Michaela the Destroyer

How a young talent from East London went from open-mic nights to making the most sublimely unsettling show of the year.

Photo: Ruth Ossai for New York Magazine
Photo: Ruth Ossai for New York Magazine
Photo: Ruth Ossai for New York Magazine

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

Michaela Coel is not a Christian anymore, but the spirit has never left her. The Bible is the reason she started writing. Her first poem, “Beautiful,” was inspired by Psalm 139, and it’s still as clear as crystal. “I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” she recites. When she writes, she gets the same feeling she did one Sunday when she was 18 years old and her hand shot into the air during the altar call. She ran to the pulpit, tears streaming down her face, ready to accept Jesus Christ as her personal lord and savior. She cries and cries and cries as she writes because it all feels so big — the pain, the ecstasy — and whether you call that thing God or the cosmos or simply inspiration she isn’t sure, but she knows it is holy and precious. “I can’t name what that is, because I’m never going to know,” she says. “I open myself up as a vessel for the story to come through.”

She writes until there is no time left to write. “I go up into a mountain, and I come back with 12 containers of vomit and these are the episodes,” she says. “My team acts as if it’s a great takeaway, like, ‘Wow, this food is really interesting! What are these aromas? What’s here?’ ” She takes notes and retreats to another secluded area — often the vacant pied-à-terre of a wealthy benefactor — where she’ll write and cry and expel her guts again. She wrote 191 drafts of I May Destroy You, her sprawling, 12-episode HBO-BBC series that fictionalizes the story of her sexual assault. There is no writers’ room; she is her own fuel and engine. As she imagines her onscreen character, Arabella, she considers her own life and the lives of others. She has revelations. She calls exes who have wronged her; she tells them that whatever happened between them was an inevitable collision, like two intersecting comets, and she releases them. She realizes she’s still holding on to the hurt of her father’s absence during her childhood, and she releases herself.

I May Destroy You feels possible only because now, at the age of 32, Coel is in full creative control as its showrunner, director, star, and writer. She broke into TV at 28 with the first season of her fourth-wall-busting, BAFTA-award–winning comedy Chewing Gum, about a girl desperate to lose her virginity. While pulling an all-nighter drafting its second season in 2016, she took a break to meet up with a friend at a bar; Coel’s drink was spiked, and she was sexually assaulted by two men. She found herself returning to consciousness at the Fremantle Media production office, where she’d been working, her phone smashed, and finished the episode in what she would later learn was a drug-induced fugue state. Over the next 24 hours, she slowly began to piece together that the image of a man in her head with a pink shirt and flaring nostrils wasn’t something plucked from the ether but a memory of the night before. I May Destroy You is the culmination of her attempt to make sense of the senseless — an epic journey of autofiction that manages to somehow be both of the moment and beyond it.

Watching it is like entering a pool of Coel’s consciousness. Her performance as Arabella, a Twitter-famous writer who is on deadline to finish a draft, feels like truth telling, though the truth of the thing is not in “what happened” but in how it feels. There’s an expansive, long-limbed, genre-casual energy held together by Coel’s performance. The way her face flickers from placidity to horror and levity to devastation reflects the mercurial nature of trauma itself. Even though the show has been marketed as a “consent drama,” the label feels insufficient, maybe a touch misleading, because she is less concerned with political correctness or the failures of the criminal-justice system than with the psychology of the self: How do you become whole again after trauma breaks you open?

In the pilot, like Coel, Arabella comes to after her assault, while working on her manuscript. Coel felt it was important to imagine what she would have written, even if the viewer never sees it. She recites aloud from the passage:

We became the generation interested in ourselves. We have no problem with self-involvement. They call us vain; we say we must have got it somewhere, so technically we’re blameless, so we’re monstrous and shameless, look at us while we’re talking to you. We are the generation that decided we should be looked at. No more to documentaries of undiscovered worlds, of undercover investigations, of unreported people. We are the generation that decided, if you won’t look at us, we’ll look at ourselves.

