It might be impossible to name all the ways in which consent is routinely violated. Michaela Coel, however—creator of the witty breakout series Chewing Gum—is back with the new HBO series I May Destroy You, and is trying to do just that.
In the series, Coel plays Arabella, a feted millennial writer working on the first draft of her second book. When she takes a break from writing to have drinks with a friend the night before her deadline, she finds herself abandoned at a bar and drugged, with little to no recollection of the night that led her there.
The show begins as an attempt to piece together the remains of that fateful evening—and the weighty realization that Arabella may never truly know what transpired eventually settles in. With the support of her friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) she spends the next several months attempting to pick up the pieces of the self she once knew, and integrate them into the person this violent violation has made her.
I May Destroy You is indeed about consent, but it’s also about all the negotiations around consent that we tend to prefer not to talk about. It’s a wrenching series in which Coel deconstructs how people consider autonomy and zeroes in on all the ways we violate boundaries in ways big and small. Drawing from her own harrowing experience of being drugged and assaulted, Coel uses Arabella’s rape as a springboard to investigate how consent folds into a millennial dating culture and how the feigned ambiguity around boundaries allows unsettling violations to bloom.
By the series’ fourth episode, “That Was Fun,” all three of the main characters have become victims of dubious consent. In addition to Terry’s ambiguous encounter in Italy, Arabella is victimized again when a sexual partner slips off his condom without telling her, and Kwame is pinned down by a partner he met on Grinder when he tries to leave. The cruel irony is that all three believe their assaults are “not that bad” when compared to the world writ large. By telling themselves that the differing levels of harm they suffered were manageable in some way, they accomplish two things: firstly, they establish that others have it worse and so they shouldn’t complain, but secondly—and most importantly—they convince themselves that they are fine.
But smartly, Coel pushes past this in later episodes and explores how the victimized might seek to renegotiate their loss of consent. A character introduced later in the series falsely accuses a classmate of rape when during a consensual sexual encounter, he tries to take photos of her without permission. She is eventually found out when the photos show that she did not sustain her bloody injuries during the act. The cruel irony, of course, is that her now victim, was only exonerated because he further violated her consent by sharing the images he shouldn’t have taken in the first place. The entire episode skates a delicate balance that Coel masters by acknowledging that sometimes there are no easy answers. Two things can be true, and retaliation for harm incurred can cross the line.
Coel’s portrayal of Arabella imbues her with a desperate sort of wandering—Bella at once knows who she is and who she is not. She simply cannot figure out how to exist as both selves at once. But her hurt, panic, and mania reverberate through her life. Terry’s guilt at not being there for her friend manifests as aggressive mothering, and Kwame’s desire to support her means he never raises his own assault and keeps quiet when Arabella puts him in a situation that deeply triggers him. All three of them are hurting in various ways, and Coel is generous enough to allow Arabella to also exist along the continuum of harm. As she is wrapped up in her own trauma and healing, she tramples over the trauma and healing of her friends.
One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the way it truly examines consent from every angle and considers how relationships and attitudes change depending on available information. In parts, Coel investigates how our very identities can be vectors for deception—modern dating culture anonymizes potential lovers, placing them at an inscrutable remove. What is the difference between withholding information in order to take advantage of a partner and withholding it to avoid a different kind of harm? Who draws the line and which is acceptable? How should we engage when one person’s needs conflict with another’s?
Coel’s series is urgent and timely and is perfectly filtered through the hyperfocus of the performative millennial gaze. It is tough to watch, but also funny and touching and beautiful. Coel is at her best here, both as a writer and actress, and she imbues Arabella with a kind of ineffable and tragic grace that at times consumes her and at others fuels her. Finding a way to infuse both Terry and Kwame with the same deep inner life is a feat that should be lauded. Coel succeeds with I May Destroy You not because the subject matter is difficult or taboo, but because she doesn’t shy away from the things that make them so.