Consent, Power, and Radical Empathy: Why “I May Destroy You” Is the Best Show of 2020

It’s right there in the title: not “I Will Destroy You,” but “I May Destroy You.” Any relationship between people — romantic, platonic, sexual, professional, familial — carries within it the seed of danger, of annihilation. To open yourself to another person is to leave yourself vulnerable to attack. It’s not the only possible outcome of intimacy, but it is the one that has the potential to upend an entire life.

Created, written, and co-directed by British-Ghanaian multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel, who also stars, “I May Destroy You” is a singular, intensely felt work of television that defies simple interpretation. It’s about the gray areas that exist between and within people, about what we choose to hide and what we choose to reveal, and the different ways in which consent can be given or violated.

Though it premiered last summer, the miniseries has been on people’s minds this awards season. The Golden Globes notably snubbed the series in its February 4 nominations announcement, but a day later, the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominated Coel’s acting in the show for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Limited Series.

***Spoilers for “I May Destroy You” to follow***

The HBO/BBC One series follows Arabella (Coel), a Londoner who has made a name for herself as an author and social media influencer writing about the Black millennial experience. At the start of the series, she’s, at least on the surface, living the dream: She’s got a cool apartment, cool clothes, cool hair, cool friends, and a schedule packed with the kind of activities that look amazing on Instagram. But underneath all that, Arabella is a roiling sea. She’s hung up on a guy in Italy with whom she has an ill-defined relationship (Marouane Zotti), and she’s facing down a deadline for her latest book, procrastinating by doing anything else but staring at the blank screen before her.

But just when you think “I May Destroy You” is going to be a show about the anxieties of modern life, romance, and the pressure to endlessly deliver placed on millennial women, the show takes a sharp left turn. But isn’t that how life is? You’re going along, faced with what you assume are going to be the circumstances and pitfalls you’ve grown accustomed to, and then the unthinkable happens and you realize how fragile and breakable it all was in the first place.

We’re pulled into Arabella’s perspective as she wakes up hazy after a night at a bar with a cracked phone screen and a bloody gash on her forehead. She’s in shock, or something like it, as her fractured memories begin to resurface from the depths: She was drugged and raped by an unknown assailant. With the help of her friends, Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a numb Bella reports her assault to the police and undergoes the depersonalizing experience of a medical examination.

Where another show might shift perspectives to the detectives to follow the investigation, or stay with Bella but focus entirely on her life in the harsh light of this trauma, “I May Destroy You” does something entirely novel: It keeps widening its perspective, complicating everything and sitting in the discomfort of a world where the aftermath of an annihilating act is anything but simple. Bella’s existence has been forever altered by her experience, but the way the framing of this act reverberates into the past and future of her own life and the lives of her friends and lovers further complicates traditional narratives of what trauma and recovery look like.

The story is, sadly, a deeply personal one for its creator: While she was in the midst of drafting scripts for her previous series, the E4 sitcom “Chewing Gum,” Coel took a breather and went to a bar, where she was drugged and sexually assaulted by a stranger. In the ensuing years, she spoke to other people in her life about their own experiences and alchemized them into “I May Destroy You.”

“I realized that basically I was definitely not alone in wondering why these lines of consent were always blurred, and there were so many different experiences. So I tried to take on the challenge of creating a show where I explore the different forms of where sexual consent can be stolen,” Coel told Radio Times in an interview.

In the course of 12 beautifully rendered episodes, Coel explores not just what happened to Bella, but to other characters around her as well. In a world where we’ve only recently been having frank public conversations about sex, power, and consent (thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement), society is still far from establishing a vocabulary about where the lines are, who we consider a victim and who we don’t, and the implications of so-called “cancel culture.”

For instance, while Bella publicly discusses her experiences on social media and in her writing, becoming something of an icon even as it takes a toll on her own sanity, her friend Kwame has a very different experience of sexual violence. As a gay man who engages in frequent Grindr hookups, Kwame has a fraught experience in which consent is given and then withdrawn; it’s not as cut and dried as what happened to Bella in the first episode, but it’s rape nonetheless. It drives home the uncomfortable fact that we as a culture have a narrow idea of victimhood that often doesn’t extend to men, particularly if they’re gay and particularly if they’re Black.

Arabella herself, whom Coel renders as deeply shaded and flawed, fails to recognize Kwame’s trauma as tantamount to her own. And though she is herself a victim, she also becomes a perpetrator, putting her friend in a situation that compromises his emotional and physical safety. It’s just one example of the many ways in which the series takes a kaleidoscopic approach toward examining the complex web where sex, power, agency, prejudice, and compassion intersect.

Ultimately, “I May Destroy You” defies categorization. It’s a show that has to be experienced — as rife with moments of wit and beauty as it is with horrors both extraordinary and commonplace. (Incidentally, it’s also gorgeous, with sumptuous cinematography, to-die-for costume design, and a killer soundtrack.) Asking viewers to sit with difficult ideas, it invites us to pay close attention to every story and engage in a sort of radical empathy with people and situations we’d rather look away from.

With this series, Coel establishes herself as a genius-level auteur and actor; she’s created what was arguably the best new show of 2020 and forever changed the way we talk about desire, intimacy, and consent.

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