Content warning: in addition to spoilers, this article mentions sexual assault/violence.
Creator Michaela Coel is fierce, and her brand new semi-autobiographical HBO drama which she both created and stars in, is no different. “I May Destroy You” stands apart from her previous comedic venture, “Chewing Gum,” as an unflinching and evocative portrayal of the aftermath of sexual assault. The story follows Arabella, a burgeoning London writer struggling to finish her second novel. One crucial evening, when she goes out to a nearby bar with a few friends, someone spikes her drink. From there, Arabella’s entire world, including her friendships, lovers and family, folds in on itself, as she tries to pick up the pieces and figure out exactly what happened to her. Complex, and at times ghastly brutal and relatable, this series has stunned and captivated audiences around the world, cementing Coel as a multi-hyphenate showrunner to be reckoned with. As assault stories are becoming recognized and discussed more given the recent #MeToo movement in Hollywood, “I May Destroy You,” especially during its final episode, finds a way to turn this harrowing, all too familiar narrative into an eye-opening tale of empowerment.
The finale opens where the penultimate episode ended, with Arabella back at the bar where she was assaulted, locking eyes with the man who raped her. What ensues from there is the expected, archetypal revenge narrative. She gathers her closest companions, Terry and Theo, to concoct a plan of action against her aggressor. Arabella and Terry distract her rapist (whose name is credited as “David”), and Theo steals the sedatives from his pocket. From there, Arabella performs as a comatose victim as David drags her to the bathroom with the intention of assaulting her again, only for Theo to inject him with the drugs. The girls chase him out into the street until he collapses from the dose. Instead of just leaving, Arabella decides to brutally beat him until blood sprays out onto the concrete.
With her friends terrified, Arabella then drags his body to her apartment, where she shoves him under her bed frame. Blood then continues to pool out onto her carpet as she tries to draft out pieces of her novel. This particular sequence seems to condemn the revenge narrative that is typically depicted in many abuse stories, because even when Arabella gets to lash out on her attacker, he still ends up just being hidden emotional baggage. Despite proving a cathartic viewing experience, the sequence of events doesn’t truly help Arabella in the long run and ends up perpetuating the looming trauma that she can never quite face.
Then, suddenly, the episode takes a complete detour from its usual narrative structure, as it cuts back to the start, with Arabella locking eyes with David once again. Showing that the previous violent face-off could have been a complete fantasy made up by Arabella, the episode proceeds to transform into a time loop excursion through the endless realm of possible confrontations between Arabella and her perpetrator.
In the next scenario, a revenge plan is enacted by Terry, but, instead of retribution, Arabella ends up extending sympathy towards David. She does this after he rages at her with belittling insults in the same bathroom stall, and then begins to sob onto her shoulder. Through this conflicting sequence, Coel seems to explore the culture of radical empathy around perpetrators of sexual violence.
At this point, it’s almost a reflexive reaction for public discourse and media coverage to try and humanize similar assailants. We’ve seen it in many public sexual assault cases, such as the droves of people who were quick to defend figures like Brock Turner and Woody Allen. This action is often done under the guise of “not wanting to ruin a man’s reputation,” which ends up dissipating all accountability from the offender, and allows the systemic blaming of victims to be continued.
But, while trademarks of this culture are clearly imbued in this sequence, Coel’s writing isn’t so black and white. Arabella does actually engage with David’s ramblings, and even understands him to the point where he mirrors subconscious aspects of her character. This makes David seem less terrifying to her in the moment, but also minimizes the very real effects of the trauma he placed onto her. He’s eventually dragged away by the police in this sequence, but justice isn’t served, because he leaves with parts of Arabella. Because the story of her assault now only concerns the redemption of David, instead of herself.
It isn’t until the final part of the episode that Arabella manages to break free. She is flashed back to the start one last time. The bar is dimly lit, with no one inside but David. She is confident, brazen even, as David coyly stumbles over his words. She takes him home, where she penetrates him in bed, a shocking sequence that’s slightly bewildering to watch in succession with David’s alternate portrayals. In the morning, they both lay awake in Arabella’s bed. David says, “I won’t leave until you tell me to” to which she replies “Go.” He stands up, and walks out of her door, cast in white light, with the bloody version of him slipping out from under her bed and following close behind. The roles are now reversed, David is entirely under Arabella’s power. She can order him to leave; he’s no longer in her life or under her bed, but instead, vanquished.
Though this could seem like the conclusion most viewers were hoping for, Coel offers one final possibility. She doesn’t go back to the bar at all. In the episode’s final minutes, Arabella stays in with her roommate watching YouTube videos, allowing time to pass. The plants outside her flat start to grow and she finishes her novel. By refuting all the given possibilities of confrontation, she is letting go of the idea of closure. She is accepting and proposing to the viewer that moving through trauma isn’t a neat, linear process with a definitive end. She is free, and the story is hers again.
The series ends with Arabella reading her brand new novel, “January 22nd” (the date of her assault), to a full bookshop, and immediately cuts to a shot of her smiling, in a purple wig, and frolicking in turquoise waters on the beach. “I May Destroy You” is a series about the mortifying effects of assault that has simultaneously discovered something incredibly pertinent: compassion does not have to be extended to anyone but yourself and empowerment does not have to be palatable or clean in order to function. By boldly allowing the show to run the elaborate course that Coel wanted it to, she depicts a revolutionary narrative of self-exploration and acceptance. She deconstructs the many ways that this series could’ve ended, and how expectations and blame often get placed on to the victim. But, by clearly depicting these situations as mere fantasy, controlled by the protagonist, Coel also validates the heavy, messy and sometimes nonsensical journey that victims of sexual violence often have to face in order to survive. Arabella’s arc is one that builds, destroys and disrupts the conversations around sexual assault and violence on television, and in turn, the conversations we have about ourselves.
Email Isabella Armus at [email protected]