If all you know of Michaela Coel is her work in Chewing Gum, the brilliant sitcom she created for BBC Two—and was subsequently streamed on Netflix—you will be ill-prepared for this British talent’s stunning second act, I May Destroy You.
In Chewing Gum, Coel was a manic presence, playing a twentysomething, hormone-crazed Londoner living in a colorful council estate and exploring the vast spectrum of sexuality to cringe-inducing, hilarious effect. In her new series, she’s by turns muted and enraged, introspective and terrified, but still no less confused about the world at large. And the London that Coel and director Sam Miller put on camera in Destroy is far more true to its current densely-populated state. The streets and interiors feel claustrophobic at times, lending an added sense of discomfort to its more harrowing moments.
One ugly scene in particular is the catalyst for the entire 12-episode series, which premieres on Sunday July 7 on HBO. Coel’s character Arabella, a young writer with a major online presence, is back from a trip to Italy where she was supposed to produce a manuscript for a new book. Returning with nothing, she plans an all-nighter to finish up her draft. But an invitation from her buddy Simon (Aml Ameen) proves too tempting and she’s soon out for a night of karaoke, coke bumps, and dancing. It’s at Arabella’s last stop that her drink is spiked and she is sexually assaulted by a stranger.
From that point, everything in Arabella’s life begins to unravel. She struggles to remember the details of her assault even as she’s reporting it to the police. (CW: The scenes of this incident are hazy at first but, as Arabella starts to piece the story together, they become more graphic in later episodes of the series.) She attempts to maintain a long distance connection with Biagio (Marouane Zotti), a handsome drug dealer she made a deep connection with in Italy. And her book project keeps slipping further and further into the distance.
Destroy is a fearless portrayal of the aftereffects of sexual assault and Coel, through her writing and her startling on-screen performance, gives us every last shade of Arabella’s emotional journey. It’s not a comfortable experience, nor should it be. Coel puts viewers in the same position as her character’s lifelong friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu): accepting her selfish and sometimes self-destructive behavior in the name of helping her heal. It’s incredibly difficult at times to root for Arabella—especially when she leans heavily and awkwardly on her social media following—but Coel makes it impossible to look away.
Though it’s not spoken out loud within the series, an underlying potential for danger hovers over every experience that Arabella and her friends have outside of their core community. While it largely skims past the issues of racism that are still prevalent in the UK, Arabella’s assault adds a seed of worry to even the consensual sex displayed on screen. That’s especially true for Kwame, who spends much of the series seeking out anonymous sex on Grindr, but that fear is alive in a flashback episode where Terry engages in a threesome with two men she met a few hours earlier. Both are strong and capable characters but, as Coel wants to remind us, they can still have their lives shattered in a flash.
With its generous episode order (12 as compared with the six most British series get), Coel gets a little indulgent at times, which makes the show occasionally drag. A mid-season episode that introduces Theo, a former schoolmate of Arabella’s who runs a support group for sexual abuse victims, is a detour that, without spoiling anything, could be viewed as problematic in the eyes of some viewers. The same goes for an episode that centers on a birthday dinner for Arabella’s mom with copious flashbacks that don’t add much to the narrative.
Even so, I May Destroy You can afford such discursiveness. (Those episodes may, in fact, help acclimate some viewers for the surrealist turns it takes late in the season.) The strength of Coel’s vision and the power of the story keeps the show, and its viewers, from losing focus entirely. This is gripping, provocative television of the highest order and the kind of platform that Coel, and storytellers like her, richly deserve.
I May Destroy You premieres Sunday July 7 at 10:30 pm on HBO and HBO Max