In the fifth episode of I May Destroy You, Arabella (played by Michaela Coel), an up-and-coming, internet-famous writer, explains to her literary agents and a sharklike publisher, Susy (Franc Ashman), that she’s just come from the police station, because she was raped. Susy’s eyes flicker with concern, and then burn with interest. “You’d better get going, missy,” she tells Arabella. “I want to see that story.”
The most obvious way to interpret I May Destroy You is as a brilliant, explosive consideration of modern sexual mores, and of how flimsy the line can be between gratification and exploitation. (As Lili Loofbourow wrote in The Week in 2018, “The world is disturbingly comfortable with the fact that women sometimes leave a sexual encounter in tears,” a dynamic that the viral New Yorker short story “Cat Person” had probed the month before.) But Coel, who created the show in part based on an event that happened to her, is also aware of how exploitation can play out in art—how one woman’s traumatic experience can easily be manipulated and transformed into sales figures or a social-media storm. Or a television series. As a character, Arabella is brash and irresistible and sexually fearless. As a woman, she’s also inherently vulnerable when she sleeps with strangers. And as a black woman, she’s exposed on yet another level, whether to companies seeking out people of color for online kudos or to fans who desperately want her to mirror their own under-portrayed perspectives.
A writer less volcanically talented than Coel might struggle to weave one of these themes into a 12-part series; that she’s able to explore so many different layers of power while creating such a compulsively watchable show is striking. In the first episode, which debuts today on HBO, Arabella returns from a jaunt in Italy (funded by her indulgent but nervous agents) to a deadline that’s long overdue. Wearily, she sets up for an all-nighter in their office with caffeine pills, cigarettes, and all the other accoutrements of the ineffectual, overcommitted writer. (When she Googled “how to write fast,” I winced.) She initially says no when a friend invites her out for a drink, then changes her mind. She’s planning to get back to work within an hour, but things get blurry. There are frenetic scenes of her doing shots, staggering around the bar, trying to stay upright. The next morning, after turning in pages of work that her agent describes, politely, as “abstract,” Arabella has a deeply unsettling flashback of a man in a bathroom stall who seems to be assaulting her.
The evening sparks a process that rebounds through all aspects of Arabella’s life: Something happens to her, she interprets it based on partial information, and then she receives new information that changes the context and upends her thinking. Arabella, who’s so eloquent at parsing the nuances of human behavior in her writing, is surprisingly myopic when it comes to sex and consent. Subtly but devastatingly throughout I May Destroy You, viewers see why that might be. In the absence of a frank discussion or the kind of meticulous, preemptive line-drawing that’s a lot to ask in the heat of desire, the question of how to define a sexual experience comes down to interpretation, and interpretation is always subjective. In one scene, Arabella’s best friend, Terry (Weruche Opia), texts a friend boasting that she’s just had a threesome, while her expression suggests that she feels more violated than she’s letting on. In another, Arabella sleeps with a man who removes his condom midway through without telling her; when she finds out, she’s initially angrier at the inconvenience of having to pay for emergency contraception than she is about an act she later discovers is classifiable as rape. (Or it is under U.K. law, she points out; in Australia, it’s merely categorized as “a bit rapey.” Even entire countries can’t agree on what’s rape and what’s not.)
Coel is as far from a moralizing writer as could be imaginable. Her debut series, the raunchy, semi-autobiographical Chewing Gum, was about a devoutly religious, Beyoncé-worshipping 24-year-old who can’t stand not having sex any longer. She knows that humiliation is often a sexual rite of passage: In one scene, the main character (also played by Coel) takes her friend’s advice, to just sit on her boyfriend’s face, a little too literally. But I May Destroy You questions why risk and vulnerability have become such accepted components of sex and dating that they’re generally shrugged off altogether. One of Arabella’s partners screams at her for not watching her drink in a nightclub, as if the possibility of being drugged and assaulted is so commonplace that she’s at fault for not consistently anticipating it. Arabella and Terry joke that their friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is the king of Grindr, but he’s just as susceptible to abuse as they are, and potentially less able to make his nebulous feelings about traumatic events tangible.
I May Destroy You never explicitly suggests what many feminist writers argued in late 2017 and 2018, in the early days of #MeToo—that sexual liberation, since the 1960s, has been shaped by male desire and male gratification, and that women (and some men, as in Kwame’s case) have been conditioned to accept pain as the price of pursuing pleasure. The show is entirely informed by Coel’s distinct experiences as a black British woman in London, as a writer who unexpectedly found success and a following turning her life into art, and as someone who unashamedly does what she wants. But Coel also uses musical cues and flashbacks to nod to the early 2000s, when raunch culture was defining sexuality for a generation of women who are only now coming to terms with its consequences. (In the upcoming movie Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan, the writer and director Emerald Fennell seems to do the same thing, parsing contemporary rape culture with stylistic elements such as Britney Spears’s “Toxic” and the specter of Paris Hilton.)
The most compelling part of I May Destroy You, though, is always Arabella. Coel has the kind of screen presence that can disrupt gravity, even when she’s squatting on the street to pee or slumped on a bench next to a pile of vomit that may or may not be hers. Arabella can be cruel and infuriating and hopelessly self-absorbed; Coel is particularly unflinching when she’s exploring how waves of social-media adulation can damage a person. Ultimately, Arabella processes her thoughts about her assault by writing about it, and by going to therapy. But Coel never closes her eyes to the implications of turning pain into entertainment, nor does she try to expand the story beyond her perspective. “I thought you were writing about consent,” a character tells her as she’s midway through a manic writing binge. “So did I,” she replies. “I don’t understand it,” he says. Her face glows in response. “I do.”