I was skeptical. When I first heard about Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You,” I wondered how anyone could make a series about sexual abuse that both did justice to the topic and remained engaging. While I’d seen a few non-reductive approaches within various shows — Joan’s husband raping her in “Mad Men” and Dr. Melfi getting attacked in a parking garage in “The Sopranos” are burned into my memory — I couldn’t picture a focused 12-episode show that didn’t collapse into cold didacticism or clichés. The Lifetime-style handling of sexual trauma, so glib, generic, and one-dimensional, doesn’t tend to open eyes or hearts.
So “I May Destroy You” isn’t just powerful television; it’s a great surprise. It’s a groundbreaking model of how to honor the complexities of sexual trauma on TV without succumbing to lecture or exploitation. Written by, co-directed by, and starring Coel, it is, without a doubt, one of the most intricate and humane portrayals of sexual assault I’ve seen.
First and foremost, the show, which airs Sundays on HBO, is a beautifully constructed portrait of a young Black writer and her friends in London, as they pursue romance, sex, and professional success. It’s in league with “Fleabag,” “Insecure,” “One Mississippi,” or “Shrill,” as a half-hour auteurish comedy-drama that brings us into the small revelations in the lives of interesting women. The world of the show is elaborately drawn, and Coel’s Arabella, a viral sensation whose first book was called “Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial,” is appealing and real. With her combat boots and pink hair, she is funny and bright and stubbornly independent, particularly in her hard-partying habits. She’s not simply the survivor of the story; she is the story, in all of her rebellious glory, as she tries to write a second book for publishers with high expectations and a deadline. We’re invested in her world.
And then, within that finely detailed and intimate context, Coel takes us on Arabella’s nightmarish journey into her sexual assault experiences. Yes, plural. So far on the show, which is currently mid-season, Arabella has undergone two violations. The first is the one from the descriptions of the show. Dodging her deadline, Arabella is out at a bar called Ego Death, her drink is drugged, and she is raped. She doesn’t remember the attack; it returns to her in flashes in the next few days, with the recurring image of a man thrusting above her in a bathroom stall, even as she tries to disbelieve it. The show effectively captures the quirks of consciousness that let memories emerge seemingly from nowhere. The second assault is less obvious but, perhaps, more common. She has consensual sex with a man and later discovers that he removed his condom midway.
“I May Destroy You” also brings us into other sexual encounters gone wrong, including a flashback episode recounting an incident in which a white girl at Arabella’s high school accused a Black boy of assault. And yet the show has not felt like a topical head bashing. Coel’s performance is bold and riveting, but her writing is impressively subtle.
For example, one of Arabella’s friends, Kwame (Paapa Esseidu), is a gay man who hooks up with a guy through Grindr. The first sexual act is consensual; the second is not. Kwame is raped by a man he met specifically for a sexual encounter, and a visit to the police station leads him to feel like he’s to blame for being there in the first place. The show doesn’t shy away from noting the ways dating and hookup apps lend themselves to risk-taking and violence — but it never moralizes about its characters for being in that game in the first place. It allows them to be themselves — Arabella loves to drink and do drugs, Kwame is looking for sex — without using those scenes of her imbibing and him cruising to somehow suggest that they are responsible for what happened to them.
I wouldn’t say that “I May Destroy You” is fun, although it can be funny. And I wouldn’t say that it’s an endless downer, although it certainly can be intensely difficult. It’s a tonally elastic show that triumphs because it doesn’t commit to any one genre. It’s faceted enough to go wherever it needs to go to tell this remarkable story of a remarkable woman. Fortunately, the series can’t be easily summarized or easily dismissed.