British multihyphenate Michaela Coel returns to television with a new 12-part, half-hour HBO series that takes on weighty notions about sexual consent in the present day, given how much the landscape of dating and relationships has changed. Titled “I May Destroy You,” the series alternates between broad stories about sexually adventurous friends, and more individual and upsetting moments of persistent trauma. There’s nothing tidy about how this timely tale unfolds, but there’s nothing tidy about sexual assault. And the series doesn’t offer any pat, compact answers to the big questions it raises. It’s challenging and not always easy to watch, but will surely spark many conversations on the subject matter it so candidly explores.
At the center of this unconventionally structured series is Arabella (Coel), a bestselling author of a book about her millennial experience, “Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial,” which was essentially a series of tweets cobbled together. Now writing her second novel, she’s struggling to create captivating characters and stories that aren’t based on 280-word Twitter posts.
But she’s young and hip, with an array of friends who are just as cool, and she’s the personification of the smart, intense, hyper-conscious millennial, although, in this case, minus the awkwardness of the character she played in “Chewing Gum” (the series that launched her career), but with a similar captivating vibe.
As the story opens, she’s saying goodbye to her Italian friends-with-benefits pal and drug supplier, Biagio (Marouane Zotti), having gone to Italy to finish her second book, which, in her procrastination, she never did actually write.
Back in London to her fun-loving circle of friends — most notably the dramatic Terry (Weruche Opia), an actress, and fitness trainer Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who has a penchant for Grindr hookups — she has no choice but to spend an entire night in her publisher’s office writing to produce material to show them. At some point she decides to take a break and meet friends for drinks.
The next morning she discovers a bruise on her forehead, but can’t remember how exactly she got it. Her memory of the previous night is blurry and splintered, including a very brief, disturbing flashback of a man towering over her in what looks like a public restroom stall. Her initial reaction isn’t dread as one might expect, but instead more of a curiosity.
Initially unwilling to come to terms with the possibility that her drink might have been spiked and she may have been sexually assaulted, she eventually does decide she wants to solve the mystery of what happened to her, although reluctantly, because she doesn’t trust her own memory.
If the series at first feels disorienting, it should be, because Arabella’s life has been disrupted by a traumatic experience she doesn’t quite remember, and it is primarily through her POV that the series unfolds.
Arabella is depicted as a habitual partier who indulges in all kinds of drugs and alcohol, but this nonjudgmental portrait presents these fact simply as details of her life, not justifications for her assault.
Her piecing together the puzzle of the night of her assault helps move the plot forward, but the story starts to broaden, becoming less about what happened to Arabella, and more about the incident’s effect on her life, her relationships, her hopes and dreams, and her emotional and physical wellbeing.
And when she seems to finally have solved the mystery, Coel concludes the series in a way that implies a neat resolution is not at all something she’s interested in, and maybe not even realistic given the circumstances. This isn’t so much a whodunit series or one about seeking vengeance, as much as it is about an unraveling life placed under self-scrutiny.
But Arabella’s story, while central to the ambitious series, is just one of several threads that looks at various instances of sexual consent in the present day, and where the sketchy lines fall. The characters played by Opia and Essiedu, and their own individual storylines, are just as vital to “I May Destroy You’s” success.
Terry engages in a knotty threesome with two men which leads to some self-reflection, and Kwame has a forced sexual encounter with one of his Grindr hookups, but isn’t quite sure if he indeed was assaulted, and goes on his own personal journey to try and understand what assault actually looks like. These are mostly well-executed secondary storylines even though they may feel formulaic, and are maybe too dragged out in order to fill out the season’s 12 episodes. And so a clever and satisfying beginning and ending are slightly betrayed by a somewhat messy midsection that slows things down a tad.
Still, it’s a tiny price to pay for what is overall a compelling series. And in the hands of a less talented writer, the many themes that the series tackles, and its several layers, wouldn’t be weaved as smoothly.
The nature of sexual assault on film and television remains a dominant topic post-#MeToo, and there are so many angles that still remain unexplored. Coel herself revealed during her MacTaggart lecture at the 2018 Edinburgh International Television Festival that she was sexually assaulted, opening up about how life-changing that was.
And the plot for “I May Destroy You” is inspired by that experience, as well as the processes of recovery and investigation that followed.
Coel wrote all 12 episodes and also directed some of them. As a writer, she’s able to successfully chart both serious and sarcastic terrain. And as an actress playing a character who, despite experiencing a traumatic experience, refuses to see herself as a victim, Coel is skillful in her depiction of personal torment. Her transfixing screen presence — as well as the series’ freewheeling, kinetic visual style — makes it impossible to look away.
It’s not an easily classified series. Audiences will struggle to pin it down to a specific genre, as it avoids offering a definitive answer to the question. But that’s actually one of the more appealing aspects about it. “I May Destroy You” is at once a drama, a comedy, but also a curio. However, it’s a mixture that Coel skillfully navigates.
It would be tempting to compare “I May Destroy You” to another HBO series about freewheeling youth, “Euphoria.” But Coel’s series is packed with more tenderness, inventiveness, and sharp wit than Zendaya’s American adaptation of the Israeli show of the same name. And despite minor flaws, “I May Destroy You” is bound to be one of the most unique and fascinating serial explorations of the lives of 20-somethings to be released this year.
“I May Destroy You” is moving and, despite the subject matter, at times very funny. It should inspire plenty of conversation about very sensitive subject matter with ever-increasing complexities. It marks bold new territory for Coel, who’s operating at a level unmatched among her peers.
“I May Destroy You” premieres Sunday, June 7 at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.