Michaela Coel's 'I May Destroy You' Is A Revelation
A profile of I May Destroy You 's creator, writer, co-director, executive producer, and lead actress nestled within a review and analysis of the show.
"I need to, you know, just gather the pieces; any of the pieces" says a worried Arabella (Michaela Coel) to her friend Simon (Aml Ameen) and his wife Kat (Lara Rossi). Although the couple have let Arabella into their house, sat her down, and given her food to eat and wine to drink; something still feels off - the compassion from the two never truly shows. At this point in the second episode of Michaela Coel's I May Destroy You, a twelve episode limited series exploring the theme of consent, nothing feels especially certain. The moments before this in "Someone Is Lying" (the title episode two) are purely structured for viewers to follow Arabella on her mental journey every step of the way, trying to gather the pieces just like she is. Arabella knows she can't remember what happened the night before, but the thing she knows: she sees a vision of a man sexually assaulting someone, and she made her deadline for the book draft she needed to have done. Similarly, viewers are just as lost. While the first episode contains a lot of exposition within the 30 minutes, the pilot rushes from scene to scene with a broken but effective sort of levity, manufacturing an odd sort of dramatic irony that makes things a little harder to understand while still keeping viewers constantly engaged. We know a little more than Arabella does, but at the same time, we are just as lost. There's a genius aspect to that idea.
But first, let's rewind. In the events of the first episode, viewers learn that Arabella is a writer, a struggling writer. After her smash-hit, Confessions of a Fed-Up Millennial, which still gets her the occasional fan interaction on the streets of London, she can't seem to figure out what to write about next. When we first meet her in the series, she is smack in the middle of the streets of Italy, saying goodbye to her moody and often selfish on-off boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti), explaining to him how this was supposed to be a work trip, but no work got done. Once back in London, the author makes a strict plan to pull an all-nighter to make the deadline for a draft due the next morning to her agents. While things start off productive, distractions begin to pop-up on Arabella's smartphone, prompting her to make a promise: one hour to go out and have fun, and then back to work. From there, Arabella heads to Ego Death Bar and takes shots with her friends Things begin to get hazy, as the character, and the audience, begins to lose track of what happens from there.
Part of the genius of Coel's writing, and I May Destroy You, is the way it connects with the audience right from the get-go. Although there are no fourth-wall breaks present in the series, the uniqueness and boldness of Coel's writing instantly makes viewers feel like the show is extending a hand out to them, almost inviting them to venture on this emotional, heart-wrenching journey of self-care and redemption with Arabella. The allure of the writing helps the series have the strongest emotional impact it can, simply because of how invested it enables viewers to become. You don't see that with television shows these days, and it's quite refreshing to see a show's writing feel that powerful and effective.
Coel is no stranger to writing though. From a very early age, she has been an avid poet, studying the subject at University of Birmingham and attending poetry open mics in Ealing, a borough in West London, from a young age. Before I May Destroy You, her most famous writing work was the smash-hit Channel 4 and Netflix series Chewing Gum, which she also created and starred in. Based off of her 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams, the show went on to receive extraordinary acclaim, with two seasons in the books before Coel confirmed in 2018 that the show would not be returning for a third season. Regardless, the show earned extraordinary praise worldwide, and earned Coel a BAFTA award in 2016 for "Best Female Performance in a Comedy Series". Through interviews, Coel has shared that the sexual assault she experienced, the incident Arabella's is based off of in I May Destroy You, took place during her working on the second season of Chewing Gum.
The show isn't just about Arabella though. As the show progresses through its 12 episode stint, the plot transitions from fully focusing on the main character dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault to shining a spotlight on her friends Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Terry (Weruche Opia). Although the two are given small roles in the first two episodes, their character arcs become more prominent as the show progresses, as each have their own situations involving the idea of consent that they have to deal with.
