The Chewing Gum creator-writer explores the vagaries of consent in her new HBO series, which was inspired by her own sexual assault.

By Kristen Baldwin
June 04, 2020 at 06:01 PM EDT
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At first, not much happens in I May Destroy You. The half-hour HBO series begins with a pink-haired party girl (writer-creator Michaela Coel) heading back to London after spending several weeks in Italy on her publisher's dime. She owes her editors a draft, like, now — but there are joints to smoke, Insta pictures to post, a cute Italian drug dealer (Marouane Zotti) to pine for. She only even has a publisher because her debut book, Confessions of a Fed-Up Millennial, became a sensation on Twitter. It's gonna take an all-nighter for Arabella to hit her deadline.

After about 20 minutes of this, just as you may be hitting your Why am I watching this again? limit, the show makes its move. Arabella leaves her office to meet friends for a few drinks. One minute she's doing shots, she's dancing, she's stumbling woozily for the door — the next, she's back in her office, typing away on her laptop, with a smashed phone, a bleeding cut on her forehead, and unexplained, split-second memories of sexual violence. It's a masterful act of narrative sleight of hand, as Coel leaves viewers on the same wobbly ground as Arabella: Wait, what did I miss? And do I really want to know?

I May Destroy You (premiering Sunday, June 7, on HBO) is a personal story: Several years ago, while writing a script for her breakthrough U.K. comedy Chewing Gum, Cole took a break and had a drink with friends. "I emerged into consciousness typing season 2, many hours later," she revealed in a 2018 speech. "It turned out I'd been sexually assaulted by strangers." Though the title of her series makes it sound like some kind of revenge thriller, Coel instead uses I May Destroy You to explore consent and the myriad sickening ways it can be undermined and abused.

In the days and weeks after her assault, Arabella tries to move on, going through the motions of self-care — therapy, yoga, paint-and-sip nights — all while making futile attempts to finish her draft. Meanwhile, Arabella's experience leads her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) to reexamine their own relationships with hookup culture. Terry aches with guilt over letting a highly intoxicated Arabella fend for herself the night of the assault, while Kwame wonders if his frequent-flier status on Grindr means he's allowed to complain when a date turns sexually aggressive. After all, when you have a right to do whatever you want with your body, whose fault is it really when someone else does the same?

Already a minor Twitter celebrity before the assault, Arabella is exalted to social media #Shero status when she publicly calls out a fellow writer (Karan Gill) for secretly removing his condom during their one-night stand. But the more she speaks out online, the more Arabella closes herself off from her IRL friends. As a writer and an actor, Coel is never sharper than when she scrutinizes the deceptive "community" of social media, as Arabella channels her trauma into a performative online brand. (In one shrewdly funny scene, she interrupts a consult with her doctor to go live on Instagram.)

At times, there doesn't seem to be enough story to sustain 12 episodes, and the pacing sometimes veers from leisurely to lethargic. Some plot tangents, including a flashback to Terry and Arabella's high school days, take over entire episodes, dulling the momentum of the present-day narrative. Even when I May Destroy You drags, though, Coel's voice always comes through."Prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman. I was busy being black and poor," writes Arabella. "Am I too late to serve this tribe called women?" Coel lets her characters grapple with knotty questions of consent and responsibility without ever judging their actions or promoting answers that don't actually exist. Her mind, I suspect, will be dazzling us for years to come. B

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