“The show is calling for introspection,” explains Coel, sitting in her East London home in a well-worn T-shirt. Even from thousands of miles away, speaking with her can feel unusually intimate, like you are enclosed inside a white cube on an alternate plane. “We know how to look out,” she continues, referring to a culture that often encourages us to point fingers and cast aspersions. “We’ve been doing that. Don’t forget: Also look in.”

Photo: Ruth Ossai for New York Magazine

Coel recently bought an apartment, the first she has ever owned. She moved in June and hasn’t had time to fully unpack or decorate, but she gives me a tour through the three-bedroom home, first pointing out the mattress on the floor in her office where she’s been sleeping (and video-chatting). Thoughtful touches permeate the space: floors made of recycled rubber, built-in closets of curved blond wood manufactured by a woodworker who keeps waste to a minimum, exposed-plaster walls and concrete ceilings, incense sticks in the bathroom for “when you poo.” (Coel once wrote a blog post about people who talk about poop and those who don’t; she is firmly in the former camp.) She takes me outside to the balcony to see where a church spire crests overhead. She loves it. “It feels like a wink to my life,” she says, laughing.

Perhaps it’s too convenient a metaphor, but Coel grew up on a boundary. She lived in a public-housing complex in Aldgate, built in 1977 on the edge of both Tower Hamlets, a multiethnic, working-class neighborhood stocked with supermarkets and wholesale shops selling fabric and grain, and the City of London, home of the stock exchange, the banks, and the rich. Her parents, Ghanaian immigrants, separated before she was born, so Coel lived with her mother and older sister, Jasmine. They were one of a handful of Black families in the building. It wasn’t until secondary school that she met other Black kids her age — children of the African and Caribbean diaspora, mainly from Ghana and Nigeria.

She had found her crew; they weren’t popular but not outcasts, either. “They were the people who were not cool enough to love or hate,” she says. “We were just there having fun, making up songs, being stupid.” That was also when she and a generation of other young girls began to wield the fearsome power of the internet. Making web pages was the thing then, and while most of her classmates started anonymous ones, there was no mistaking that Coel’s belonged to her. “There was a lot of like, ‘So what? I don’t have name-brand trainers. So what? I know my lips are big,’ ” she says. “I was cussing myself out to make people laugh.”

When she was 18, she joined a dance group that she eventually learned was part of a Pentecostal church. She became a convert to the faith, which demands a full mind-to-body-to-soul commitment. Coel dropped out of the University of Birmingham, where she was studying political science, to devote herself more fully to the Good Word. Religion coincided with her first spoken-word poetry, inspired by the love of Jesus Christ: “I’m God’s image in fact / I’m His next top model / I strut the runway of His light with style / His Love, my faith, my strength, His might.” She began performing at clubs and cafés around London, where she met the playwright Ché Walker, who hosted a weekly cabaret. He was struck by the wisdom and clarity that came through in her work at such a young age. “There was a tremendous self-belief,” Walker says. “She was very watchful, like she was seeing all the things you don’t want anyone else to see.” He encouraged Coel to take acting classes, and she soon quit university for a second time to study at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

When Coel entered the school in fall 2009, acting began to replace the church as her primary calling. She kept writing, too, starting a (now private) WordPress blog called Michaela the Poet with a running series of posts known as the “Drama School Diaries,” or the DSD, that had everything you would expect from an aughts blog: personal accounts mixed with reviews of a Janelle Monáe concert, promotions for upcoming gigs, and stray bits of poetry and fiction. The DSD ultimately had 41 installments, each with its own narrative arc. Once again, she wrote, she found herself the “only black girl in the village” (the first Guildhall had accepted in five years). Still, she loved everyone and thought everyone was lovely. She played Eve in the Creation story in her first year and wrestled to contort her tongue into the sounds of Middle English. She absolutely adored Shakespeare and would do him 24/7. She was less enamored with the other stuff: the Restoration comedies and stuffy period dramas.

