HBO’s ‘I May Destroy You’ Shows How Messy Consent Can Be

A writer less volcanically talented than Coel might struggle to weave one of these themes into a 12-part series; that she’s able to explore so many different layers of power while creating such a compulsively watchable show is striking. In the first episode, which debuts today on HBO, Arabella returns from a jaunt in Italy (funded by her indulgent but nervous agents) to a deadline that’s long overdue. Wearily, she sets up for an all-nighter in their office with caffeine pills, cigarettes, and all the other accoutrements of the ineffectual, overcommitted writer. (When she Googled “how to write fast,” I winced.) She initially says no when a friend invites her out for a drink, then changes her mind. She’s planning to get back to work within an hour, but things get blurry. There are frenetic scenes of her doing shots, staggering around the bar, trying to stay upright. The next morning, after turning in pages of work that her agent describes, politely, as “abstract,” Arabella has a deeply unsettling flashback of a man in a bathroom stall who seems to be assaulting her.

After a hazy evening, Arabella (Michaela Coel) has a deeply unsettling flashback. (HBO)

The evening sparks a process that rebounds through all aspects of Arabella’s life: Something happens to her, she interprets it based on partial information, and then she receives new information that changes the context and upends her thinking. Arabella, who’s so eloquent at parsing the nuances of human behavior in her writing, is surprisingly myopic when it comes to sex and consent. Subtly but devastatingly throughout I May Destroy You, viewers see why that might be. In the absence of a frank discussion or the kind of meticulous, preemptive line-drawing that’s a lot to ask in the heat of desire, the question of how to define a sexual experience comes down to interpretation, and interpretation is always subjective. In one scene, Arabella’s best friend, Terry (Weruche Opia), texts a friend boasting that she’s just had a threesome, while her expression suggests that she feels more violated than she’s letting on. In another, Arabella sleeps with a man who removes his condom midway through without telling her; when she finds out, she’s initially angrier at the inconvenience of having to pay for emergency contraception than she is about an act she later discovers is classifiable as rape. (Or it is under U.K. law, she points out; in Australia, it’s merely categorized as “a bit rapey.” Even entire countries can’t agree on what’s rape and what’s not.)

Coel is as far from a moralizing writer as could be imaginable. Her debut series, the raunchy, semi-autobiographical Chewing Gum, was about a devoutly religious, Beyoncé-worshipping 24-year-old who can’t stand not having sex any longer. She knows that humiliation is often a sexual rite of passage: In one scene, the main character (also played by Coel) takes her friend’s advice, to just sit on her boyfriend’s face, a little too literally. But I May Destroy You questions why risk and vulnerability have become such accepted components of sex and dating that they’re generally shrugged off altogether. One of Arabella’s partners screams at her for not watching her drink in a nightclub, as if the possibility of being drugged and assaulted is so commonplace that she’s at fault for not consistently anticipating it. Arabella and Terry joke that their friend Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is the king of Grindr, but he’s just as susceptible to abuse as they are, and potentially less able to make his nebulous feelings about traumatic events tangible.