I May Destroy You review: Michaela Coel rewrites the rules of the game

As writer-actor-director-producer, Coel has created one of the most bracingly original TV dramas in years, in the story of Arabella and her disorienting transformation from victim to vigilante to virago.

12 August 2020

By Kate Stables

I May Destroy You (2020)
Sight and Sound

The personal turns out to be passionately political in writer-actor-director-producer Michaela Coel’s bold, stylish and bracingly original consent drama, now shooting across the landscape of tired lockdown television like a comet portending welcome change. At its restless start, hardpartying bestselling author Arabella (a mercurial Coel), whose first book was fêted as the voice of the British millennial woman, is wrestling fruitlessly with a blocked follow-up and an uncommitted Italian lover. Fleeing an all-night deadline to go bar-hopping, she wakes in a fugue state, cut and confused. But as she pieces together the timeline of the drink-spike rape that has upended her life, the drama shifts unexpectedly to the aftermath rather than an investigation of the assault. Gently advised that her floor-eye-view flashbacks and a stranger’s semen are partial proof of rape, Arabella is desperate not to be defined as a victim.

Focusing on the fallout that shakes her life to its foundations is a particularly courageous move here, since Coel is using her own very similar 2016 assault as the basis of the series. Her bravery puts a much-needed Black experience into a genre dominated by white-women-centred #MeToo dramas like Bombshell, The Assistant and Netflix’s true-crime-based series Unbelievable. Coel, whose Bafta-winning comedy series Chewing Gum (2015-17) refashioned her thirsty religious twenties into raucous, sex-positive farce, has always been fascinated by the body, its appetites and vulnerabilities. I May Destroy You unleashes the dark flipside of that curiosity.

Adopting Arabella’s puzzled, traumatised POV, the show has a usefully disoriented feel for its first two episodes, shifting from a thriller-tinged tale into a survivor drama. Unsettling but unusually absorbing, it plunges you into Arabella’s life as part of a tight trio of ride-or-die East London friends, with struggling actress Terry and wary gay personal trainer Kwame. An audacious pivot in episode three passes the narrative baton among them for the rest of the series, widening the drama’s focus to examine knotty issues of sexual consent through a tricky threesome, a secret switch of sexuality, and a grey-area assault that threatens to unpick Kwame’s cheerful Grindr addiction. Significantly more than Arabella’s self-care support crew (the show is slyly funny about the yoga, painting and handicrafts that her therapist prescribes), their misadventures are wound skilfully around her core story, till their shared betrayals and confusions chime and chafe.

Fashioning all of this into well-honed half-hours, co-directed mostly by Coel and Luther veteran Sam Miller, the tight-packed parcels of plot form a twisty, disturbing, darkly funny narrative arc. If I May Destroy You feels marvellously sui generis, it’s also undeniably part of a genre-bending tribe of sophisticated 30-minute TV dramedies like the BBC’s Back to Life, Channel 4’s Catastrophe or FX’s Better Things, their ingredients rich and varied despite their length. Coel was so keen that her show be savoured that she insisted on weekly transmissions late at night rather than the usual bingeable iPlayer drop.

Stretched out over 12 episodes, the series’ first half is strong and consistently surprising (there’s even a long, off-piste plot detour to an uneasily ambiguous schoolyard assault that Arabella and Terry must reassess). If it drifts midway into flabbier social-media-blaming, or blunt satire on eco-capitalism and influencer culture as Arabella becomes a righteous Insta-warrior for assault victims, you can fault its quart-into-a-pint-pot construction, but not its ambition.

Weruche Opia as Terry, Coel, and Paapa Essiedu as Kwame

By and large, the experimentation works because the show is so firmly rooted in its sense of place, skilfully immersed in the lives of young Black Londoners. Shot in a recognisable slice of East London, running through Hackney and Shoreditch into the City, it eschews the tourist-trap London beloved of BBC prestige productions. Each episode is threaded with walk-and-talks in crowded Hackney streets, neon-splashed bus journeys, buzzy bars, windy estate walkways. Through them, the central trio banter, scold and chat shit with the ease of the long-attached, Coel’s spiky dialogue spilling out of them. “Your birth is my birth, your death is my death” is their all-for-one mantra.

Refreshingly unjudgemental about millennial hook-up culture, the show has the same this-is-happening immediacy as the fond, uncensored portrait of Manchester’s gay scene in Queer as Folk (1999). Unlike Netflix’s tell-all youth melodrama Euphoria, it’s not self-consciously controversial, serving up its easy attachments without gloss or titillation. So much so that its sensitive dramatisations of more obscure consent violations like ‘stealthing’ (illicit condom removal) or non-consensual humping are probably already prompting hot Gen Z debate on the issues. Less dreamy than the recent BBC/ Hulu drama Normal People but as graphic about its frequent sex scenes, it explores some taboo areas with brio (thanks to the now ubiquitous ‘intimacy coordinator’). A frank scene of period sex, including a blood clot big enough to have its own agent, may be a UK TV first.

Sharper still is the show’s commitment to calling out the racism encountered daily by its characters. Thoughtless micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and the huge weight of white privilege are tucked into every encounter with Arabella’s agent Julian, Terry’s humiliating advert auditions (“Can you take your wig off now”), and a white girl hot for ‘edgy’ Black men. Coel, eager to call out oppression and asymmetry, leaves no power structure unturned in her heroine’s journey through trauma. Unequal relationships between Blacks and whites, men and women, children and parents, between young Black creatives and the media companies eager to commodify their talent – they’re all called out, some louder than others. But, shrewdly, when Arabella seizes some power for herself, in a ringing denunciation of a date-rapist that goes viral, the drama shows it’s a two-edged sword.

Working nimbly in tandem with Miller, Coel demonstrates impressive control of her winding plots and their often ironic outcomes. Mimicking Arabella’s roving memory, the episodes dart into the past for answers. Not just back to the liminal space of Ostia, where a tense, drug-fuelled girls’ trip with Terry jumps between hymning the joys of the messy night out and dodging the dangers of its ket-coke-and-molly excesses. Arabella’s invasive assault flashbacks, their contents mutating alarmingly, prompt a flood of queasy childhood memories. Reappraising her adored and largely absent daddy offers up disturbing insights into her upbringing.

Coel’s protean performance drives it all along, pulling the show’s disparate elements into a daring Bildungsroman. As Arabella’s journey takes her through several incarnations – literary hustler, dazed victim, bar-room vigilante, virago-saint of survivors – she’s mesmerising. Flashing from terrified calm to righteous rage, from clowning to icy gravitas, she can make the drama turn on a sixpence. Balanced by the sharp-tongued affection of Weruche Opia as Terry, only Paapa Essiedu’s thoughtful connection-hungry Kwame can rival her for pathos, as he flails through his own, unrecognised trauma. Making all her characters both used and users, crashing others’ boundaries even as they yell about their own, Coel’s writing is acute, full of empathy for all its flawed humans – a tad too much empathy perhaps for Arabella’s undisciplined, almost mystic creativity, her reluctant fragments of work in progress often bombastic or banal. There are some fine, flinty insights, though: “I never noticed being a woman. I was too busy being poor and Black.”

I May Destroy You is a game-changer of a show: its most interesting legacy may not be its challenging themes, but its formal fearlessness. At the show’s end, the book that Arabella struggled to write starts to merge osmotically with the show that Coel has triumphantly fashioned. Whipping her wayward storylines into a startling spiral of possibilities, Coel’s innovative ending is both meaty and surprisingly meta. Destroyer or destroyed, it’s all within Arabella’s grasp.