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I May Destroy You Is About So Much More Than Rape

The latest series from Michaela Coel captures the contradictions of trying to make art in an age of corporate dominance.

Natalie Seery/HBO
Michaela Coel (left) and Weruche Opia in “I May Destroy You.”

Michaela Coel’s new television series, I May Destroy You, contains a scene in its first episode that hit me and many other writers like an arrow to the heart. Staring down the deadline to turn in a book draft to her agents, who are basically walking microaggressions, Bella (the protagonist, played by Coel) types into Google: “how to write quickly.”

As the episodes progress (the show was co-produced by HBO and the BBC and is available for rent on Amazon), we come to see that Bella is an inspired writer who is nonetheless low, at first, on self-knowledge. She’s young and wildly creative but can’t quite make head or tail of the success her own writing has landed her. That’s how she ends up on Google, the refuge of those who have questions but no one to ask. 

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that I May Destroy You’s plot is set in motion when Bella pops out for a drink during her drafting process. Her drink in the club gets spiked with a drug that causes her to black out, spend the early hours of the next morning hammering at her laptop, and then tailspin for 12 episodes of mayhem as she realizes that she’s been raped. Bella reacts by sifting through short- and long-term memories (romance in Italy; a guy’s face with large nostrils; senior school in London) and clings to her friends for support, who in turn spin off into their own subplots.

Bella carries her MacBook everywhere, like an extra, external brain, the one that doesn’t live inside her body. It’s the place she writes. So when her nightmarish agents force her to return to the laptop, to express herself under duress—her first book was an easy hit, but now her ideas are changing shape—she inevitably hits a cognitive wall, because the conditions are wrong. Ergo the Google search.

Bella’s career to date has been facilitated by social media. Before the show begins, Bella’s first book took her from Twitter personality to the author of a hit about her own life being young and Black and funny in London. It’s a career arc familiar to a generation of writers who live in front of screens, who do things like try to Google our way out of writer’s block. From Docs to Twitter to Instagram, the places a creative person goes to make their observations all put their own spin on their writing. This happens whether you want it to or not. Sometimes, it feels like you’re an external brain attached to your laptop. 

Coel knows this world of art and commerce well. Chewing Gum, her series about young life on a council estate in London, was a rapturously received comedy and a portrait of an artist in the making. But where Coel now has HBO and the BBC at her feet, her characters struggle to navigate power structures they don’t understand.

Bella is a creature of habit who always goes back to the guy who makes her come reliably, and dips into her phone a million times a day. So when Coel has Bella enact her creative crisis via a Google search, she is foregrounding the corporate ownership of her heroine’s interiority: Bella is lost, and she turns to a Big Tech bank of knowledge in an attempt to understand her own brain’s creative mechanism. Bella and her friends are being exploited long before anybody harms them sexually. 

Take Terry, Bella’s best friend, played by Weruche Opia, who will soon be famous the world over for her extraordinary performance of a person trying to be in a restaurant while rolling on MDMA. Terry is an actor, and in one excruciatingly bang-on scene, she performs a faux-deep monologue about women’s beauty in a screen test for a brand similar to Dove. The producers ask if they can see her natural hair and generally mimic Bella’s evil white agents in harvesting black creativity and credibility for the merchandise value of their products.

It’s crass but absolutely true-to-life behavior that leaves a bittersweet taste behind it—the Michaela Coel flavor, you could call it. The entire show is as sharp as the Dove audition and alert to many different types of power structure faced by its heroes, not just sexual exploitation. 

I haven’t meant to tiptoe around the rape—it’s the literal subject of the show, a choice that is in itself a totemic achievement. Coel also pulls off the feat of turning rape into a mystery story. The second season of Broadchurch managed pretty well at that, too, but it’s very rarely done right. Making fiction about rape is a high-wire act, fraught by controversy and opportunities for hurt feelings. That’s true even or perhaps especially if it has happened to you. Coel has said she was drugged and assaulted a few years ago, and that the two-and-a-half-year writing process on I May Destroy You was “cathartic,” but the stakes are high: If the show had been a flop, or some other kind of failure, it could have been a personal catastrophe. On a human level, Coel’s achievement with I May Destroy You is an expletive-worthy triumph. 

But if we focus on moments like the existentialist Google search, the rape itself fades away to reveal a television show that is not only an embodiment of, but a creative work about, Coel’s genius. Bella’s entire journey so far (I haven’t seen past episode six, of a total 12) has been about the long slog to the center of herself. That journey is literal in some ways, since she is investigating a crime with herself at its center, but it is also an odyssey into Bella’s subconscious. Memory is a particularly fruitful theme for Coel. In an evidence-collecting interview, for example, Bella asks a police staffer, “How could you know, when I’m the one it happened to, and I don’t know?”

On a technical level, beyond the diamond script, I May Destroy You stands out for its music—a blend of vintage U.K. garage hits and contemporary releases—and cinematography. The camera has a gaze with a force of its own and never flinches when horrible things happen, giving the viewer of I May Destroy You a role as witness. Then again, so much is left out.  Six episodes in, for example, we have no idea what Bella’s all-important new book is even about. In the show’s cinematography, Coel has crafted a selective gaze that mimics the tics of her own protagonist’s mind, deleting and adding knowledge as the chemistry of cognition dictates, its logic an alchemical mystery.