Entertainment

HBO's 'I May Destroy You' Is the Most Astonishing Show on TV Right Now

Here's why you should watch the genre-defying series created by Michaela Coel.

i may destroy you, hbo
Michaela Coel | HBO
Michaela Coel | HBO

There's a moment in the fifth episode of I May Destroy You -- the HBO drama-comedy created by and starring Michaela Coel -- that briefly feels like it must be a hallucination. Arabella, the protagonist writer played by Coel, is at a meeting with her agents and publisher. Also attending the meeting is another writer Zain (Karan Gill), who Arabella has just realized had raped her. In the previous episode, the two had a sexual encounter that started out as consensual and protected. But, afterward, he owned up to having removed his condom during sex, even claiming with practiced naivete that he thought she'd known. Arabella's not immediately outraged. It's not until later that she realizes how violating his act was.

Sitting at the same table with him at the meeting, Arabella says that she'd just come from the police station, where she'd received an update on about a prior incident that was chronicled in the series' first episode. In a matter of fact but almost uneasily calm manner, she describes what happened. As she talks, she says she even knows the name of her attacker. And then, without missing a beat, she says the name of the person sitting across from her. Zain looks astonished. But then she continues by thanking him for his help with her manuscript.

Watching this unfold is disorienting. Was Arabella's admission a slip of the tongue? A hallucination? I almost had to rewind to understand Coel's intention with the scene. But it's moments like this one that make I May Destroy You the most compelling show on television right now.

The half-hour series resists easy categorization. Prior to I May Destroy You, Coel was best known for the 2015–17 British comedy series Chewing Gum, which aired exclusively on Netflix in the U.S., on which she played Tracey, an extremely horny 20-something whose libido causes conflict in her extremely religious household. I May Destroy You doesn't abandon Coel's uproarious humor or her incredible gift for physical comedy, but its subject matter, as you may have guessed, is quite a bit more serious. 

You may have a difficult time binge-watching I May Destroy You. I certainly haven't been able to rush through it. It's too intense to watch all at once, with each episode packing in so much for the viewer to sit with and mull over. It's a show that lives in nuance and discomfort, but is also filled with laughter and love.

I May Destroy You's first episode begins as Arabella returns to London following a sojourn to Italy where she was supposed to be working on a book, but spent the time partying and falling in love with a drug dealer instead. Under deadline to finish a draft, she decides to procrastinate by meeting up with an old friend. At one point in the night, she starts stumbling. The next thing she knows, she's back in her agents' office, typing on her computer. The second episode deals with Arabella coming to terms with the realization that she'd been drugged and raped at some point that night.

i may destroy you
HBO

Coel has said that the circumstances of that incident are based on her own sexual assault, which occurred while she was writing the second season of Chewing Gum. But while the first two installments of I May Destroy You have the trappings of a mystery, as Arabella attempts to untangle the facts of the night, Coel quickly pivots away from that. She jumps forward and back in time to unravel who Arabella is before and after her rape.

In the third episode, she gives the audience a glimpse into the messy relationship between Arabella and her exasperated and worried best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) when they hang out during Bella's stay in Italy. What starts as a blissful vacation, turns into a night of frustrations as they both abandon each other in different ways. Bella, wasted, leaves Terry sitting for what seems like hours while she gets distracted on her way to get drinks. Terry, fed up, goes and tries to get swept up in a romance that's not what it seems.

No scenario or interaction in I May Destroy You is ever simple. Characters can't easily be described as "good" or "bad," "supportive" or "destructive." Coel's series begins with a trauma that anyone can easily identify, but she then delves into other forms of exploitation related to sex and race.

By the end of the fifth episode, Arabella's slip of the tongue has morphed into an explicit outing of Zain as a rapist. She takes the mic at a summit for writers while he's onstage and describes what took place. He flees, captured by cameras, and Arabella becomes a social media celebrity in the aftermath. But Coel still doesn't opt for any easy resolution. The outpouring of support Arabella gets online is just a temporary balm. Yet again, I May Destroy You goes ahead and accomplishes its stated title statement, leaving the narrative heading into episode six in a place of deliberate uncertainty that makes you want to go and rewatch everything that came before.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.