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[This story contains spoilers for the entirety of I May Destroy You‘s first season, including the finale.]
HBO’s I May Destroy You ended last night — over and over and over again.
In the last several episodes, a year or so after her rape, Arabella (Michaela Coel) had begun frequenting the London bar where a stranger had drugged her. At the end of the season’s penultimate chapter, these visits allowed the writer to finally identify her rapist and his accomplice, who had returned to the scene of the crime, from the shards of memories she had remaining of the night of her sexual assault. So what next? What does justice look like for rape victims? How should a story about sexual assault end?
As the series writer, creator and co-director, Coel grappled with precisely those questions in her semi-autobiographical drama’s cerebral yet satisfying finale, which evokes the difficulty of finding closure after trauma while indicting the unnaturalness and repulsiveness of the answers so often offered up by pop culture.
I May Destroy You premiered amid a renewed debate about how film and television should depict rape and sexual assault — an issue that gained greater urgency after the #MeToo movement. Traditionally, too many stories have underplayed female trauma by using a woman’s rape primarily as an impetus for a male hero’s actions. Other narratives have rendered sexual assault a metamorphosing event — or, perhaps more accurately, an annihilating one — in which victims become vengeance machines, as in the rape-revenge genre. Conspicuous is the absence of stories that reflect the humanity and resilience of survivors — and the spectrum of sexual assault that can make rape not just a deeply painful experience, but an unexpectedly confusing one, too.
With I May Destroy You, Coel set out to tell a kind of rape narrative that had been seldom told before, one whose freshness is as striking as the show’s Black British hipster milieu, its children-of-African-immigrants characters and its timely tale of a pop feminist writer who’s woefully naive about male manipulation. The series is attuned to rape’s many incarnations, including Zain’s (Karan Gill) non-consensual condom removal, or “stealthing” — an act that Arabella initially doesn’t even realize constitutes sexual assault. The show is also sensitive to the relative privilege that law enforcement accords female victims like Arabella vis a vis gay (Black) men like her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who’s further hampered by a hard-to-categorize sexual assault.
Coel also dramatizes the excruciating unknowability of what happened to one’s own body, as well as the equally under-discussed repeatability of sexual assault — an experience that baffles and torments Arabella. (In one of the season’s most heartbreaking lines, the writer says to her support group, “I’m here to learn how to avoid being raped. There must be some way, ’cause if there isn’t, that means at any time someone could just drag me into the bush and it would happen all over again, and I just, I don’t know, what kind of world would that be?”.)
And that’s not to mention the kinds of discomfiting cases that probably don’t count as sexual assault, yet leave women feeling rattled and unnecessarily tricked, like the threesome Arabella’s best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) has in Italy, where two men likely orchestrated the “chance” encounter.
I May Destroy You has been equally refreshing in its wide-ranging depiction of the psychological aftermath of rape, which for Arabella becomes a life-swerving incident, yet hardly the totality of who she is. Coel uses the expansive canvas of television to explore the many different thoughts, emotions and reactions Arabella undergoes in the year after her assault, from her initial denial and minimization of her own pain (“there’s a war in Syria”) to speaking out against Zain and fomenting social-media outrage. She’s forced to reconsider who she is — “prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman; I was busy being Black and poor,” she says — as well as the world around her. Most poignantly, she’s briefly asked to reconsider her friendship with Terry, who’d left her vulnerable at the bar, then kept that fact from Arabella for several months. But the series is also shockingly warm, life-affirming and subversively funny given its central subject matter, in part because of Coel’s go-for-broke comic performance, and in part because her character is situated in a bracing and lovingly sketched milieu of Black struggling creatives.
It’s I May Destroy You‘s self-assured specificity — or rather, the stylized departure from it — that first tips us off that the finale will comprise a series of fakeouts. The concluding episode begins with a grotesque girl-power exercise, in which Arabella changes into a platinum wig and a shiny, tiny, black dress that Catwoman would’ve worn during her clubbing days. With the help of Terry and their old classmate/new friend Theodora (Harriet Webb), another survivor of abuse, Arabella pulls off a series of ruses. The trio pilfer his drugs, lure him into a bathroom stall, then inject him with his own sedative, leaving him to stumble into the night until they reach an empty street, where Arabella exposes his genitals and beats him unconscious. She then drags his bleeding body to her home, where she hides him under the bed — the place where she puts everything she doesn’t want to deal with.
The episode then returns to the moment Arabella has recognized her rapist, and when she confronts him in the stall about what he’s done to her, he psychologically crumples. He mutters terrifying threats to himself — menacing warnings that imply his own past sexual victimization — and the oblique back story, combined with the spectacle of his psychopathy, turns the narrative’s spotlight from the survivor to the perpetrator, so much so that even Arabella is forced to show him kindness. The hypercompetent police that she dreamed of all along then arrive, to save her from a man much weaker than she is. After each of these two possible endings, Arabella tacks a new index card to the storyboard for her autobiographical writing project, feeling out how well they satisfy.
The final fakeout is the strangest of all, a fantasy of total control and desirability, where Arabella’s rapist not only wants consensual sex with her, but, in a surreal bit of gender reversal, welcomes her imaginary phallus inside him. The morning after, he’s clearly smitten, yet also leaves immediately after he’s asked to — she gets to reject him instead of him getting to decide she’s nothing but prey.
But all those scenarios involve her rapist, as well as a nauseating intimacy between them. Healing and learning to live in the moment again, which Arabella does by the end of the episode, wondering aloud about the noisy bird in her yard, may not be all that cinematic — but any other resolution, implies the finale, would just feel wrong. What lingers isn’t the action but the peace on Coel’s face as Arabella looks up at the sky, at a world once again full of possibilities.
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