Why Is Everyone Talking About ‘I May Destroy You’?

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With many people spending more time at home than ever recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the collective need for entertaining TV feels even more pressing than usual. This summer, the HBO drama I May Destroy You is filling that role for many people, but it’s entertaining in a different way than might be expected for such a buzzy summertime show. Whereas many shows that air during the summer are sunlit and reflective of the world outside, I May Destroy You is a deeply serious – and, for some viewers, triggering – show that has everyone talking.

Warning: Spoilers for the first four episodes of I May Destroy You follow.

I May Destroy You poses questions about consent – and doesn’t always answer them

For the first 20 or so minutes of I May Destroy You’s first episode, the series appears to be just another tale of a 20-something-year-old creative facing challenges in a giant city. It doesn’t take long, though, for things to nosedive for main character Arabella (played by series creator, writer, co-director, and executive producer Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum fame). 

While working on the follow up to her beloved book Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, Arabella steps away from her desk for what she plans to be just an hour out on the town. She later finds herself back at her work desk, with barely any memories of the night before and a fresh, bloody gash on her forehead. By the end of the second episode, Arabella faces a horrifying reality: She was sexually assaulted the night she went out.

Although Arabella at first struggles to remember what her abuser looked like, it gradually becomes clear that a new person to whom a friend introduced her might be the man who assaulted her. As Arabella reckons with this notion, other questions about consent in sexual encounters – both hers and others’ – come into harrowing, deftly presented, carefully considered display. 

An initial casual encounter after Arabella’s assault involves “stealthing,” an entirely different form of non-consensual sex rarely discussed. Arabella’s best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) realizes after a sexual encounter that she may have been taken advantage of without at first realizing it. Arabella’s other best friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is sexually assaulted immediately after a consensual sexual encounter. Just four episodes in, I May Destroy You has already received extensive acclaim for approaching these less clear-cut instances of violated consent with nuance, sensitivity, and plentiful emotion.

I May Destroy You is based on Michaela Coel’s life

When Michaela Coel was writing season two of Chewing Gum – an overtly comedic TV show, whereas I May Destroy You is a deeply dark drama with brief flashes of humor – she was sexually assaulted in almost exactly the same manner as Arabella. The show is based on Coel’s real, lived experience (though elements of the other characters’ lives may be fictionalized), and she has said that writing about her trauma has been cathartic. Unsurprisingly given the series’ basis in her actual life, Coel has received massive acclaim for her acting, writing, and co-directing. 

I May Destroy You is perfect for the moment

The #MeToo movement that began in late 2017 has yet to fully die down – and it might never do so. I May Destroy You is among the most nuanced works to fit within the ever-growing, massive realm of media that fits within the movement. Severalcritics have noted how relevant the series is to ongoing discussions about the insidious, complex nature of sexual assault – and this relevance, combined with excellent acting, writing, and direction across the board, has made for an unusually dark, devastating summer hit.

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