What ‘I May Destroy You’ Got About Millennials That ‘Girls’ Didn’t
HBO’s series about women on the verge have come a long way in the last decade
In the pilot episode of I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s stunning rape mystery-dramedy for HBO by way of the BBC, Twitter-famous author Arabella Essiedu (Coel) takes what is meant to be an hour-long writing break from her book deadline to meet a friend at a bar. (Spoiler alert, this article is about to discuss all episodes of the series.) Not long into the night, she blacks out from a spiked drink, is left by the friend she’d gone out to meet, and is raped by a stranger in a bathroom stall. This story is lifted from Coel’s own life. Four years ago, during a writing break taken while working overnight on her first television series — the partially autobiographical Chewing Gum, about a religious virgin desperate for sex — Coel’s drink was spiked and she was raped by two strangers, later managing to finish her script post-assault in the haze of a drug-induced blackout.
I May Destroy You is a master class in what happens when you write what you know. Its entire season is a study in sexual assault and trauma recovery, ending in a Run Lola Run-esque rape revenge fantasy sequence in which Arabella plays out a few different versions of what she might do given the opportunity to confront her rapist. She could drug him, stalk him, violate him, and beat him to a bloody pulp (a catharsis reminiscent of Margaux Hemingway’s final few scenes in the 1976 film Lipstick); or she could bring him home and listen to his story, understand the cycle of abuse, that hurt people hurt people, and in this find compassion; or, she could bring him home for some history-rewriting consensual sex. The last two daydreams are calmer, more self-possessed, the types of fantasies one might be capable of entertaining only after a lot of trauma therapy. Fitting, then, for these to be the penultimate images in the series finale, the concluding mood in Arabella’s year of helter-skelter self-care and recovery.
The End of the Girlboss Is Here
The girlboss didn’t change the system; she thrived within it. Now that system is cracking, and so is this icon of…
A rape mystery from the survivor’s eye view, which is also funny and fun much of the time, I May Destroy You is quite unlike anything else on television to date. In July, Michaela Coel appeared on the cover of New York magazine, with a glowing profile by E. Alex Jung, above text that rightly declared I May Destroy You the “most uncompromising show on television.” But it is also, in a few quite blatant ways, of a piece with another, more benign HBO ensemble dramedy from the previous decade: Girls. Writing for New York, critic Emily Nussbaum called the show “revolutionary,” with Lena Dunham appearing on the magazine’s cover, above text which proclaimed her new series the “ballsiest show on TV.”
Every few years, HBO gives us a new set of friends and a friend-group anchor — a voice-of-her-generation writer — navigating life and love and career ambitions in the big city. First, there was Carrie Bradshaw and her gals in turn-of-the-millennium Manhattan, a fantasy of impossible footwear and zipless, consequence-free fucks. In 2012 we were introduced to Hannah Horvath and her girls “living the dream, one mistake at a time” in Brooklyn. And this summer we met Arabella and her best mates Terry and Kwame, across the pond in London, more or less doing the same.
As with Girls, whose anti-hero Hannah Horvath was played by the show’s creator Lena Dunham, Michaela Coel, who wrote all of the scripts herself and co-directed nine of the season’s 12 episodes with Sam Miller, stars in her show as the fictional Arabella. Both Dunham’s Hannah and Coel’s Arabella are writers, the latter a Twitter-famous voice of her generation with a book whose title (Chronicles Of A Fed-Up Millennial) sounds cheekily like the name of a book Hannah Horvath might have tried and failed to sell on Girls. They are both snappy, pattern-happy dressers with a penchant for sheer shirts and impulse haircuts. And they are also both liable to a cliché, pathological brand of millennial self-involvement, the kind of total preoccupation with one’s own problems that can be so blinding it burns friends and alienates allies. (Who can forget the Hamptons blowup from Girls season three?) And it will be difficult to forget Arabella excoriating Kwame for failing to tell a female sexual partner he is gay, an act of lying by omission that is the legal equivalent of a secretly removed condom — which qualifies as rape under U.K. law — without knowing Kwame had himself just been sexually assaulted by an anonymous dating app hookup gone wrong.
Dunham, who is the daughter of two prominent New York artists and at this late date a poster girl for white privilege in Hollywood, sold Girls to HBO not long out of Oberlin at 23 years old, on the strength of a pitch more akin to a page-and-a-half prose poem. The show’s first season finds Hannah two years post-grad, close to Dunham’s age the year of her HBO deal, an aspiring personal essayist who has lost her unpaid publishing internship and has no clips to her name. The main points of conflict in the first season are that she has been taken off her family’s mobile phone plan and diagnosed with HPV. In the pilot, Hannah tells her parents she believes she may be “a voice of a generation” in a last-ditch effort to extend her post-grad allowance, which would buy her a bit more time to work on an unsold personal essay collection only halfway written. Request denied, she later pockets the cash her parents had intended as a tip for their hotel’s housekeeper.
‘I May Destroy You’ is a master class in what happens when you write what you know.
In this way, Girls is also an example of making a show from writing what you know: financial privilege, millennial shiftlessness, regrettable sex, and a certain unbearable whiteness of being. (After critical scrutiny for failing to cast any people of color, Dunham brought Donald Glover on as a Black Republican love interest. It backfired.)