Her first year ended with a series of critiques of her performance in Chekhov’s The Seagull. She was learning to take feedback, but one teacher told her she was “angry and aggressive” both onstage and off. Coel listened and held back tears; she’d never heard this before. She replied that when she took classes at Black theater companies, she was always praised for her positive energy. The professor theorized the anger must be a “survival” mechanism. Coel wrote about the experience on her blog, which became increasingly controversial among the students. Some of them asked the teachers to call an emergency meeting to discuss it. They began by professing concern for Coel but quickly became defensive about their own race and class. “The teachers made it sound like something horrific has happened,” remembers Paapa Essiedu, her former classmate, who plays Arabella’s friend Kwame on I May Destroy You.

There were other surreal moments of racism throughout her time at the school. One teacher shouted the N-word at Coel and Essiedu (they each joked that he must have been referring to the other); another told Coel her vocal cords were just made different because she was Black. Over the course of three years, the school would try to put her in parts to make her explore her “soft” side. “It was just a really confusing place to be as Black people,” says Essiedu.

Drama school was the first time Coel had ever been in an environment full of upper-middle-class white people (“middle-uppers,” as she wrote on the blog). During one class exercise, students whose families owned their houses went to one end of the room; those whose families didn’t went to the other. Coel was the only one who went to the latter side. She began to understand that her classmates saw her as someone who lacked, but it also made her realize she had an advantage. “The way I looked at myself and my life shifted,” she says. “I’ve never had a garden. We never grew up like that. I don’t particularly mind, but I think there is something in growing up in concrete and not understanding putting fingers in soil, growing things, foundation. My family has rented our whole lives. You’re always on fragile ground because it’s not yours. It gives you a drive, an ambition, because nothing is certain. That is a resilience no person with stability can replicate. You can’t forge it. There’s blessings to the struggle.”

In their final year, students put on showcases and performed in plays, including a monologue and one scene with a partner, all with the aim of landing an agent. They had the option of performing classic texts or original material. Coel went the latter route, writing a “duologue” for herself and Essiedu in which they played kids from East London at a basketball court. “I can’t even remember what our characters were,” says Essiedu, “but they spoke our language, in our code, in our accents. They moved in the way that we moved. It was the first time I’d done something that made me feel free as an actor.”

For herself, Coel wrote a ten-minute scene that would become the first iteration of Chewing Gum Dreams, an idea that germinated as a bit of poetry and gradually grew into a 45-minute one-woman show in which she inhabited 11 different characters over a series of vignettes in her imagined world of Hackney. She played Tracey, the 14-year-old narrator with an attentive ear for language and an anthropological curiosity about the social dynamics of schoolyard cruelty; the hustler, Fat Lesha; their racist teacher, Miss Mott; Tracey’s beautiful, light-skinned best friend, Candice; and Aaron, Candice’s abusive, much older boyfriend. There’s a darkness beneath the everydayness of the world that can catch you like an undertow. One early scene ends with Aaron sexually assaulting Tracey, who says:

I watch his frame getting further and further away. I see a demon. It’s stuck, underneath a really thin layer of his skin, and it’s just staring at me. I watch its face, inside of his back, with the little bit they took of me until they get so tiny they’re gone.

Chewing Gum Dreams was a muscular piece,” says Kadiff Kirwan, who later played the TV version of Aaron in Chewing Gum. “She’d come off buckets of sweat. You’d be like, This is amazing and gross at the same time.” Coel dropped out of school again, but it didn’t matter, because she had found what she’d been looking for. She did the fully formed version of Chewing Gum Dreams at the Yard, the Bush, and, in a sold-out run, the National Theatre. “I don’t remember specifics; I just remember the feeling,” Coel says of the early performances. “When I perform, it’s like a ride, and I’m very in the ride. My God, I loved it, and I loved it because it was also understood. I love words. Once the word is connected to you, it’s connected to you.”

