Note: This review discusses, and the show contains, scenes depicting, and stories about, sexual assault.
In the first episode of the HBO series I May Destroy You, Arabella has other things going on before she's sexually assaulted. She's trying to meet a book deadline, and she's worried she can't, and in the great tradition of writers doing everything else when they can't write, she steps out for a drink. When she next comes to, she realizes she was drugged and assaulted.
But before that, she has friends, she has family, she's struggling with her path from social media breakout star to author, and she's navigating a long-distance relationship with a man she met in Italy, where she meant to be writing but then didn't, quite. Played by creator Michaela Coel, also the writer and star of Chewing Gum, she's not a character constructed to be traumatized; she's a character, full stop.
I May Destroy You is about sexual violence and consent; those themes come up over and over in different stories that change characters in different ways. But it avoids the flatness that would come from drama as a didactic explainer. Arabella's is a story that widens out to show how being assaulted affects her sex life, her relationships with her friends and her family, her career, her aspirations, and her health. It documents the police investigation without centering it. This is not a whodunit, even though Arabella's drive to understand what happened propels some of the plot.
Coel doesn't just star in the series. She wrote these 12 episodes herself. She co-directed much of the season with Sam Miller, who's worked on Luther and on episodes of everything from Luke Cage to American Crime. She's a producer and the star. Her face is the series' indelible image. And she based the story of Arabella's assault on a night in her own life. It is, transparently, the most personal of projects.
You see that personal passion-project quality not only in the writing, but in the way Coel and Miller manage the visual language. The wardrobe and hair and knockabout style of filming conversations among friends are unobtrusive and casual in many stretches of the story, which build to those moments when they are emphatically not. This is not a twitchy, self-conscious style that draws attention to itself for no reason; it's a reservation of visual emphasis for the places where it belongs. Arabella changes her hair, or she puts on a Halloween costume, and the air around her changes, too. It doesn't look or sound like any other story. With that said, it also makes excellent use some of the best techniques that have emerged in recent television, including episodes that pause the narrative to pay attention to a different point of view, or a different point in time, to enrich the main story thread.
In the early going, I May Destroy You can feel disorienting, because its upending of conventional crime and trauma story structures is so thorough. If you went in not knowing it was a story about sexual assault, you could watch most of the first episode as a day-in-the-life pilot for a quirky half-hour about a wandering millennial, about the publishing industry, about dating apps, and about social media in general. But this is the wisdom of the writing, at its core: This is how you demonstrate that Arabella existed in full before she was assaulted. She already had a story unfolding, and a life that a series about her could have followed. She wasn't simply suspended in air, waiting for something narratively important to happen to her.
And just as she had a story already, Arabella had a personality already, and Coel resolutely draws her as a woman who is both traumatized and flawed. The rounded character she would have been in that quirky half-hour about the millennial and the book contract, she still is. She can be insensitive and mean, and she can be just as unaware of other people's experiences and needs as they are of hers. Arabella and her friends — best friend Terry (Weruche Opia), friends Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) and Simon (Ami Ameen), dreamy Italian boyfriend Biagio (Marouane Zotti) — exist in a web of connections in which they hurt and are hurt, sometimes right and sometimes not. They both buoy and disappoint each other, making I May Destroy You an outstanding examination of friendship as much as anything.
It sometimes helps, when encouraging people to try out an unconventionally structured show, to provide a hint that the overall shape of the story will satisfy. Let's say only this: After 12 episodes, there is a gut-punch brilliance to how Arabella's story is brought to a close that it would be wildly unfair to spoil. But know that Coel concludes in a way that's both formally clever — that feels too slight, but it's true — and dramatically satisfying. It is the holy grail of a certain kind of drama to find an ending that seems, in retrospect, both surprising and inevitable. And it's very hard to get that right, but she got there.
It's significant that HBO (together with the BBC) has produced this show at all, particularly given its dismal record when it comes to the diversity of voices that get to make the highly personal, idiosyncratic dramas that have built the brand. (And it's worth emphasizing, perhaps, that despite being a half-hour show from a woman whose last big project was very funny, this is a drama series.) But it's equally encouraging, if your eye is on what television networks are supporting, that the show is so particular, and that it comes from a voice that's so fresh, and that it leads with a frankness that a lot of conventional "gritty" drama series cannot match.
And ultimately, this is a chance to watch a brilliant lead performance. It's tricky to call an actor mesmerizing, for fear of making her power seem magical rather than the result of craft. But Coel here is magnetic and memorable, for sure, and you won't be able to take your eyes off her.