Meanwhile I May Destroy You, first pitched to Netflix — which offered Coel $1 million and zero rights — and later sold to the BBC for a much better, more equitable deal, has an almost entirely Black cast. Arabella’s goofy white roommate is a winking joke of a boring white guy, her try-hard white literary agents overly complimentary of her hair when she changes its style — and it is as much about race as anything else. In episode six, we flashback to teenaged Arabella and Terry, who call out their white schoolmate Theo when she tries to frame a Black friend for rape at knifepoint. (In truth, the teen boy had manipulated Theo into being filmed during sex for cash, which sets the stage for a later reunion of adult Arabella and Theo, at Theo’s sexual abuse support group, the resonance of shared experience transcending previous racial animus.) Here we see racism and sexual violence knitted into a double-sided crime, one feeding the other, and are asked to question which is worse: the sexual exploitation or the revenge-framing of the exploiter.
It is also a show about consent and deceit. And being a young woman who drinks and uses drugs in a big city full of strangers and bad men, which are actually everywhere and not exclusively straight either. It is about consequences beyond one’s control.
In the third episode of Girls, one of Hannah’s friends tells her that HPV is not a big deal, that another friend has a couple strains of it, that “all adventurous women do.” Maybe this is true. But it is also true, perhaps truer, and certainly worthy of further exploration, that many women have a story similar to Arabella’s. Perhaps “all adventurous women do” rings darker in this context.
Like Arabella and Hannah, I am a writer, a millennial, and a young woman living in a big city (L.A. now, but New York in my late teens and twenties). The summer following my freshman year of college, 12 years ago, I had an internship at a glossy fashion magazine headquartered in New York City. All of my college friends had gone back to their respective homes for the summer, so I socialized with the girls in my department, bubbly blonde Oklahomans who kept trying to bring me into their church. I went with them to a party our magazine was throwing for its summer issue, a big Chelsea nightclub takeover with gift bags and an open bar and free bottles of a new ginger liqueur to bring home on your way out the door. I was 19. Somehow this didn’t matter.
I got drunk on sugary cocktails and by the time the lights were coming up and the crowd had thinned, I was near blackout. The Oklahomans and I left the club, liqueur bottles in hand. They hailed a cab and invited me in, but I told them I wanted to walk home. I lived in the Village; the walk seemed doable, preferable even, in the tepid midnight heat of a Manhattan summer. They closed the cab door and drove away, leaving me, a drunk teen girl in the middle of the night, in the middle of Chelsea, alone. I’d told them to.
I was close-dancing with a strange man, alone in the middle of his closed-for-the-night bar, high on class A drugs when it crossed my mind something bad might happen to me.
On my walk, I passed a couple of strangers who invited me to their friend’s bar. I figured, why not? This is where I first tried cocaine. Then the couple left, and left me, a teen girl, alone with their friend, the bar owner. At some point in the night, I’d cut the palm of my left hand on a jagged piece of glass, the chipped rim of that free bottle of ginger liqueur, so my hand was wrapped in a dishrag, bloody. I was close-dancing with a strange man, alone in the middle of his closed-for-the-night bar, with my bloody hand throbbing, high on class A drugs when it crossed my mind something bad might happen to me. I told the bar owner I had to leave. He said okay and opened the door. It could have been much worse.
The pilot episode of I May Destroy You brought that night back into sharp relief. And it continued to bring other even worse experiences to mind, as the season progressed. This is one of the points the show aims to make: Sexual violence is a much more common experience than we may realize, and can take many forms. It can be subtle, like a removed condom, or it can be consensual sex that spirals into violence that won’t end, or it can be deceit, or a drugged drink, or a relentless begging that wears you down.
Not every show on television needs to have a serious engine driving it forward. Seinfeld, a show famously about nothing, is a much-loved case in point. But it is hard to imagine a show like Girls, a show about nothing much, being made today, nor receiving the glowing response it did nearly a decade ago. We are disillusioned, we are post-Weinstein and peri-#MeToo, and we want to watch what we know.
Which I guess brings us back to the idea of writing what you know. Dunham famously once said she wished she’d had an abortion, arguably so she could speak and write about women’s reproductive rights from a place of greater personal resonance. In season one of Girls, one friend ends up considering abortion but then not needing it after all, another has a boyfriend who is, God forbid, too nice, and the third can’t find a guy willing to sleep with her, a virgin.
By the end of I May Destroy You, it seems like everyone has been raped or tricked or taken advantage of in one or another way. Arabella is assaulted twice, the second time by Zain, the man hired to help her finish the book she can’t seem to write; he ends up removing the condom during otherwise consensual intercourse, transforming the act into one she had not consented to and that in the U.K. is increasingly seen as grounds for prosecution. And Kwame is attacked by a man from a hookup app when he tries to leave after a consensual evening. Even Terry begins to view her seemingly spontaneous Italian threeway differently when a new partner suggests that perhaps the men she slept with had orchestrated the whole thing ahead of time, with her their mark. And then Arabella is tricked again when she falls in love with a book written under a female nom de plume she later learns was actually written by the now-canceled Zain, whom she has publicly accused of rape at a reading of works in progress.
The smallest Russian nesting doll inside of this all is that the finale closes with Arabella’s book launch — she’s managed to finish her work, finally. (Does Hannah, ever?) Its title, January 22, is a reference to the date she was assaulted, and the cover design, an X overlapping an A, is a reference to the trauma self-integration diagram — an A, representing Arabella, over a straight line with an X beneath, representing her unresolved trauma — drawn earlier in the season by her therapist one haunting Halloween night. Like Michaela Coel, Arabella has written from her experience and used her work as an opportunity to heal and help others. In this moment, Coel’s show and the borrowed-from-life fictional story its protagonist tells come together, a finished project within a finished project, the ultimate catharsis, for the character and her audience and her creator, too. An X overlapping an M.