The words are beautiful, and some lines still move her to tears. The last scene ends with Tracey and Candice in the hospital. Candice has just given birth, and Aaron is nowhere to be found. Both of them are too teenaged to be dealing with what’s to come. Tracey says:

I sit in the chair by her bed and I wait with her and we wait for a word from someone; a doctor, a nurse, or each other. She is gray in the face, hollow bones, terrified, ugly and wasted, but she is my home, she is my home, she’s home for me, she is where I live, and she’s beautiful. And I’m gonna take care of my home.

Chewing Gum.

The title Chewing Gum Dreams came from a poem Coel wrote during drama school. In it, she imagines dreams falling like candy from the top of a tower block only to crash into the concrete and get ground down by designer sneakers — “deep into pavement like chewing gum.”

Coel was 26 when executives from Retort, then a subsidiary of Fremantle Media, asked if she would adapt Chewing Gum Dreams for television. She said, “Holy shit, yes, of course.” She had never written for television before, and her first scripts were rangy and, well, like scenes from a play. Not until after an arduous round of drafting did a friend ask Coel what the script editor was doing. She replied, “What’s a script editor?” So finally Fremantle hired one who helped Coel understand the beats and structure of a broadcast sitcom. They wanted to drop Dreams from the title, an indication of what the show would become — a 30-minute comedy in candy tones with an optimistic swing. The dark parts were still there, just tucked into the corners. “In hindsight, they want to keep the audience in a good mood so they can buy things from the ads,” Coel says.

Still, she loves what she made, and audiences did too. The TV version of Tracey would be more hyper and much hornier — a young woman with a missionary zeal to lose her virginity. Her lack of experience does nothing to dampen her enthusiasm. Coel brought an exuberant, Lucille Ball–esque physicality to the role: Her Tracey has a seemingly boundless imagination for doing strange things with her body that involve everything but sex. When the show premiered in the U.K. on Channel 4 in 2015, Coel became a star. The following year she won two BAFTA awards — one for writing, the other for performance in a comedy. The show was picked up by Netflix, where she gained a broader (American) audience. Even if the metaphor of the original title was lost in its TV iteration, Coel still sees a parallel to her own life in Tracey’s. “On one hand, it’s about a Christian girl who wants to lose her virginity,” she says. “On the other, it’s about a girl who is marginalized from the world and wants to be a part of the world, and so she pursues that right as loudly and as absurdly as she can because it’s part of her humanity.”

It’s difficult to sort Coel’s time on Chewing Gum. The show launched her career, but making it was marred by professional challenges that highlight the inevitably complicated dynamic of institutions trying to bring in “outsiders” — people with no television experience whose very cachet comes from the fact that they don’t look like you — without actually empowering them. The imbalance was clear from the outset, when the executives at Fremantle declined to make Coel an executive producer on the project. “The production office felt like the place I have no access to: the curtain rod behind where Jesus is dwelling,” she says. “You come to my trailer whenever you need something, but I can’t access you.”

Friction was inevitable. Coel arrived the first day to discover that five Black cast members were confined to a single trailer, while a white actor had one to herself. Coel stormed into the production office and told them that what it looked like out there was “a fackin’ slave ship.” “In that moment, I was like, ‘This is disgraceful,’ ” she recalls. “While the mess is going on outside, you sat here, clueless.” (The production ordered more trailers.) Another tense moment arose between herself and the director, Tom Marshall, after she discovered he was calling the actors Cynthia Erivo and Ronke Adekoluejo “the twins,” instead of using their names. She asked a producer to speak to him, but the next day it happened again. She asked to sidebar with Marshall, and he lost his temper. “He screamed at her like she was a naughty schoolchild, to the point where she physically got upset and left set,” Kirwan recalls. “It felt as if every single day that I had spent earning the respect of the crew and the cast had just disappeared,” says Coel.

