Untangling the Complicated Ending of HBO's 'I May Destroy You' with Michaela Coel
The finale of Michaela Coel's breakout series is a brilliant exploration of how we process trauma.
This post contains spoilers for the finale of HBO's I May Destroy You.
When I ask Michaela Coel whether she would make another season of her breakout HBO series I May Destroy You, she turns the question back on me. "What do you think?" she responds in a genuine, but almost cheeky manner, laughing a little. I tell her that I think the series is a masterpiece, and that, while I would love to spend more time with the characters, the story does feel whole. "It seems to really come full circle, doesn't it?" she says. "It's there, as a whole."
The finale of I May Destroy You, titled "Ego Death," is just as stunning and tricky as the rest of the series, a brilliant piece of art that follows Coel's Arabella as she grapples with the aftermath of being drugged and raped. The show goes far beyond the inciting incident: Over 12 episodes, it explores the messiness of human nature as it relates to consent and empowerment.
The last episode is a mind-fuck. Arabella, who has been keeping watch at the bar where she was attacked, identifies the perpetrator and proceeds to take action. She immediately pulls out disguises for herself and her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia), and calls fellow survivor Theo (Harriet Webb) to join them. The three women orchestrate a carefully executed revenge plan, in which Bella convinces the man, David (Lewis Reeves), that he has drugged her, before surprising him in a bathroom stall where Theo administers a literal dose of his own medicine, sticking a needle into his ankle. He stumbles out of the venue and collapses on the street. Bella and Theo beat him dead. Bella brings him home and hides his bloodied body under her bed.
Then the clock restarts. There are three other versions of that night that play out. In the next, when Bella springs into consciousness as he attempts to rape her, he meets her accusation with a tearful confession. She brings him back to her apartment and he admits to all of his crimes and they hug as the police come to take him away. The night begins again. This time, Bella and David, now calling himself Patrick, have consensual sex in which she tops him. Finally, in the last scenario, Bella chooses not to go to the bar at all.
"I remember asking Michaela, 'So, which ending is the ending?' She said, 'Whichever one you want,'" Opia remembers. "I was like, 'Girl, stop. Give me an answer.' She said, 'No, I can't give you an answer, it's completely up to interpretation. Take whatever you will from it. Take whatever ending you want."
For Coel, the multiple endings were another way to demonstrate all the different ways people process trauma. "One is the revenge fantasy that I think many people want to see," Coel says. "I'm always curious what the aftermath of that is. Now that she's done the revenge fantasy, now she has to carry the dead body under her bed. How does this affect the rest of her life? How can you let it go if you've killed it? If you've murdered it under your bed." The following instance is what happens when you are "perhaps over-engaging, almost like engaging with the trauma as if you want to change him. You want to change it. I think a lot of time in our process, we go from being angry to then having this huge wave of, 'Oh my god, I need to move this trauma in, I need to take care of it, I love it, it's beautiful, it's everything.' There's something quite unhealthy about getting close to it like that." Coel notes that even David realizes how wrong this is, asking why he's being allowed to sit on Arabella's bed.
"What happens to children when they lack love and are neglected?" Coel asks. "They are unruly, they are tempestuous, and this is what happens with Arabella's trauma. She doesn't know how to love it and how to come near to it so it can be calm enough to settle and leave. That's what she's learning as she's going."
Nothing in I May Destroy You is predictable, instead echoing a more uncertain, complicated reality. It's evident in the penultimate episode when Arabella invites Zain (Karan Gill), a man who she outed as a rapist after he removed a condom mid-sex, into her home to help her with her manuscript after learning that he wrote a book she admired under a pen name. It's there in the guilt her friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) endures after Bella challenges him for having sex with a woman without acknowledging that he is gay, a situation that arises out of Kwame himself being sexually assaulted.
"These are knotty scenes and knotty things to go through, but that's life. That feels like the bit that I recognize the most," Essidedu says. Coel explains she wanted to create situations where it would be impossible to pick sides. "We're all very polarized right now; I think I was partly maybe speaking to that," she says. "We don't know a lot of the time where the other person is coming from and we don't necessarily understand that we don't know where the other person is coming from. I'm presenting two characters in a scene and both of them might feel completely justified in their behavior. They are both right, and so they are both wrong."
I May Destroy You ultimately ends on a note of optimism: Kwame has started an honest relationship, and Terry was cast in a commercial. Bella finishes the book she was always meant to write, publishing it independently; the episode's last scene takes place at an event celebrating its release. Just before Bella starts to read the forward, Coel cuts to an image of her on an Italian beach, looking straight to camera, smiling slyly. It's a signal to the audience, not that there will be more to come, but that it's worth going back.
"There's a reason why I finish with her at the beach because that is, in terms of her as an adult, the earliest time in her chronology is that flashback in episode three," Coel says. "I'm almost trying to encourage the audience to start again. Every time you go back you discover something new. It's really cool."
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