo from episode six. Each image behind these doors speaks to the complexity of consent, the way the past folds into the present, and how trauma exists as a closed loop (which is particularly reflective of Theo’s story line in the midseason flashback to 2004). When Terry and Arabella leave the bathroom, Ego Death is empty. Sunlight streams in. There’s something uncanny and unsettling about a club in broad daylight. Terry walks up to Tariq and stares at him intently. Arabella approaches David, who is flummoxed when she asks him what drink he wants. Like Arabella did in the first fantasy, he trips over his words, asking for a gin and orange before correcting himself.

Arabella isn’t interested in banal pleasantries. She puts down her drink and grazes her eyes over David before whispering something in his ear. He follows her into the bathroom, past Tariq, who dances awkwardly for Terry. Inside the bathroom stall, Arabella and David make out intensely, melting to the floor before we cut to them naked on her bed, decked in cherry light. There is a striking intimacy to their sex scene, which reaches its apex when she penetrates David, topping him, until they’re both ravaged by ecstasy. When she wakes up in the cold light of day, he’s still there. He’s considerate and kind toward her, saying he’ll only leave when she wants him to. “Go,” she says calmly. David gets up, completely naked, and walks out of the apartment. Following behind him is the bloodied version of David we saw in the first fantasy scenario. In his hand as he leaves is the bag from under her bed that holds mementos of past traumas, including the ultrasound from Arabella’s abortion.

This third scenario is fascinating for what it says about reclaiming power, but I hesitate to extend so much grace to a predator. In many ways, the last two scenarios — each of which play with our expectations of what a predator looks like — create the same discomfort I felt about how the Zain story line wrapped up in the penultimate episode. In “Would You Like to Know the Sex?,” Arabella believes a writer named Della is a kindred spirit and tries to make contact with them, only to discover that Della is actually Zain. Instead of meeting him with outright anger, although there’s definitely some there, she allows him to help her finish her book. She even lets him into her bedroom, despite the fact that the last time they were there he took off his condom, leading her to publicly denounce him as a rapist. The Zain story line feels like a ploy toward nuance at the expense of emotional realism. The problem isn’t that I don’t believe Arabella would do something like that with Zain after her experience and public outcry. (Although, I truly don’t.) The problem is that the expectation of extending grace is always placed on those who have experienced harm, not the ones who mete it out.

The revelatory yet deeply uncomfortable nature of the third fantasy underlines how dedicated Michaela Coel is to the ideal of radical empathy. If trauma is a closed loop, fantasy is a field of endless potential. Coel never highlights what, if any, of what we watch in the finale is reality, but there’s something to be said about the patterns these reveries share — namely how each of them ends within the confines of Arabella’s bedroom, near the outline of her next book on her wall. This decision visually highlights the thematic pull of the possibility of closure and healing.

After these distinct fantasies comes a final coda that I want to believe shows Arabella’s true reality. Time passes, as seen by the shifting plants on the back patio. The entire group of extended friends watches Terry’s commercial. Arabella attends a reading of her book (which is dedicated to Terry), titled January 22nd. The book’s cover reflects a merging of the drawing her therapist did in the earlier episodes about the line between her various selves and what exists under her bed, suggesting the Arabella we are witnessing is far more integrated, far more whole. When she opens her mouth to read, it cuts to her exhaling on the Italian beach, rocking grills and a purple wig. She runs ecstatically along the shore — a final moment of peace that comes not when she confronts her rapist, but when she opens her mouth to tell her story.

Closure is often a fantasy within itself, this idea that with the right amount of therapy and hard work we can put our traumas behind us. That there is some point on the horizon that marks when we are no longer bound by the traumas of our lives. But life is never that neat, never hews that closely to the narratives we wish it would. The finale of I May Destroy You doesn’t offer sanitized closure so much as an evolution of the self that involves radical empathy for ourselves and others. This nimble use of fantasy underscores I May Destroy You’s greatest argument — that creation is the antidote and antithesis to trauma’s destruction of the self.

Let’s Talk About That I May Destroy You Ending