It's definitely worth acknowledging just how fantastic Essiedu's and Opia's performances are. Right from the get-go, each actor slips right into the shoes of their character almost effortlessly, allowing viewers to instantly understand their personalities, motivations, and relationships to Arabella. The actors chemistry with Coel feels almost palpable, perhaps due to the fact that each character in the supporting cast feels written as a sub-branch of Coel's personal self. Her spirit shines quite brightly in Kwame's and Terry's personalities, but the two always feel completely autonomous and human in their own right. Part of this is because Essiedu and Opia are so talented at gaining control of their characters, and truly make Kwame and Terry theirs. But even with their phenomenal and defining performances aside, I May Destroy You never feels like doesn't belong to Coel. Whether that's due to her powerful writing, fantastic direction, or superb acting - it's hard to tell - but it often feels like it's due to all three.
Part of what makes the story so powerful is that while the series' basic plot is Arabella dealing with the violation of her consent in the first episode, a lot of other smaller storylines throughout the season are dedicated to exploring how consent can be violated in other ways. Using Arabella's, Kwame's, and Terry's characters to explore and relay these ideas, the series never runs out of steam because it's able to harness these differences of theme in such an effective way. Since these plots end up playing in the impactful way possible, viewers can always tell how close the series is to Coel herself. Additionally, little aspects of her personality and life are sprinkled in to countless other moments in the show, such as her housing and roommate situation, her family matters, or her exploration of the city of London itself.
The other important thing to understand about I May Destroy You is that it isn't just a series about consent. It's a series about race, class structures, and technology; as well as so many other themes. Coel's writing explores these complicated motifs in an effortless sort of way, as they never feel like they take too much control of the plot or complicate what the show is about on the baseline. Rather, they often accompany the main theme of consent to show just how much more compolicated the idea is than it may seem.
A limited series attempting to keep a viewer entertained for 12 episodes, as well as constantly justifying its need to be that long, is a task in itself. Regardless, Coel's series never feels like it's overstaying its welcome. While this might be due to the fact that all of the little plots allot a lot of time to unfold, it's also due to the fact that I May Destroy You never feels tiring in any sort of way. While the show is quite intense, and contains multiple moments that are extremely hard to watch, it's not the kind of show that viewers really need to take a break from. The series is just as effective, if not more effective, when consumed in a binging-type format rather than waiting a week for the next episode to air on HBO. Part of this is due to Coel's writing; because of how unique it is, the show can never be contained are placed under the hood of a certain genre. There is a bit of everything here - at times, the show is a searing drama. At moments, it's a comedy. At various points throughout the series, it's a thriller. Arabella's self-growth journey, as well as Kwame's and Terry's, contains it all. The series knows it will have more of an impact by genre-bending at whatever chance it gets, and for what it's worth, it does.
In a summer where good and entertaining content has proved quite difficult to locate, I May Destroy You feels like such a breath of fresh air for a countless amount of reasons. By creating a story so powerful and telling it in a non-overbearing sort of way, choosing not wasting anytime on ideas that don't need to be in the show, Coel has proven once again that she is completely in control here. She calls the shots. Recently, during an interview with Vulture, Coel explained the show's complicated history with Netflix, including her ultimate rejection of a deal for rights to the series valued at 800,000 British Sterling (1M USD). Coel explained to the journalist how the deal came with a caveat: she would have no rights to the show she wrote, a series based off of her own life experiences. It's honestly shocking to believe that this was even an issue, because in the way the show is written and performed, it's never difficult for viewers to see, interpret, and understand just how heavily Coel's personal life is imprinted in Arabella's story. Luckily, HBO and BBC swooped in to gaining the show's rights, and in the long run, the way viewers are able to see I May Destroy You is the way it is meant to be seen: the way Coel pictured it.
So, when it all comes down to it: why should you watch I May Destroy You? Honestly, because there is simply nothing like this series. While other films and television shows have dived into similar topics, none (that I have seen, at least) have proven to be as effective as the mega-hit Coel created, wrote, produced, and starred in. No series has been able to capture the idea of consent in such a fresh, unfiltered, and emotional sort of way - while being able to take viewers on such a complicated and deep journey in such a short amount of time. Each episode simply flies through it's 30 minute runtime, and by time the series' climatic conclusion comes to an end, it's nearly impossible not to take anything away from the show. I May Destroy You is a revelation, and it almost feels obvious that Coel's show is going to influence television, entertainment, culture, and the world for years to come.
I May Destroy You airs Mondays at 9PM EST on HBO, and the first seven episodes are available right now for streaming on HBO Max.