Features and Columns · TV

‘I May Destroy You’ is A Big, Bold Take on Trauma

Michaela Coel’s follow-up to ‘Chewing Gum’ is an intense, impressive series that tackles consent in all its forms.
I May Destroy You Hbo
Natalie Seery/HBO
By  · Published on June 15th, 2020

Welcome to Up Next, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer takes a look at the new HBO drama-comedy series from the mind of Michaela Coel.

The title of HBO’s latest series reads like a warning label: I May Destroy You. It’s fitting for a show that’s capable of ripping through viewers like a wrecking ball.

This isn’t the first time series creator, writer, co-director, and star Michaela Coel has presented us with an explosive work of art. The Ghanaian-British artist’s 2012 one-woman show, Chewing Gum Dreams, was adapted into a wild, riotously funny BAFTA-winning two-season comedy series called Chewing Gum that explored the sexual misadventures of a religiously-raised virgin. If Coel isn’t already being lauded in the same breath as successful artists with similar career trajectories — namely breakout superstar Phoebe-Waller Bridge — that’s a collective failure of recognition that I May Destroy You should remedy.

The intense series about rape, sex, consent, feminism, technology, friendship, dating, and Black British lives is a powerful, challenging tonic. Whereas many TV shows centered on survivors present strong but easily summed-up theses — Unbelievable condemns investigative systems that fail victims, for example, while Sweet/Vicious shifts power dynamics for a campus justice adventure — I May Destroy You is committed to bleeding outside the lines. The series is itself preoccupied with the idea of storytelling and presentation, as Millennial writer, partier, and online influencer Arabella (Coel) finds her life derailed after her drink is spiked at a bar one night. Afterward, Arabella is forced to publicly piece together her own life story with the knowledge that some crucial pieces will always be missing. It’s a tough watch, and while calling it necessary makes the series sound more stoic than it is, there’s no doubt that I May Destroy You is a vital, fresh entry into the emerging canon of in-depth survivors’ stories.

Arabella is joined on her journey by two best friends, anxious actress Terry (Weruche Opia) and gay, hook-up prone Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), whose own stories of discovery and discomfort are equally compelling. The trio is dynamic, and each actor brings a compelling and unique emotional energy to the series. I May Destroy You could’ve easily focused on the trauma of Arabella’s assault, but it paints a more modern and kaleidoscopic picture by constantly challenging any simple definition of consent through sexual encounters that are uneven, uncomfortable, or retroactively understood as non-consensual. For better and worse, our leads put the things that happen to them in context with the help of podcasts, Google searches, hashtag campaigns, and more, and their rushed education in sexual politics is constantly evolving. The series asks questions like: how should secret condom removal during sex be treated? What about a threesome under false pretenses, or pornographic pictures taken without asking? When do the myriad ways we choose to hurt one another become violence, and how much do legal definitions matter when the hurt is still there?

Along with Coel, series co-director Sam Miller (Luther) shoots party scenes in London and Ostia, Italy, with an impressionistic daze, putting viewers in the headspace of the distinctly different highs Arabella feels throughout the season. This supports the series’ unspoken point that good and bad experiences — or powerful and powerless ones — simply feel different in a way that goes beyond simple categorization. When Arabella and Terry are rolling on molly in an Italian club, the camera is drifting and dreamlike, its focus on the pair’s seemingly cosmic friendship. When Arabella is on tons of coke, the filmmaking is slightly sped-up, with a warped and uneasy energy. And when she’s roofied, things become slow-motion and shadowy, reflecting the black spots in her memory. This commitment to point-of-view, which sometimes extends to scenes of assault, makes for an absorbing, immediate viewing experience, and that  is just one of a half-dozen reasons the series will stick with you long after it’s over.

In a sense, I May Destroy You is an heir apparent to Lena Dunham’s Girls (a series that, it should be noted, often refused to center or even include characters of color): a complex catalog of the bad yet formative sexual experiences and ever-shifting personal identities of a group of young, sometimes insufferable artist-types. A taboo-breaking scene in the third episode involving a surprising bodily moment calls to mind the endless think-pieces about Girls’ more sensational moments, and Coel’s series continues to present unpredictable, discussion-worthy scenarios episode after episode. So much about this show is both great and bracingly bold, from the hip-hop soundtrack that suddenly disappears during smash cuts, to Opia’s eloquent asides that carry the rhythm of freestyle or spoken word poetry, to time jumps that are as complicating as they are clarifying.

The comedic drama also, surprisingly, calls to mind some of the better episodes of Black Mirror as it persistently plumbs the depths of technology addiction and the ways in which social media can encourage action without thought. The series refuses to be about just one or two or even five things, and while that approach won’t work for every viewer, its ambitious scope is its greatest asset. The first season’s twelve episodes are beautifully self-contained, culminating in a sure-to-be-polarizing ending, yet there’s plenty of character-based groundwork on which Coel could continue to build the series if she wanted to.

Both grand and personal, I May Destroy You is ultimately storytelling at its boldest: unafraid to destroy and rebuild itself — and its characters’ understanding of the world around them — as many times as it takes to find something true. Don’t say it didn’t warn you.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)