Pop Culturing: 'I May Destroy You' May Destroy You, but it's Vital TV

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Tuesday August 11, 2020

From left to right: Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia in "I May Destroy You."
From left to right: Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia in "I May Destroy You."  (Source:Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO)

There has never been a TV show like "I May Destroy You." It's the kind of show that makes you thankful this era of Peak TV exists. It's a harrowing, brave, funny, and brilliant 12-episode season created, written, co-directed and starring British actor Michaela Coel, best known for her Netflix series "Chewing Gum." But on "I May Destroy You," Coel, who puts her own story of rape at the show's center, creates an exciting and youthful world, upending expectations and tackling subjects and situations rarely seen on the small screen.

And she does it with finesse; Coel, 32, proves herself to be one of the most impressive and talented young creatives today. "I May Destroy You," which aired its tenth episode on HBO this week, follows Arabella (Coel), a young woman who found fame on Twitter and became a novelist. Told in 12 half-hour episodes, the first two episodes set up the crux show where Arabella, struggling to meet a deadline on her next book, decides to cut loose after a trip to Italy where she was visiting her boyfriend. While at home in London and facing writer's block, she decides to take a break by going out for a drug and alcohol-fueled night on the town with friends.
Told beautifully and intensely, Arabella is sexually assaulted but has trouble piecing the events of the night together. We only know as much as Arabella and only see glimpses and bits-and-pieces of the assault when Arabella, bruised and unwell, randomly remembers parts of the night in question. We watch her compartmentalize what happened to her before coming to terms with it and all the stages in between.

Michaela Coel, left, and Marouane Zotti, right, in a scene from "I May Destroy You." Photo credit: Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO

As "I May Destroy You" unfolds, it reveals itself to be about much more than a singular incident. Arabella's friends, Terry (Weruche Opia), an aspiring actress, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a quiet gay man who frequents hookup apps and takes part in risky sex, face their own nonconsensual experiences, and Arabella, too, is subjected to more forms of assault and exploitation.

She reunites with a high school acquaintance running a support group for women, manages her writing career and e-fame as well as bump against her besties as they deal with their own issues. A few episodes examine social media and how it can impact someone coming to terms with their trauma as well. "I May Destroy You" showcases complex and hard situations that are often retable; it's a raw show that is often funny but incredibly powerful that scenes will stay with you.

Unlike other shows and films that center around trauma, "I May Destroy You" is interested in the grey areas of assault and what consent means. The title itself is vague, if not confusing. Rape and sexual assault aren't always cut-and-dry; there are instances of abuse that are hard to define and Coel's show thrives when it is examining those moments.

Michaela Coel in a scene from "I May Destroy You." Photo credit: Photograph by Natalie Seery/HBO

"The victim, or the survivor, is left open ... How do they find their own closure? What is that difficult journey, when they lose their sense of awareness and perception of themselves in the world?" Coel told The Washington Post in an interview.

What also sets the show apart is Coel's tour de force of a performance. She's unafraid to write a character that is deeply multifaceted and who isn't perfect. Throughout the show, Arabella makes bad choices, testing the limits of her drug and alcohol consumption and spiraling out of control when she retreats to social media; likes and comments can deliver the same kind of rush as a drink or a bump. Arabella is partly based on Coel and her experiences and she is a totally lived-in character. Opia and Essiedu are also brilliant in their parts as Arabella's concerned BFFs and the characters who orbit Arabella's life — like her roommate Ben (Stephen Wright), her publisher Susy (Franc Ashman) and her friend Theo (Harriet Webb) — are all wonderfully cast, adding so much depth and texture to the show's world.

In addition to playing the lead role, and spending countless hours writing "I May Destroy You," Coel also serves as co-director on most of the season. Teaming up with TV veteran Sam Miller ("American Crime," "Luther," "Snowpiercer"), the duo creates a stunning view of London. Neon-lit and youthful, a TV show has never depicted the city quite like this; it's clear that Coel's influence brought out something special in Miller.

"I May Destroy You" is ultimately about what it means to be a survivor; how one navigates their complicated world — friends, work, family, their past, their future and, in Arabella's case fans. It's an emotional series, packed with honesty and intensity; a true artistic expression that is a close masterpiece, putting Coel on a new level. Her show can be hard to watch sometimes but it is absolutely vital and essential viewing in 2020.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.