In describing Michaela Coel’s harrowingly incisive series I May Destroy You, critics have been quick to proclaim it as something that is “not just ______.” It is “not just” an HBO show about consent. It is “not just” a series that weaves together themes of racism, drug use, Black queerness, friendship, shame, memory, social media, and intimacy. It is “not just” anything, in part, because what it actually is is so hard to define. It is “not just” anything because the hot orb that the entire series revolves around is truth—how to tell it, how to find it, and how to hide it from those we love and from ourselves. And in that sense, the series is “not just” anything because it is actually about what’s at the core of everything; it’s about what happens when we confront the truths that hurt us the most.
Monday night’s season finale marked the long-awaited conclusion to the 12-episode arc that saw Coel’s protagonist Arabella finally come face-to-face with her rapist. Well, sort of. The series has always been a whodunnit in the most superficial sense: the premise of the premiere was that Arabella was drugged and raped one night while out with friends. In subsequent episodes, she’s trying to piece together the fuzzy, fragmented memories of that night while also dealing with the complicated fallout of a traumatic experience she can’t quite recall in full. But though the through line of the season has been tracking down the assailant, the multiple truths that have emerged from her pursuit are far more “the point” than actually identifying the rapist himself. Throughout the season, we get to see the ways in which Arabella’s reality keeps shifting as she uncovers new information about what went down that night. A blaring subtext to the main storyline, for instance, is how much she first needs to unpack about herself in order to reckon with what happened. So, corny though it may sound, the person Arabella ultimately came face-to-face with in the season finale was, well, herself.
In the final episode, we watch as three very different scenarios play out in Arabella’s mind, each manifested as a possible way for her to find some semblance of closure. The first scenario sees her enacting a revenge fantasy, tracking down her assailant David (Lewis Reeves) with the help of her two friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Theo (Harriet Webb). Arabella ruthlessly asserts her power over him by tricking him into preying on someone else so she can catch him in the act and turn him in to the authorities. When the plan goes awry, however, the friends end up beating him and then shoving his tattered body under Arabella’s bed—out of sight, alongside the other traumas that she’s pushed out of her consciousness.
In the second scenario, Arabella humanizes her rapist, trying to understand him as a person, and how and why he was predisposed to attacking her—and, likely, other victims as well. Her power here comes in the form of empathy: by showing her rapist compassion, she can exercise true forgiveness in a way that frees her from the clutches of her trauma. This scenario supposes that forgiveness is what will provide a remedy for her emotional and psychological turmoil.
The third and final scenario is one of redemption: she approaches David at the bar and the pair flirt and hit it off as equals. She brings him back to her place for consensual sex in possibly one of the most surreal sex scenes HBO has aired to date (which is saying something); in the morning, he turns to her and says, pointedly, “I’m not gonna go unless you tell me to.” She does.
“Go.” And so he goes, as does the bloody carcass version of himself stuffed under the bed. They both leave, and Arabella is left alone in her room. She finds an ending to her book.
For all the ways that I May Destroy You is groundbreaking—in its centering of complex, intersectionally diverse Black characters; in its nuanced treatment of sexual assault and sexuality; in its understanding of the duality that defines all humans—the way the season ends may just be its most groundbreaking feature yet. The finale captured visually something that is often difficult for survivors to articulate verbally to their loved ones, to strangers, or even really to themselves: the trauma never ends, it’s our relationship to it that changes. There is no actual cure for the pain caused by rape, but there is each individual’s way of learning to coexist with the pain without letting it overwhelm them. And just as there is no one way a rape victim should “be” (Arabella is undeniably flawed and complicated in her own ways) there is no one solution for all survivors of sexual assault. Every person’s journey through processing trauma is unique to their own situation and to their own personhood; that Coel emphasized this in her season finale cracks open an important dialogue about what real forgiveness and healing can look like.
The finale also said something incredibly important about the value of art, and what it means to create something from the ugliness and hurt of our lives so that we can not just survive, but live again after traumatic events. In her search for the truth of what happened that night, Arabella begins to realize that it matters less what factually took place and more how she can alchemize the wreckage into something beautiful to behold: a book, a narrative, a success that doesn’t necessarily have to be a triumph over someone else. There is a meta-ness to the message too, of course. Part of the reason why Coel’s series resonates so deeply with survivors is because she is one herself: the premise of the show is loosely based on her own experience being drugged and raped while she was out with friends one night while playing hooky on a looming deadline. I May Destroy You was Coel’s tale to tell. She burrowed deep into herself in order to understand what exactly she needed to destroy in order to get closer to her truth. And then she made art from the rubble.
“It’s been therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into something with more hope, and even humor,” she told Variety earlier this year. The very last scene of the season shows Arabella at a reading, debuting her book before a gathered audience of fans and readers. There is a quiet power to the moment, in which she is reflecting on what it meant to turn herself inside out for others to see on the page, her trauma reclaimed and her messy truths told in her own voice. What is the cost of reproducing our trauma for others to consume, and does it matter for whom we are creating? With the last scene, Coel confirms that it not only matters, but it is perhaps the singular most important detail that distinguishes catharsis from exploitation. The power of art, Coel seems to be saying with the season finale, is that it reestablishes agency amid otherwise debilitating circumstances. It helps to mitigate the cycle of hurt people hurting people (a theme that weaves itself throughout the season).
Speaking of, the singular fact that Arabella finds a release seems to hint that there won’t be—that there can’t be—a second season, as much as fans of the series are clamoring for more. “I think none of us are really thinking about that right now,” Paapa Essiedu, who plays one of Arabella’s best friends Kwame, told Digital Spy in July. “This story wasn’t told in order to birth a franchise, or to figure out what other iterations of these characters we could find.” There is something ultimately beautiful about a series that is complete in its incompleteness and that lacks a full resolution (by the end of the season, Kwame’s own rape and Terry’s ambiguous threesome remain unresolved). But such is life, with all of its complexities and nuance. Their own truths will have to be confronted and unpacked in due time. And that these characters’ own journeys through trauma will happen off the screen and solely in the realm of our imaginations is perhaps Coel’s biggest gift of all.
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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