Career triple threat Michaela Coel’s new series, “I May Destroy You,” benefits from the elasticity of its title. “I May Destroy You”: I have authority to destroy you. “I May Destroy You”: If there’s room on my calendar, I might get around to destroying you. “I May Destroy You”: Mind that if you get too close to me, there’s a remote possibility that I’ll destroy you. None of this at all gets into who is doing the destroying. Is it Arabella (Coel), the show’s protagonist? Her best pal, Terry (Weruche Opia)? Could it be Simon (Ami Ameen), or one of the other male figures flitting in and out of Arabella’s orbit?
The many configurations of meaning Coel bakes into “I May Destroy You” via naming conventions give her story compelling immediacy: If nothing else about it works, the title, at least, will likely summon an audience on its own. But in fact everything about “I May Destroy You” works, the first episode being a superb twist on unmoored millennial slackerdom; it begins in Ostia, Italy, a neighborhood in one of the municipi comprising Rome, where Arabella bids her sort-of-boyfriend, Biagio (Marouane Zotti) farewell as she returns to London to meet with her editors; she’s spent some months in Italy “writing,” which is to say she’s done copious amounts of drugs, gone out clubbing, and acquired a beau on the publisher’s dime.
Once in London the story begins properly when a night out with her chum Simon, plus a few hangers-on, including his cousin, his online mistress, and a white rando. Arabella wakes up the next morning with a head full of cobwebs, a hazy recollection of the night’s events, and a collection of other small giveaway details suggesting a social occasion gone violently awry: A cut above her right eyebrow, a smashed phone screen, and last but not least, intermittent flashes of memories of rape.
“I May Destroy You” takes shape in this moment, the last in its premiere episode, “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” where Arabella does not so much come to terms with what happened to her so much as she realizes it: She curls the left corner of her lip into a smile that isn’t a smile at all, clutches at the ends of her hair, grunts a “hurumph,” and the credits roll, her trauma thrown into hazy relief. Prior to her waking nightmare, in her moments of carefree gallivanting, “I May Destroy You” reads as a cousin to shows like “Girls,” narratives about young, unworldly generational geniuses who undermine their lives and careers with their immaturity; as soon as Coel slips the blade between the viewer’s ribs, the tenor changes, and the story takes on a mystery novel quality as Arabella tries to figure out her rapist’s identity and how she came to be alone with him in the first place.
“I May Destroy You” isn’t a show about innocence lost, per se, but about sanctity lost, bodies violated, boundaries broken, relationships tested. Coel’s ambition is great, but she keeps the air low key. She maintains a loose vibe save for the darkest times; that carefree spirit never dissipates, instead flickering in and out of perception when needed. Nothing, for instance, about filing a police report or having a forensic exam conducted on your person should ever be mistaken as “low key,” and in these scenes Coel escalates human stakes through craft. In episode 2, “Someone Is Lying,” jittering, rapid fire shots catch the bruise on Arabella’s hip, effectively respecting her body while emphasizing the brutality done on her with piercing force; in “Eyes, Eyes, Eyes, Eyes,” Coel acts out dawning comprehension by channeling Betty Gabriel in “Get Out,” performing Arabella’s slow recollection of her rape as an unraveling.
Her eyes go wide. Her mouth tightens into a pained smile. She bares her teeth in a grin to convey a pretty lie: “Nothing’s the matter, I’m fine, why wouldn’t I be fine?” She isn’t, of course, and the path “I May Destroy You” takes to grapple with not-fineness informs its scope, expanding over time to focus on Terry, on Arabella’s friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), on Simon and his affair with Alissa (Ann Akin), facilitated unwittingly by his spouse, Kat (Lara Rossi); maybe the “I” refers to how each of these characters in turn destroy one another and themselves. Simon’s lies corrode trust in his life with Kat, and his negligence puts Arabella in harm’s way, and Arabella’s self-interest puts Terry at arm’s length from her.
“I May Destroy You” imagines social networks as ecosystems alternately preserved and polluted by human behavior, exemplified by the eve of Arabella’s rape and the eve she meets Biagio, 3 months in the series’ past tense. In both, Arabella indulges her appetite for mind-melting narcotics and relentless partying; in both she’s abandoned by a friend, Simon the former, Terry the latter. The difference between these encounters is auxiliary company. Simon leaves her with a wolf who abuses her. Terry leaves her with Biagio, who keeps her safe and treats her to an early morning walk along a private resort beach, where they fall in something that must be love. Coel frames masculinity as the cause and solution to rape culture, freeing Arabella (and any woman who’s ever suffered as she suffers) from blame and placing it squarely where it belongs.
She couches the innate darkness of her subject matter in a package made of wry British wit and, where she can find it, color: The shock of her pink-streaked hair, the neon hues of nightclubs, the kindling, orange-yellow glow of a sunrise over lapping waves. There’s a naturalism to the show’s aesthetic coupled with decisive filmmaking, held together by Coel’s supporting cast and most of all Coel herself: Tightly wound in one scene, spirited and cracking wise the next. Like the show’s title, she’s flexible, bendable, an enthralling screen presence but equally as sharp a storyteller. The beauty of her work will captivate you; her portrait of the devastation wrought by sexual assault’s fallout may destroy you. [A-]