Trigger warning: This article discusses rape and sexual assault.
"Prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman. I was busy being Black and poor." –Arabella
I May Destroy You might sound like the title of a fast-paced, thrilling tale of revenge and retribution. But writer, creator and BAFTA award-winning Michaela Coel's new show is anything but. The 12-part BBC series tackles the raw and sticky issues of consent, relationships and dating in the contemporary world.
Airing on Mondays and Tuesdays, I May Destroy You stars Coel as Arabella, a pink-haired party girl who found fame on social media after her debut book, Confessions of a Fed-Up Millennial became a viral hit. Fame hasn't exactly been a great motivator, though. Arabella spends the majority of her time smoking weed, posting on Instagram and pining after an Italian drug dealer (Marouane Zotti), all while trying to meet her deadline for her second book – a deadline that moves even further out of reach when she gets a call from her friends. They want to go out for drinks. Suddenly the pace of the show picks up as we're taken on a woozy journey around east London as Arabella dances, downs shots and does drugs.
In the sobering light of the following day, Arabella is typing at her desk with a smashed phone and a bloody gash on her forehead. And with unexplained flashbacks of sexual violence. What happened last night?
Arabella's ordeal is an echo of Coel's own experience. I May Destroy You is an account of the sexual assault Coel experienced a few years ago. In a 2018 Guardian interview, Coel describes how she had been working on a script before heading out to meet a friend for a drink. She woke up several hours later at her production company's office and realised something was seriously wrong. "I had a flashback," she said. "It turned out I'd been sexually assaulted by strangers."
I May Destroy You is a departure from Chewing Gum, the critically acclaimed E4 comedy that Coel wrote, directed and starred in as Tracey Gordon, a 24-year-old clueless romantic desperate to lose her virginity while living with her religious mum and sister on a working class estate in east London. As Arabella, Coel transforms herself into a nervous young woman clutching desperately to her life even as it slowly falls apart.
As Arabella navigates the weeks after her assault – taking fitness classes, going to therapy and relying on her friends and agents for support – her two best friends are also battling their own issues. Terry (Weruche Opia) is awash with guilt for leaving an intoxicated Arabella to fend for herself in the club, while Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) has to deal with a Grindr dick appointment that turns sour.
Some might argue that a rape storyline doesn't deserve 12 episodes (unlike with Normal People, Coel persuaded the BBC not to drop the entire series in one go) but I May Destroy You is a brilliant slow-burn that forces viewers to consider not only the dark reality of sexual assault but also the trauma of reporting it to the police and the haunting aftermath of recovery.
On a lighter note, much of what Coel did best in Chewing Gum, she does here, too. She depicts Black friendships in an honest way and debunks racial stereotypes: Black girls do take drugs! Black girls do enjoy threesomes! It's safe to say that Michaela Coel is not here for typecasting. In fact, she's creating space for awkwardness and difficult topics to thrive authentically.
I May Destroy You might be uncomfortable at times – and those who are triggered by narratives of sexual assault may want to proceed with care – but if you are able to tune in, it'll be worth it. Yes, it's a show that deals with incredibly serious themes. But it's also a show that is hilarious in parts and touching almost throughout. Michaela Coel has done it again.
I May Destroy You airs on Monday 8th June on BBC One.
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.