To viewers over the age of 40, I May Destroy You, the new HBO series about the life of a young millennial in the aftermath of her rape, may be striking in its bracingly modern approach to both sex and sex crimes. As soon as the protagonist, Arabella (played by creator Michaela Coel), realizes that she was drugged and assaulted the night before, she goes to the police. It’s a step few women of a generation prior would be willing to take.
But for all the progress that moment suggests, the show is not interested in a tidy narrative of female empowerment. The act of seeking justice doesn’t bring Arabella any real closure — either in practical or emotional terms. She is a complicated protagonist, and this is a series where moral quandaries and psychic pain hang in the air thick and hazy as smoke. Facts are elusive, the truth a memory Arabella constantly chases.
Through 12, half-hour episodes, I May Destroy You winds through Arabella’s attempts to process what’s happened to her. On the surface, this involves her trying to piece together the night of the crime, an effort that serves as a plot to drive the series forward. It also involves detours through her friendships, her career, a recent romance, and her relationships with her family, a sort of unconscious game of connect-the-dots for both audience and subject. And it is in this space that the series does some of its most rich and compelling work.
There’s a lot going on here — so much that, in the early installments, the show can be challenging to follow. (To American ears, the staccato pitter-patter of the actors’ English accents may be tough to catch up with at first, too.) But Coel is magnetic, and I May Destroy You doesn’t flinch from asking tough questions about consent, responsibility, and the twisted shape of love.
We meet Arabella — pink hair, retro-Nineties clothes — on the day of her assault. We learn quickly that she’s exuberant, charismatic, and something of a celebrity, one of the many young people who’ve ridden a popular Twitter feed to a book deal. Her first work, Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, has enough of a following that giddy fans approach her on the street. She’s also unfettered when it comes to partying. In the course of the first episode, she smokes joints, snorts coke, and does shots, all with a looming 6 AM deadline for a draft of her second book.
This is a setup that practically baits the audience to judge Arabella, given the fate that befalls her. But the show never does. Nor does it judge her childhood bestie Terry, who ditches a drunk Arabella on an Italian vacation to have a threesome with two men. Nor their friend Kwame, who subsumes his desire for real connection in a parade of Grindr encounters. With uncommon sensitivity, Coel writes each character as a full, flesh-and-blood human exploring and testing all the bounds of that experience. She allows them to own their sexuality, to say stupid shit, to let down their friends, to make mistakes and still be worthy of love, a gift we often don’t give even to ourselves.
In moments big and small, the show illustrates how we parcel away trauma. In one heartbreaking scene, Kwame becomes emboldened to report his own encounter with nonconsensual sex — a Grindr meetup that turned ugly. You can practically see the confidence leave his body like air from a balloon, his shoulders slumping and his eyes turning downcast, as the police treat him with skepticism and embarrassment, eventually dismissing his claim (a doubling of victimhood that stands in stark contrast to the care with which female detectives treat Arabella). The experience leaves him so shamed, he ricochets into an ill-advised experiment to sleep with a woman, then into celibacy, then back into promiscuity.
The most bittersweet episode offers a snapshot of Arabella’s family. Through flashbacks to her childhood, it reveals a mother and daughter captivated by an absentee father, a man of the house who was never around, but around whom the house turned nevertheless. It explores the notion of consent from a different angle — what kind of treatment we deem acceptable from parents or siblings that we might never allow in a different kind of relationship. In current-day scenes around the dinner table, the dynamics among Arabella, her mom, her brother, and her dad are rendered so delicately, through small gestures, looks, and words unsaid, that the episode lingers long after the series is done.
So, too, does the show’s conclusion, a narrative departure that dives into the meta layer of Arabella’s work as a writer. As anyone who’s experienced trauma knows, it lives both as a visceral force and as a story you tell yourself. But for a writer, someone who’s accustomed to wrestling stories to the ground, giving them a beginning, a middle, and an end, the shattering effects of sexual assault may prove too difficult to deconstruct and repackage in a way that makes sense. It remains the one story that goes on, without end, pulsing through your blood like a strange new oxygen, something you learn to carry but never set down.