[TW: drug use, sexual assault, trauma]
From drug-induced disorientation and blinding neon lights to the cathartic clarity of a lonely beach, I May Destroy You discusses the complexity of human emotion and struggle while maintaining a sense of optimism and humor. It is an exploration of traumatic experiences, whether they be casual or transformative, as well as art as a way to heal from them. Created, written, directed, and starred in by Michaela Coel, the show is semi-autobiographical, with a focus on individuality that makes it mesmerizingly raw.
Throughout the series, young London writer Arabella explores multiple identities and outlooks on life, with all of them coalescing into a character who feels remarkably human. As a victim of a rape she cannot remember, Arabella grasps for memories of her trauma throughout her healing process but fails to find peace externally and turns inward for reflection. Working as a businesswoman trying to meet her publishers’ deadlines one day to chasing a man who does not value her another, her dynamism demonstrates how a cycle of personal reinvention is essential to both recovery and the creative process.
This cycle leaves the audience confused about who Arabella really is if she is able to take on all these different lives, magnifying a sense of disorientation about the real versus imagined self. The season finale, “Ego Death,” embodies this by presenting three different endings, in which Arabella becomes three different versions of herself. They presumably take place in her imagination, with each functioning as a possible ending for both her book and for her reality.
In one ending, she avenges her rape by drugging and beating up her assailant, although this results in her bringing him back home and putting him under her bed and thus representing her inability to truly gain independence from him. In another, he becomes her imagination, telling her that she is worthless and “a dumb, stupid, little whore” because her outcries are insignificant against a backdrop of extreme suffering in the world. In this scenario, her assailant addresses her by his own name, furthering the ambiguity of who is destroying who and advancing the question, “But who’s the criminal, you or me?” In the last scenario, no drugs are involved, in stark contrast to their permeation of the rest of the show. Instead, Arabella approaches her rapist and initiates their consensual sexual encounter in which the reversal of the power dynamic is amplified by how it is Arabella who seems to be penetrating him. In the morning, in what seems to be a loving fashion, her rapist tells her that he will not leave unless she tells him to. It is this chilling last scenario that illuminates how trauma continues to live within us, and how we grow to “love” or depend on it. When Arabella tells him, “Go,” she banishes him from her mind and gains closure internally. The completion of her book also represents the transcendence of her trauma.
It is worth noting that a major element in Arabella’s journey to overcome her creative struggles is Zain Tareen, someone else who had previously assaulted her by non-consensually removing his condom during sex. The idea of a rapist helping his victim overcome her trauma from another rape illuminates the ingenious complexity and ambiguity of I May Destroy You. Does that imply that previous traumas aid future growth? Or does it illustrate the possibility of redemption? How is it significant that Arabella achieved external justice for Zain’s transgression by publicly exposing him, but not for her other rapist? By initially villainizing Zain, but later showcasing his kindness in helping Arabella, it becomes unclear whether he should be hated or not in spite of his heinous actions.
Coel highlights the beauty and the ugliness within people, not only through Zain but also through Arabella. While Arabella is undoubtedly the hero of the show, she remains imperfect and is capable of inflicting the very breach of consent she so fervently denounces. When she playfully locks her friend, Kwame, also a victim of sexual assault, in a room with another man without asking either, it becomes evident that she is imperfect, contradicting initial perceptions of her as a hero. This sense of aversion in spite of love for her is furthered when she antagonizes Kwame for failing to disclose that he is gay to a woman he hooked up with, ignoring the nuances of his situation, which involved him trying to heal from being sexually assaulted by a man and having gay slurs used against a woman he slept with. If Arabella, a character whom the audience has grown to love, is capable of being so horrible towards a friend experiencing trauma, it causes viewers to question their own complicity in spite of their good intentions.
Even Terry, Arabella’s best friend, who does her best to support her through her recovery, is depicted as someone who has abandoned her in the past. The love she has for Arabella is deeply genuine, yet she fails to stay with her when she is obviously incapacitated. In this way, the show treads away from thinking in simple binaries and encourages viewers to probe their own identities, witnessing not only the beauty but also the ugliness of their qualities.
I May Destroy You sparks a conversation not only about sexual assault, but also the complexity of simply being human, with the capacity to do both wonderful and horrible things. Nothing is ever black or white, and it is through art that people can begin to understand and cope with the trauma ever-present in society. While the show is about sexual assault, it is also, as Coel says, “About everything.”