Still, she was involved with virtually every aspect of making the show, from the music to the costumes to postproduction. “That eye for excellence made that show what it was,” says Olisa Odele, another real-life friend, who plays her onscreen friend Ola on Chewing Gum. For the second season, Coel asked to be made an executive producer. “There was a three-hour meeting, and the exec was just like, No, no, no, no,” she says. They made her a co-producer instead. “I think it has to do with greed,” she adds. Her friends put it less diplomatically. “You’re trying to pawn her off with this little crumb,” says Kirwan. “It’s like she built this house and gave the keys to someone, and they locked her out of different rooms in her own house, which is absolute bullshit.”

Photo: Ruth Ossai for New York Magazine

In 2018, Coel threw a hand grenade into the British television industry. Every year at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the most powerful members of the British broadcasting networks assemble for the keynote address, the MacTaggart Lecture, which is usually given by one of their own. Past speakers have included three Murdochs (Rupert, James, and Elisabeth), former Vice CEO Shane Smith, Kevin Spacey, and a list of old white men too powerful to be recognizable. The wizards of Oz. Coel became the first Black woman in the 42-year history of the event to give the lecture, and she didn’t waste a single word.

By turns autobiographical, professional, poetic, and damning, she discussed her sexual assault publicly for the first time and described the dynamic on Chewing Gum as one in which she was disempowered professionally even as she poured all of her creative energy into the show. She chose her words precisely, like silver arrows sailing to hit their targets. Instead of referring to something as “racist,” she called it “thoughtlessness”; she referred to underrepresented groups as “misfits.” She is aware of the ways words like racism and microaggression have lost their power, so she searched for new ones that might make people listen.

“Of late, channels, production companies, and online streaming services have found themselves scrabbling for misfits like kids in a playground scrabbling for sweets — desperate for a chew, not sure of the taste of these sweets, these dreams, just aware they might be very profitable,” she said, looking gorgeous and powerful in a blue sheath. “Is it important that voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference at least once?”

“People were really shook,” recalls Kirwan. “I know some people were annoyed by how it wasn’t very British. No one discusses assault, drugs, or the lack of support. You just smile through it, and behind closed doors, you cry into your pillow.”

“She’s this thing that we all say we want most, which is this cool young woman of color, who happens to be a fantastic writer — the joke Holy Grail of modern television. And here she was, talking about what a shit time she’d had,” says Piers Wenger, the controller of BBC drama commissioning. “It was pretty hard to hear because we’ve been complicit, myself included. That was an incredibly ballsy thing to do to stand up and say, ‘This is what I need. Are you good enough to give it to me?’ Not ‘Am I good enough to deserve the kind of treatment that I want?’ ”

After Coel wrapped production on the second season of Chewing Gum, she took on a series of acting projects, including roles as the lead in the musical Been So Long (written by her old mentor Walker), a Rwandan adoptee looking for her history in Black Earth Rising, and a kidnapped crew member in the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror. All the while, she was thinking about how to make I May Destroy You. The MacTaggart Lecture became a blueprint for how she went on to conduct business. This time around, she wanted transparency from her collaborators. She learned the power of saying no. She declined to do a third season of Chewing Gum and an offer to have a production company under the now-defunct Retort. (“Something about it didn’t feel clean.”) When she first began pitching the concept for I May Destroy You in spring 2017, Netflix offered her $1 million upfront — $1 million! But when she learned they wouldn’t allow her to retain any percentage of the copyright, she said no. No amount was worth that. She fired CAA, her agency in the U.S., too, when it tried to push her to take the deal after she learned it would be making an undisclosed amount on the back end. Throughout the fallout with Netflix and CAA, Coel asked questions relentlessly. She is eager, almost giddy, to say she doesn’t know something (even if she may have an inkling) because of the way it forces someone else to explain it to her. She has discovered that the explanation is where people begin to falter and the fissures of conventional wisdom crack wider. It may be business as usual, but is it right? Is it good?

Coel recalls one clarifying moment when she spoke with a senior-level development executive at Netflix and asked if she could retain at least 5 percent of her rights. “There was just silence on the phone,” she says. “And she said, ‘It’s not how we do things here. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal.’ I said, ‘If it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have 5 percent of my rights.’ ” Silence. She bargained down to 2 percent, one percent, and finally 0.5 percent. The woman said she’d have to run it up the chain. Then she paused and said, “Michaela? I just want you to know I’m really proud of you. You’re doing the right thing.” And she hung up.

