As soon as I watched the first episode of “I May Destroy You,” I knew that I wanted to write a review of it. The initial reasons are simple: it’s incredibly well-written, the cast is impeccable, and it’s beautiful direction proves that Michaela Coel, the show’s creator and star, is a force to be reckoned with. But after finishing the first season last week, I realized that there’s something unique happening with this show. Despite dealing with a topic as hard to wrestle with as sexual assault, “I May Destroy You” shows every moment of true trauma, from the dreary and grey to the odd moments of joy weaved between.
“I May Destroy You” shows a glimpse into the life of Arabella, a millennial writer with everything she could ever dream of: a bestselling book, a hot Italian boyfriend, and endless love and support from her friends. Nothing could possibly go wrong- until she finds her drink spiked at a club on a night out with friends. The day after, she begins slowly recounting memories of what happened, piecing together that she was sexually assaulted by an unknown man.
Throughout the series, Arabella finds herself questioning everything: her career, her lovelife, and the friends that she thought she trusted. She buries everything under her bed, both metaphorically and literally, with her evidence bags containing the clothes she wore that night being hidden away and ignored.
But Arabella doesn’t sit still with her trauma, she pushes it into corners and under covers because she doesn’t know where else to put it, and ends up struggling to deal with herself and the trauma. In one episode, she accidentally becomes a social media figurehead for survivors of sexual assault, with thousands of people finding hope in her, sharing stories, praising her for speaking up. And yet, it doesn’t help Arabella at all. She has hardly learned to grapple with her own assault and hardly learned the right avenues of “coping” to walk down.
In the second half of the show, Arabella continuously goes back to the club in which she was raped, convinced that “criminals always return to the scene of the crime.” She needs to find him, the split-second picture of the man who assaulted her at this bar in order to come to terms with her trauma. And in some endings of the show, she does.
In the finale, Arabella sees the man of her visions and confronts him, enacting a plan of revenge with her best friend, Terry, and the leader of her sexual assault support group, Theo. The girls lure him into the bathroom and inject him with the drug he used against Arabella. He’s left a stumbling mess on the streets, and the girls follow him in order to rid any evidence he may have on himself. He eventually passes out in an alley, and Arabella, in all of her rage, beats him to a bloody pulp. A dead man, she takes his body home with her, shoving him under her bed with the rest of her trauma.
But we quickly realize that this isn’t the only ending, as Arabella herself continues to rewrite different ways to end the story, with each scenario even more complicated than the last. They are dreamlike and idyllic, but also coldly, intensely realistic. It’s the complex weaving of these stories that prove that there is no one ending that helps Arabella deal with her trauma. This is something that she has to learn to deal with on her own; she is the only one equipped to drag the secrets out from under her bed and face them.
What Michaela Coel depicts is more than complexity, it’s truth. Trauma isn’t a one-size-fits-all, it’s messy and unusual, it’s quiet and loud. Perhaps what makes “I May Destroy You” so interesting and praised is the process of Arabella going through it all: every unheard moment of trauma that doesn’t always get shown in the media. She attempts to get her old life back, and in the process realizes that going back to the past won’t fix anything for her. She also messes up several times and does things that hurt the people that she cares about, including herself. But, despite her flaws, she learns. She acknowledges the pain she feels and the pain she gives to grow to be better. And really, isn’t that the best that we can do?