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The following article was created by our marketing department in collaboration with our partners at HBO Max.
I May Destroy You is a fearless inquiry of modern-day consent, gender dynamics, the imbalance of power and the path to recovery from trauma. Creator and star Michaela Coel unapologetically articulates the psychological implications of varying degrees of assault in twelve deeply cathartic and sharply clever episodes on HBO.
From the masterful writing and riveting performances to the non-linear editing and experimental storytelling– every facet of this inventive show is groundbreaking and sparks much-needed conversation.
Coel plays Arabella, a Twitter-famous up-and-coming author. On an impromptu night out before a big deadline, Arabella is drugged and raped at a club– a scene that draws inspiration from Coel’s own experience with sexual assault.
Arabella’s response to the realization that she was raped is fragmented. For viewers, this underscores the lack of protocol to processing a sexual assault and the impending impact on a victim.
Expanding in scope, I May Destroy You keeps Arabella’s wavering recovery at the forefront while paralleling her experiences with her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who also have concerning sexual encounters: A supposedly random threesome that was actually planned by two men pretending to be strangers. Protected sex that becomes unprotected after the stealth removal of the condom. Consensual sex followed by assault. All of these events are breaches of consent and cause emotional trauma that manifests differently for each character.
For Aribella, we see this play out in a number of ways in the aftermath of her assault. She grapples with recurring flashbacks, struggles to finish her book under a fast-approaching deadline, and leans on the familial bonds established with Kwame and Terry for support.
Bella, Terry, and Kwame are all highly dynamic characters but not without fault themselves. These characters’ distress and reactionary behavior exhibit how complex dealing with matters of consent and sexual coercion can be. Throughout the series, each member of the trio must learn to trust their own feelings as they restore their life and sense of self in the aftermath of an assault.
I May Destroy You uses jumpy non-linear editing to represent trauma visually before knowingly obscuring it from the audience. Rapidly cut flashbacks of Arabella’s rape in a bathroom stall are frequently seen from an uncomfortably low angle, at times envisioning different rapists. Slowly, images of the night in question begin to flood back to Arabella in bits and pieces.
When Arabella’s trauma is portrayed on screen, the established visual rules of the show are broken, and the structure of her reality suddenly vanishes. These pacing and editing techniques present the audience with a distorted timeline and a murky sense of reality, intentionally jarring viewers.
Coel trusts her audience to recognize and empathetically connect with the show, which sheds light on a number of imperative societal changes. It’s uncomfortable to openly speak about consent, sexual assault, and rape in public forums, but that makes it all the more necessary. Because if something feels wrong, it likely is.
Depicting such issues on a premium series positions I May Destroy You to destigmatize discussions of sexual assault on a mass scale. In witnessing characters experience sexual trauma throughout the series, survivors of sexual assault gain long-overdue representation. Through inventive storytelling and character development, Coel introduces new voices and perspectives that are often relegated to the margins of broader cultural discussions.
I May Destroy You seeks to dispel the so-called “gray area” of consent– and more specifically, the transgressions that occur when it’s granted under false pretenses. Doing so gives voice to survivors that have experienced a situation where it’s uncertain if a crime has occurred, but they still feel violated. Coel employs skillful manipulations and crafted misunderstandings to highlight how gaslighting blurs the survivors grasp of narrative and reality, placing the goal of healing even further out of reach.
With the inclusion of often overlooked aspects of assault, characters and viewers are purposely forced into a place of discomfort. In doing so, the audience is led to acknowledge these issues within our communities, and we’re reminded that coping looks different for every survivor.
In the powerful finale, we learn that Arabella has been returning to Ego Death, the bar where she was raped, for a year to stake out and hopefully confront her rapist. However, she begins to question what that sort of closure would look like, wondering what she would do if she came face to face with her attacker.
After envisioning multiple scenarios of revenge and disempowerment of her rapist, Arabella decides that none of these conclusions are satisfying– for nothing will ever change the fact that the rape occurred. She’s the one that’s been repairing herself for a year, and her attacker’s life is no longer relevant – he doesn’t deserve that power over her. She decides it’s time to move on and let go.
The path from damage to recovery is different for each character in this unabashed narrative about the healing of sexual trauma. More importantly, Coel gives her protagonist the power to choose her own ending. Like Arabella, Coel wants viewers to reimagine the incidents that caused them trauma to empower themselves and ease their pain.
Similar to healing, I May Destroy You is not exactly straightforward nor conclusive. Coel’s execution of her superbly written character arcs and unforgettable moments of comic levity accurately capture the enduring journey of healing. Her portrayal of Arabella is raw and realistic, depicting that recovery is an individual undertaking but can be aided by therapy, affirming friendships, and restorative activities. Although trauma has impacted Arabella by the end of I May Destroy You, Coel’s message is clear: tragedy doesn’t define anyone.
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