Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including rape, which some readers might find upsetting. The following piece contains spoilers for the final two episodes of I May Destroy You.
Over the course of its 12 episodes, I May Destroy You has proved itself the most vital new TV show of 2020.
Each 30-minute episode is an emotional rollercoaster through life as seen through the eyes of a young, Black millennial woman in London. Its star, writer and creator Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) plays Arabella, a pink-haired, carefree content creator who has found fame after the success of her first book and is now scrambling to meet the deadline for her second. All the while she is navigating London life on a high of drugs, partying with friends and forging new relationships.
But her carefree life comes to a halt when she starts to get flashbacks of a violent assault. The flashbacks haunt her. Arabella doesn't remember how she got home from a bar one night or how she got the scar on her forehead. The more she remembers, the more unanswered questions she has.
The BBC series (also on HBO in the US) is incredibly candid in its approach to sexual assault and consent; it tackles them head-on and unusually, often with humour. Unlike so many other narratives that explore similar themes, I May Destroy You places these 'taboo' subjects as central to the storytelling, linked to every twist and turn of Arabella and her friends' lives. Coel's depiction of sexual abuse and trauma is messy, her character is real and flawed. In turn, her experience appears all the more relatable and real. It's no wonder this comes through; based loosely around Coel's own experience of being drugged and sexually assaulted by a stranger after a night out with friends, I May Destroy You makes a concerted effort to destroy the myths and misconceptions about sexual assault that survivors are forced to live with each day.
For anyone who's experienced sexual assault, Arabella's experience unfolds with a sense of uncomfortable familiarity, from the sense of unbelieving denial when she first heads to the police, unsure if she even has a crime to report ("There are hungry children" and "Not everyone has a smartphone" she repeats to herself) to the emotional seesaw she's trapped on as we watch her life unravel. One minute she's lost her conversation skills and can't eat, the next she's using all her energy to flirt with a guy she fancies. Coel's message is clear: the survivor's response to sexual assault isn't one size fits all. It's a powerful rallying call of "I see you" to every survivor who's been told they don't look or act "like a rape victim".
Because in reality, how does a rape victim act? In Arabella's case, she behaves like any young millennial woman; she fancies the pants off her Italian on/off boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti) — who later pulls a gun on her when she arrives unannounced at his flat in Italy — and hooks up with work pal Zain (Karan Gill), who violently assaults her by nonconsensually removing his condom during sex. Arabella, suffering from PTSD, initially laughs this incident off, unable to deal with the repercussions of yet more assault.
It's not just female survivors who Coel addresses. Arabella's friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) has spent the series coming to terms with his own sexual assault by a man he met on Grindr almost immediately after they had consensual sex. Kwame's treatment at the hands of the police shows how far we still have to go to end the misconceptions about male sexual assault.
At the end of the penultimate episode, we see Arabella return to the scene of the crime, the Ego Death Bar, with best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) where she is finally forced to confront what happened to her. She catches sight of her attacker David (Lewis Reeves) and his friend Tariq (Chin Nyenwe) and, in an incredibly difficult to watch scene, the missing pieces of the attack fall into place. Episode 11 ends just like that, leaving us wondering: What next? Will Arabella call the police?
Episode 12 takes a long and winding road into Arabella's mind, playing out several different ways in which she could react and, subsequently, deciding how she will end the last chapter of her book. The episode is perfect: a delicious three-course meal of redemption, revenge and forgiveness. Again, the message is clear: all three reactions Arabella has are valid. There is no one size fits all.
For many survivors, these last two episodes, while triggering (and the BBC could do a little better at signposting this IMHO), and the series as a whole have proved to be a cathartic experience. From start to finish, I May Destroy You has dismantled victim-blaming narratives and opened the doors to an honest discussion of sexual violence and consent, all too familiar subjects which have been taboo for far too long.
Arabella, having struggled throughout the series to finish her book, finds the perfect ending to something that was horrible. This speaks to the incredible tenacity of survivors: you use that experience and turn it into a positive. The journey isn't always going to be smooth sailing, there will be bumps in the road and you will find yourself coming back down to earth, wondering whether you could have changed your past. But what Coel explains in I May Destroy You is that you can't change what happened, only understand it with a fresh pair of eyes – and use that experience to create something beautiful.
I May Destroy You is not just Coel's story of acceptance, growth and healing, it's a masterpiece.
I May Destroy You is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence of any kind, confidential support and information is available at Rape Crisis or by calling 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, or 08088 01 03 02 in Scotland.