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‘I May Destroy You’s Wild Finale Proves Michaela Coel is a Fiery Genius

“I thought you were writing about consent.”

“So did I.”

“I don’t understand it.”

I do.

That exchange in the penultimate episode of I May Destroy You stopped me in my tracks. When the HBO series debuted back in June, it was indeed set up to be a riveting exploration of consent in the post #MeToo world. After rising literary star Arabella (Michaela Coel) goes out for a night on the town, she realizes the next morning that something’s off. She was roofied — “spiked,” in British slang — and raped, but she has no clear memory of it. However, she does have oodles of trauma.

As we watched Arabella grapple with the fallout of her assault, I May Destroy You zoomed in and out to show the unbearable chasm of pain, guilt, rage, injustice, and trauma afflicting not just Arabella, but everyone in her orbit. We spend time with other victims, revisit the angst-ridden grey areas of adolescence, and even force Arabella to gaze down the abyss growing within herself. By last night’s finale, it became clear that series star, creator, and writer Michaela Coel wanted to explore much more than consent. She tackled humanity.

Often when we talk about sexual assault onscreen, it’s split into a few areas of cliché. It can serve as a tragically scant backstory for a character, as a crime needing to be coldly solved in a procedural, or even the instigating factor for a revenge story. I May Destroy You shrugged off these approaches while still examining them. Arabella spends the arc of the series trying to piece together who spiked her, but her journey meanders back and forth in time as she confronts a lifetime of exploitation. Coel takes the audience into the grey zones of our modern relationships, forcing us to recognize our own complicity in this ever-revolving carousel of pain.

The final episode of I May Destroy You is about self-confrontation as much as it is about seeking retribution. At first, “Ego Death” seemingly picks up where the penultimate episode left off. After stalking the site of her assault for months, Arabella finally clocks her attacker. We then see three startlingly fantasies for what would come next. In the first, Arabella attempts to spike her rapist, but that only leads to a situation out of Game of Thrones where she stalks the man and beats him to death in the street. She then imagines a confrontation where the man admits his own malice and crumples emotionally before being apprehended by cops. Then there’s the dream where Arabella plays “the man” and the two enjoy a consensual encounter.

Michaela Coel in the I May Destroy You finale
Photo: HBO

Each of these scenarios provides some measure of catharsis and yet they are all incomplete. In each fantasy, the man also winds up in Arabella’s bedroom, the palace of her pleasure and the graveyard of her traumas. Afterwards, Arabella stares at the story treatment on her wall and attempts to make any of these conclusions feel like a real ending. Finally, she jumps back to the quiet backyard scene with her kind roommate Ben (Stephen Wright). She ultimately ends her tragic tale by refusing to return to the bar. She lets it go. The final moments reveal that her independently published book is what we’ve been watching. (It’s very similar to the end of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and that’s not a bad thing!)

The ultimate takeaway from I May Destroy You isn’t a clear black and white rulebook on consent. Instead Coel keeps tiptoeing in and out of situations where it is impossible to know what is right and what is wrong. The ways in which people strike each other is less about premeditated evil, and more about overstepping unseen boundaries. Arabella’s ultimate peace doesn’t come from confronting her attacker, but acknowledging her own complicity in other’s pain. Whether it’s realizing how she trapped Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) in a room with a man, foolishly led thieves to her father’s house, or snitched on a childhood friend, Arabella’s contrition is as transformative as her trauma.

We might have thought that Michaela Coel was throwing down a treatise on the meaning of consent in 2020, but I May Destroy You is so much more than that. Like the book that her fictional alter ego is working on, I May Destroy You is a frank, mind-bending, heart-breaking look at the soul of its author. Full of quotable monologues and masterful dark jokes, the series is a technical masterpiece and proof positive that Coel is one of the most scorching voices writing today.

HBO’s I May Destroy You is true art.

Where to stream I May Destroy You

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