In the beginning, there was Italy, cigarettes, friends, and strangers in a bar, and Arabella Essiedu - played by Michaela Coel, writer, co-director, executive producer, and star of I May Destroy You. Coel as a writer and actor is remarkable, as is the show for its realism and its insistence on the continued personhood of Arabella. It never lets us lose track of her.
From the moments Arabella enters the Italian taxi in the first episode, we stay up close with her. We are with her as she processes one sexual assault (she is drugged at a bar and comes to in the morning with a cut on her head and only a vague recollection of man with flared nostrils standing over her) and then another (her writing partner non-consensually removes a condom). We are with her as she becomes a social media champion of survivors, and keeps friends close while recalling recent and past events. We are with her on the phone in the bathroom, on the living room floor passing a joint back and forth with her roommate. We are trapped with her in front of her computer, writing a draft of her second book with the deadline looming throughout the show. There is no moment too mundane or too difficult to take us away from her. By the end, that unwavering attention provides answers to a season’s worth of questions.
But while Arabella is a constant, her energy ensures the show is never stagnant. In its finale, the show ascends into fantasy, exploring multiple versions of justice eked out against her original assailant. Much of the episode takes place at Ego Death, the bar Arabella returns to repeatedly in search of her rapist. In the penultimate episode, she catches sight of him. What’s next? The finale, the show seems to promise, will contain a payoff for all of Arabella’s pain, confusion, and searching.
I May Destroy You is dark material full of contradictions, poetic and playful, stark, fantastic, and ultimately hopeful. Arabella is a character in flux, and she is not the only one: Terry is a very supportive friend who, in the recent past, has left Arabella to fend for herself in vulnerable moments and advised others to do the same. Zain, hired to help Arabella with her draft, is bad and good - he assaults Arabella and, eventually and with her permission, helps her finish her book. Theo, an old schoolmate, is a liar who gives women a safe space in which to access their whole truths. Arabella herself is a fierce advocate for sexual-assault survivors who locks her friend Kwame in a room with a stranger, ignoring his desires in favour of her own. The ways in which we can describe anything or any person change the longer we look at them. But, as Arabella’s therapist says, if we can’t process and understand these complicated and contrasting feelings, we won’t be able to understand anything about ourselves.
Coel has said that the creation of I May Destroy You was a two and a half year undertaking, one of excavating, processing, and recovering. Its promise of destruction feels almost lucky, like a reassurance. Like maybe the line that separates you from me, bad from good, villain from victim, isn’t as clear as we’ve been made to believe. And if these contradictions are just a fact of life, if they are not some secret private thing happening to just me, then we can deal with it together. Perhaps there’s no singular you doomed to process the contradictions on your own. As Arabella and Terry often say to each other: My birth is your birth, my death is your death.
But it’s hard to truly look at yourself. It’s hard, as this year has taught so many, to be by yourself for an extended period of time. Thank God for this show, thank God for the empathic existence of Arabella. Thank God she remained a constant, capturing us in her energy and carrying us along with to revelation, one-half hour at a time. In the beginning, there was a bar, then nothing, a cracked phone screen, a cut that bleeds, and Arabella, up close and confronting the work that needed to be done.
Here’s how the show ends: Theo holds the rapist down in the street while Arabella beats him bloody and unconscious, taking him home and shoving him under her bed to cover her tracks. His blood stains her wall and her story notes. He bleeds into her carpet; he’s everywhere. That won’t work.
This is how it ends: Arabella takes him home, where she’s nice to him. He confesses his crimes. “It’s not right,” he says, marvelling at being allowed to sit on her bed. “Is it?” The police take him, and it’s not right.
Then again, no, this is how the show ends: Arabella knows something her rapist doesn’t. She knows who she is. She brings him into her home and in the morning she tells him to go. And he goes, taking every version of himself, finally exiting her story.
Western society has never been good at imagining any type of world that doesn’t centre violence and vengeance, but maybe that can be the past. No one knows how or why anything happens. We get beginnings, but endings stay open until one day they’re not. I can’t help but believe in good surprises, in something unexpected making things more whole not less. This is what the world looks like if you really look at it. It may destroy the idea you had for yourself and your place in it but look - look at how big it can be.
In the end, there is Arabella, every part of her. Imagine the future she can survive if every part of her life gets the attention it deserves.