Spoiler alert: this article describes the finale of I May Destroy You

There’s a moment watching the richly-imagined finale of I May Destroy You when I – as a rape survivor – felt unconscionable glee. Arabella, the protagonist, has tracked down her rapist to a bar, carried out a crackerjack revenge plan with the help of her two friends, and delivers a walloping punch to him, crouched on the pavement of an empty London street.

Then there’s another moment, shortly after, when the narrative slips from this exuberant violence into a certain horror, and then into black comedy – and I was left thinking: “Wait a second… is this real?”

That’s the beauty of Michaela Coel’s deftly written finale – it imagines multiple answers to the question of Arabella’s rapist, who spiked her drink in the first episode and remains a cipher throughout the series, no more than a face in a blurry memory, recalled from the floor of a public toilet. What is this man actually like? And more importantly, how will Arabella (played by Coel herself) take action when she finally has the chance to confront him?

Michaela Coel as Arabella in I May Destroy You

These kinds of questions plagued me, too, in the aftermath of my own stranger rape in 2008. And I’d argue they haunt many victims of rape. It is, after all, incomprehensible to think that another individual chose to enact this kind of violation on you – indelibly changing your life, your trust in the world, your very sense of self. But Coel explores this challenging terrain – and much more – with razor-sharp, unapologetic honesty in her 12-episode series. I May Destroy You is a boon to rape survivors, enabling us to tell the rest of the world: this is how it really is. The aftermath of rape is frustrating, messy, soul-destroying, unfair. And often, very unresolved. It is this lack of resolution which Coel plays with so cleverly, toying with our narrative expectations as viewers, while also delivering a satisfying, but realistic, finale.

I’ve been particularly attuned to how problematic films and television can be in portraying sexual assault and abuse. Often, rape on screen isn’t about the woman at all, but about the men. Rape is a tool used by one man to exact revenge on another (Cape Fear, 1991) or to drive a man’s quest for revenge (Irreversible, 2002). Sometimes a rape is thrown in casually, unnecessarily (Saturday Night Fever, 1977), or to raise the horror stakes (the infamous tree rape in The Evil Dead, 1982) or the dramatic stakes (the ill-judged climax of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991).

As for on-screen rape victims themselves, they often aren’t very three-dimensional characters. In the rape revenge sub-genre, they can transform miraculously from traumatised victims to implacable murderers of their own rapists. But these portrayals aren’t generally nuanced or believable. Unsurprisingly, they tend not to be authored by rape survivors themselves.

Coel in I May Destroy You

Coel was inspired to create I May Destroy You by her own experience of sexual assault. Her Arabella is shell-shocked, flawed, and very very real: a millennial addicted to social media, an author struggling with her second book, a creative who perhaps parties too much. The authenticity of her journey has had many fellow survivors nodding along in recognition: at the frustrating ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system, the pitying looks and platitudes from well-meaning friends, the long-range fall-out on one’s career, finances and relationships.

But beyond its truthfulness, the series boasts a fearless narrative ingenuity. This is at its most evident in her final two episodes, which move towards a surprising but wholly realistic resolution of the series’ two initial conflicts. In Episode 1, Arabella is drugged and raped by a virtual stranger (David, whom she meets in a bar). In Episodes 4 and 5, she dates Zain (Karan Gill), a fellow author who ‘stealths’ her (removing his condom without consent). Throughout the series, Coel has explored a spectrum of violations, and the personas and appearances characters put up to negotiate them.

In Episode 11, Coel starts to resolve these plot strands in surprising ways, first in an unexpected encounter between Arabella and Zain. In a more melodramatic script, there would be a frenzied shouting match, but instead Zain helps Arabella with the narrative structure of her still-unfinished-book. She invites him back to her flat, not to seduce him, but to map scenes from her book onto note-cards on her bedroom wall. When Zain leaves her, deep in thought before these note-cards, she casually asks him to take out two rubbish bags. These contain the clothes she had been wearing during her Episode 1 rape, and which the police had returned to her after they closed her case. (A loaded moment for any rape victim attempting to pursue justice. I can attest to that.)

Thus, in this penultimate episode, we start to see a clearing away of things for Arabella. She herself is searching for a clarity in telling her story, while Zain’s original violation of her is counterbalanced by the help he provides on narrative structure. In a meta moment, Zain coaches Arabella on introducing ‘the main antagonist’. Minutes later in Episode 11, we re-encounter the main antagonist of the series, when Arabella recognises David (Lewis Reeves) in the very bar where she was assaulted. Cue a cliffhanger ending.

Coel, Pappa Essiedu and Weruche Opia in I May Destroy You

The final episode begins on this dramatic high point – that of a rape victim encountering her rapist – and pushes the narrative possibilities with ever-increasing originality. Its Groundhog Day technique of multiple outcomes is a device we’re more accustomed to seeing in cinema, but it is particularly adept for a narrative around sexual violence. Coel plays across genre to toy with viewers’ expectations for how a rape narrative should turn out. Ultimately, in a Rashomon-like approach, we are treated to three different versions of that encounter between Arabella and her rapist.