“I remember thinking, I’ve been going down rabbit holes in my head, like people thinking I’m paranoid, I’m acting sketchy, I’m killing off all my agents,” Coel says. “And then she said those words to me, and I finally realized — I’m not crazy. This is crazy.

In fall 2017, she pitched I May Destroy You to Wenger at the BBC, and he replied with an email the next day saying she would have everything she wanted: a seat at the table on the production side, full creative control, and the rights to the work. (HBO came on as a co-producer during development.) Coel was stunned. “I’d been so untrustworthy of the industry that I looked at the email and I thought, I need a day. I wasn’t happy,” she says. She took a beat. Then she went with it. “It’s an amazing email.”

I May Destroy You.

Coel has taken up running during lockdown, and every time that we chat, she comes with another story from her sojourns around the Regent’s Canal: She stopped to feed ducks with an old high-school classmate; she saw another acquaintance from primary school who had since joined the Navy. One drizzly day in June, she found herself running behind a white woman on a bike with a cardboard sign that read BLACK LIVES MATTER. She saw other white people scoff at the biker as she passed. Coel liked how she could be privy to this woman’s life, even if just for a moment, and considered what it must be like to be her. She caught up to her and yelled out, “I appreciate you, sis!”

Empathy is a daily practice for Coel, something you do like meditation or yoga. It keeps her mind nimble. “I spent a lot of my life asking, pleading, hoping for empathy,” she says. “It only feels fitting for me to try to do the same thing. I think it crosses these very stubborn wirings in our brain.” This impulse is at the core of I May Destroy You: The narrative is constantly turning situations and ideas around, looking at them from another angle, and confounding expectations. Characters are not always what they seem, and their arcs aren’t straightforward; they twist, wind, and loop back in on themselves. The show is never prescriptive in its ethos; everyone, including Arabella’s best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Essiedu), contains within themselves light and dark, victim and perpetrator. It’s particularly true for Arabella, whose obsession with meting out justice on social media eventually consumes her.

Coel hasn’t been promoting the show much on social media in part because she has mostly left the apps. She felt Twitter was polarizing her views and flattening her brain. When HBO asked her to release a statement after George Floyd’s death, she went through a bout of anxiety. She didn’t want to be promoting a show during a political crisis but understood she needed to speak. So she went for a run, meditated, and wrote a poem for Floyd and his mother.

“I learned that when I am traumatized, I make a line and I say dangerous/safe,” says Coel. “Sometimes when you stay in that mode too long, the line becomes good/bad, nice/evil, angel/devil, not me/me, friends/enemies. But the line is not real. I’m not saying remove the line, but if we understand that it isn’t real, it may enable us to look at the thing that we are calling over there differently. And when you acknowledge it and look at it — that enemy, that evil, that bad thing — the more you learn how to master it and temper it.”

I ask her to be more specific, and she admits that her mind immediately goes to race. It’s tricky: How do you empathize with a racist, especially in this climate? “I have to try and understand why you don’t see racism,” she says. “It’s not because you’re evil. It’s your brain. Of course you don’t see it. You’re one of the people who don’t see it. It’s amazing that there are white people who see it.”

Still, she concedes, maybe she’s wrong. Over the past few weeks, as the activism of Black Lives Matter crashed into London, she has felt unsure. It was listening to the audio of Rayshard Brooks, the man killed by police in Atlanta after he fell asleep in his car at a Wendy’s, that broke her. She recognized the politeness in his voice and how it didn’t matter. How do you begin to vanquish this cancer called white supremacy that infects people and eats their souls? How do you engage with half-humans, particularly the ones in government and the police and production companies, ask them questions, and then gently, sometimes angrily, insist on your own humanity? How do you punch a cloud? The macro and the structural overwhelm her, so she tends to zero in on individual relationships.

