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‘I May Destroy You’ and the Unique Skill Set of Michaela Coel

The ‘Chewing Gum’ star/creator has a new calling card: an HBO half-hour series that’s equal parts dark, funny, and affecting

HBO/Ringer illustration

Comparisons aren’t always fair; artists are individuals, and likening one to the other can elide crucial differences between them. But they’re also how skittish executives and overwhelmed audiences make their decisions—hence why every new genre show is “the next Game of Thrones,” or why every semi-autobiographical half-hour was “another Louie for a five-year stretch, then “another Girls. Marketing shorthand may be annoying, but it’s usually effective.

All of which is to say: Michaela Coel is not Phoebe Waller-Bridge, but you’re going to read those names in a lot of the same sentences this week (including this one).

The similarities are there. Both are British women who write and star in their own productions. Both broke out with a one-woman stage show that would become her signature TV series. Both have earned name recognition overseas through partnerships with global streaming services. And both established themselves with straightforward comedies about young adulthood in London, only to deliver sophomore efforts that are darker and stranger, but still sharply funny.

Of course, Coel comes from a radically different background than Waller-Bridge, a context reflected in her often autobiographical work. Born to Ghanaian immigrants, Coel was raised strictly religious in East London public housing, an experience channelled directly into the two-season sitcom Chewing Gum. Aired by E4 in the U.K. and Netflix in the U.S., Chewing Gum follows the sexual awakening of Coel’s Tracey, an emotionally stunted 24-year-old who decides to take a crash course in adult sexuality. Coel was just 26 when Chewing Gum went into production, having adapted the story from her graduation piece at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama. (“I was the first black girl they’d had in five years and the only person in my year whose parents weren’t homeowners,” she recalled at the time.) Coel aged the character up from 14 for the small screen, but kept the bawdy slapstick.

While on deadline writing the second season of Chewing Gum, Coel went out for a procrastinatory drink with friends. She blacked out, woke up several hours later in the production offices she’d been working out of, and realized she’d been drugged and sexually assaulted, a horror she first disclosed at the Edinburgh TV Festival’s prestigious MacTaggart Lecture in 2018. The premiere of I May Destroy You, Coel’s 12-part new series for the BBC and HBO, replays that horror beat for beat—except this time, Coel is playing a young writer named Arabella, working on a follow-up not to a hit show but a book called Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial. The office she wakes up in, with a bleeding gash on her forehead, belongs to her literary agents.

Coel has been straightforward in describing I May Destroy You as “definitely not entirely fictional.” Arabella resembles Coel in ways that extend beyond her trauma; she, too, attended Catholic school in her youth, and despite her success lives in an unglamorous apartment with a roommate, as Coel herself did as recently as 2018. (Though said arrangement feels more like necessity than choice for nonfiction writer Arabella.) But I May Destroy You is hardly a diary dump, as personal stories from female creators are commonly stereotyped. It’s a meaningful step forward for the now-32-year-old star, a show of range and pathos as Coel transitions from wunderkind to established force.

In between Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You, Coel booked plenty of work as an actress, including on Black Mirror and, in another Waller-Bridge parallel, a Star Wars film. Most prominently, there was the sodden misfire Black Earth Rising, a geopolitical drama that squandered Coel’s star power on a dour and humorless role. Unsurprisingly, Coel has a much better handle on her own strengths. I May Destroy You is dark, but not pitch black. At times, it even feels like an aspirational, slickly produced hangout show—Insecure across the pond. For a show about the aftermath of assault, the tone can be disorienting, until you realize that disorientation is sort of the point. Survivors can still spend time with their friends.

Arabella forms one-third of a platonic trio with Terry (Weruche Opia), an actress she’s known since grade school, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), a gay fitness instructor addicted to Grindr. I May Destroy You isn’t a whodunnit; there’s no structure as simple as a search for Arabella’s assailant. Instead, it’s a loose, wandering path through the year or so after Arabella’s assault, plus flashbacks to the months or years before. The show is about Arabella’s recovery, but also more ambiguous encounters had by both her friends and Arabella herself. A seemingly nice guy takes off his condom mid-intercourse without telling his partner. A random hookup pins Kwame down and dry-humps him after consensual sex. A teenager coerced into taking nude photos gets thrown under the bus by her classmates.

I May Destroy You takes place in a world where sexual assault is widely understood yet still ever present—our world, more than two years post-#MeToo. Arabella is treated with understanding and respect by two female detectives and assigned a counselor. (American viewers may cringe in shame at the sight of such comprehensive social services.) Her friends are familiar with the symptoms of PTSD and habits of self-care. She identifies a more recent violation because she hears it discussed on a popular podcast. And yet abuse and trauma still persist, even when their aftermath is no longer as cut-and-dry as a harsh denial.

The subject matter makes I May Destroy You grimmer by default than Chewing Gum—sex as a minefield, not a route to self-discovery. But Coel’s latest work retains a sense of humor, just a bleaker, more realistic one. In Chewing Gum, Tracey gets fetishized and dressed up in a tribal costume by a creepy suitor; in I May Destroy You, Arabella’s partner pauses pre-coitus to marvel at a menstrual blood clot, a moment so candid the laugh is half out of disbelief. Caught in an infidelity, a character sighs, “I’d do this right now, but I’m tired.” A grocery clerk asks Arabella for a selfie, then captions it “HER CARD GOT DECLINED LMAO.”

Caustic and unflinching, the tone of I May Destroy You serves its commentary as well as its comedy. “I never really thought about being a woman until I was raped,” Arabella says at one point, reading aloud to her agents from a draft in progress. “I was too busy being black and poor.” This is a show about sexual assault, but also the overlapping contexts in which it occurs: race, sexual orientation, class, even age. It’s a story comfortable with ambiguity and lack of closure, a style that allows it to pull off, among other things, the one tolerable subplot about social media use in recent memory. I May Destroy You is a tougher pill to swallow than the sunnier, goofier Chewing Gum. For Coel, however, it’s a new calling card.