In the first iteration, there is initially delight and a certain Charlie’s Angels vibe, complete with costume and wig changes for Arabella as she recruits friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Theo (Harriet Webb) to give David a taste of his own medicine. As viewers we maybe suspect something’s not quite right – this revenge plot is going a little too well – but we’re swept up in the sheer fun of it all, this sudden swerve into the familiar territory of a heist plot. The heist genre is entertaining precisely because it plays so much with our expectations: what the target doesn’t realise (but the audience does), what is part of the plan, what isn’t. So the narrative surprises keep coming… until Arabella hovers over her unconscious rapist on a London street and decides she wants to see his penis. This one violation slides horrifically into a darker, more murderous one. By the time Arabella is propping up David’s bloodied body on the night bus home (an older black lady quips: “Boys will be boys”), we know we are in black comedy territory. And that this outcome must be a fantasy. And yet, we keep watching.

Cut to Arabella re-ordering the notecards on her bedroom wall, and suddenly she’s back on the terrace of her flat, while her flatmate Ben asks her if she’s going out again that night.

Coel with Lewis Reeves as David

If Arabella recognises David in a bar, what’s another way this could play out? This time around, her best friend Terry is set on exacting revenge and recruits a reluctant Arabella (“I’m fixated on the past, not a future in which I’m reunited with my rapist!”). This version subtly addresses previous moments in their friendship: Terry’s sense of guilt over what happened to Arabella, their history of drug-fuelled nights out. It’s a clever revisiting of themes we’ve seen in earlier episodes.

But in the toilet stall, it’s David who throws up the unexpected twist. His verbal threats to Arabella (“You dumb little whore”) slide into self-hatred and the implication that he himself may be a victim of past abuse. David’s sobs unlock a jarring empathy for him, as he confesses his history of raping others: “I’m not used to people being nice to me… If you’re not scared, I don’t know how I’m meant to be.” By the time the police find him, Arabella is in tears over the man she wanted to hate – and we as viewers are left stunned at the emotional u-turn the storytelling has taken. Suddenly, the series’ main antagonist is the one to be pitied.

Reeves and Coel in I May Destroy You

By the time we reach the third ‘ending’, we find ourselves in the most surreal re-staging yet: Arabella approaches David in a dream-like, otherwise empty bar. In this version, David’s male co-conspirator dances provocatively for Terry, and Arabella suggests to David a consensual, sexual tryst in the toilet. Back at Arabella’s, they engage in a night of romance, both reaching orgasm as Arabella occupies the male penetrative position.

This ending dares to ask: what if violation is replaced by consent? What if you can share intimacy with your rapist? What if gender roles were reversed? ‘What if’ is a question often asked by a victim in the wake of assault. By throwing wide the range of possibility, Coel suggests another world entirely: perhaps rape wouldn’t exist at all if we didn’t have to operate under such gendered structures.

All three of these outcomes live only in Arabella’s imagination, as she sits contemplating whether to go out that night. Ultimately, she decides to stay in, watching educational videos with her soft-spoken flatmate Ben (Stephen Wight). And in a blink-or-you’ll-miss-them series of jump cuts, Coel indicates the passage of time: three quick shots of the plants on their terrace growing taller.

Weruche Opia as Terry in I May Destroy You

The coda, taking place months later, gives us the narrative resolution we crave as viewers. Terry is now happily in a relationship, and has achieved some success as an actress. As for Arabella, she is about to launch her independently-published second book, an account of her experience in Episode 1 and everything that came after. We cut to a close-up of Arabella months earlier in Italy, exhaling into the camera – and then running away along the beach, light-footed.

What’s so rewarding about this ending is Coel’s refusal to resolve the conventional narrative conflict between rape victim and rapist. Instead of hunting down David, Arabella starts to find peace in the everyday, small moments of her home life. There are complex truths not usually confronted in on-screen rape narratives: that abusers themselves can suffer emotionally, that criminal justice systems can fail us, that recovery lies in the uneventful passage of time and the fragile re-piecing of our sense of self.

The very first shot of the series is a static image of Arabella’s bedroom, the notecards of her future book pinned to the wall. In essence, this is the space in which the entire story is told, Arabella writing and re-writing the narrative of her own life, trying to tease out her own ending. By conferring Arabella with this creative power, Coel gives her alter-ego a sense of mastery over a scenario which had been defined by her lack of consent and agency.

Therein lies the significance of the title I May Destroy You. Throughout the series, Arabella may be driven by a rage to destroy her unknown rapist, but it’s really the act of creation (not destruction) that allows her to rebuild her life, her friends by her side. In so doing, Coel has offered fellow rape survivors a breath of fresh air. Exhale.