“A part of me yearns to give people their right to life,” Coel says. “To live it, to not have the barriers, to not marginalize, to dare to let go of your power and see what happens.” The act of empathy, she says, is really about her own well-being. It is how she has moved forward as an artist and a person. “This makes me feel better,” she says. “It’s about how you can feel better in a system that is fucked, but you need to sleep well. Daring to empathize, daring to help other people as well as being helped, it will do you good. It’s about you.”

In 2018, right as summer was slipping into fall, Coel traveled to Michigan for one of her self-prescribed writing retreats to continue drafting I May Destroy You. She enjoys the experience of going somewhere she hasn’t been. The unfamiliarity makes her vulnerable, soft, and spongy — open to possibilities. The first Airbnb she booked, though, felt unsafe; the woman next door kept leering at her through the bushes and wouldn’t respond when Coel greeted her. So she found another in an even more secluded area: a cabin on a 15-acre piece of farmland up near Lake Leelanau that was rented out by the owners.

The weather in northern Michigan was colder than Coel had prepared for, but there was a feeling of total remoteness. She was untethered from the thrum of London life and could be alone with her scripts. The property was a vast field of green with wildflowers and a lavender patch; nights brought the kind of darkness where you can’t see your own hand in front of you if there is no moon. “When people come here, especially those who’ve come from urban lives, they look tired, and after a few days you can just see their physicality start to change,” says Sally McCaughan, 72, a retired teacher, and now potter and photographer, who owns the land. “Part of it is being closer to the rhythms of nature. It can be expansive. Initially, for some people, it can be frightening.”

Coel had been working on the ending of I May Destroy You, trying to figure out how to give Arabella closure. She told McCaughan what she was writing about, and she in turn recommended Coel read Margaret Atwood’s short story “Stone Mattress.” She described it as being about a woman well into middle age who bumps into a man who had once sexually assaulted her on a boat cruise. Coel asked if it was going to end in murder, and — spoiler alert — McCaughan replied that it does. “I’m kind of trying not to do that,” said Coel. She threw various scenarios at McCaughan to gauge her reaction. Must there be bloodshed for there to be justice?

One night, there was a terrible thunderstorm; rain and hail clattered against the metal roof of her cabin. Coel worried the storm would tear the house asunder and texted McCaughan asking if everything would be okay. She assured her she would be safe. Still, Coel was awake and afraid. During the day, she asked if she could come into the main house where McCaughan lives with her husband. They sat on the couch and watched a PBS documentary about owls named Luna and Lily. Coel rested her head on McCaughan’s shoulder.

“We were two people who were really into being free, letting go,” says Coel. “We both started crying because it felt amazing to be able to feel relaxed with somebody. You can go about your daily life having never experienced connection with different people from different places.” In that moment, she thought about Tracey Gordon and her zest for life. She thought about Arabella and how she was trying to come back after almost losing herself. She thought about how to end Arabella’s story and give her some solace. If she could do it for Arabella, maybe she could do it for herself.

“What does closure look like?” Coel muses. “It’s not that it ends. For me, I look at the last four years and I feel this overwhelming sense of euphoria and pain.”

She wanted viewers to come away from the series the way she does when she completes a draft. How to describe it? There are no words. It’s not singular; it is ineffable. But she will try. When she finished writing the show back in London, she went outside and bought a pastry and a coffee and sat on a bench.

“It’s a very small feeling,” she says. “I finished, and the sadness of finishing and the enjoyment of having done it sit side by side. My version of this is life. I feel as though I am so sad to die and leave, because I had such a great time living. I’m like, ‘Oh, it was so fun!’ ” She gasps, her eyes bright and brimming with tears. “Look at all the things that I learned! Oh my God! And those painful bits! Wow! Fun! Now I’m at the end and” — she gasps again, breathless — “it’s sad to go. Because it’s amazing.”

*This article appears in the July 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Michaela the Destroyer