Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ Is a Nuanced Exploration of Sexual Assault 

Ghanaian British actor and writer Michaela Coel takes the exploration of consent and other issues related to sexual assault to a whole new level in her HBO dramedy “I May Destroy You.” Coel, who has been open about her own past experience of being sexually assaulted, wrote, executive produced, co-directed and stars in this series following a young London writer as she deals with the aftermath of having her drink drugged at a local bar.

When we first meet Arabella (Coel), she’s living the type of lifestyle most 30-year-olds can only dream of, as she’s a published author who gets to travel on her publishing company’s dime. Her only issue is that she can’t get her long-distance lover Italian hottie Biagio (Marouane Zotti), to commit. After returning from her latest jaunt to Italy, she has a pressing deadline to finish her second book, but decides anyway to go out for a bar night with her friend Simon (Aml Ameen), his visiting cousin (Ansu Kabia), and his side girlfriend (Ann Akin). The night takes a turn after Arabella becomes inebriated and stumbles out of the bar. However, the next day we see her back to work on her book, and she even makes it to a meeting with her agents. But as “normal” as things may seem, she’s haunted by disturbing images, presumably from the night before, including flashes of an unknown man raping her. Also, she has a gash on her forehead and her phone is smashed.

With help from Terry (Weruche Opia), her best friend since her youth, Arabella struggles to make sense of what happened. At first, she tries to convince herself that she’s experiencing false memories, but after some suspicious activity shows when she checks her online banking, she starts to investigate. Unfortunately, Simon is being shifty, telling obvious lies. She goes to the police, and the experience is more positive than one would suspect, as the two female officers (Sarah Niles, Natalie Walter) assigned to her case appear to be compassionate and genuinely interested in bringing her perpetrator to justice. Still, even the most well-intentioned cops can only do so much with scant physical evidence.

Coel, who gives a gripping, nuanced performance, not only does a great job of bringing to life the swirl of emotions one experiences following a rape, she also sheds light on different types of assault, including acts that some may not realize are rape, such as removing a condom without consent mid-sex. We also see how men can be victimized. One of Arabella’s best friends, Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), is assaulted by another man following a consensual encounter, and although Arabella gives him the courage to report the incident, he has an entirely different experience than she does when dealing with the police. Later, Kwame finds himself being called out after misrepresenting himself to a female sex partner (Pearl Chanda). This is what keeps “I May Destroy You” so interesting, not just the mystery surrounding Arabella’s attack, but also the fact that there are no clear “good guys” and “bad guys.” Even Terry, who is by her side at almost every turn and makes sure she does her self-care, comes under fire at one point.

A turning point comes when Arabella calls out a colleague, Zain (Karan Gill), for being a sexual predator in a very public forum. Already a known figure on Twitter for her witty commentary that speaks to millennials, she receives even more notoriety after her speech goes viral, which becomes a blessing and a curse. Eventually, she gets to a point where she gets all of her validation from social media. So absorbed is she in that world that she has to step back to live life, although it’s not very believable how easily she deletes everything.

“I May Destroy You” also offers some interesting and timely commentary on race. Terry, a struggling actress, finds herself on the receiving end of some soft racism after a white casting director makes an unusual request of her during an audition. But one of the most powerful moments in the whole series comes when Arabella reads out loud her musing on what it’s like to be the daughter of Ghanian immigrants in a predominately white country. So consumed was she with dealing with racism growing up that she never really had time to ponder sexism.

 “I May Destroy You” season one premieres June 7 and airs Sundays at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.