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The Friendships at the Heart of ‘I May Destroy You’

Michaela Coel’s HBO series is a testament to her vision, but the show truly unlocks its greatness when it widens its lens to include Arabella’s friends, played with nuance by Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Halfway through its 12-episode first season, the rapturous acclaim for I May Destroy You has been largely attributed to its British auteur Michaela Coel. Which makes sense: After a demoralizing experience on her first marquee project, Chewing Gum—for which she only got credit as a coproducer in the second season—Coel took full control over her follow-up. In addition to penning every script sans writers room, Coel codirected most episodes and serves as executive producer. And, of course, she plays the lead role: Arabella, an up-and-coming writer who, in a harrowing scene drawn from Coel’s own experience, is drugged and sexually assaulted the night before a deadline.

But, much like Arabella herself, Coel couldn’t do it alone. I May Destroy You quickly widens out from the immediate aftermath of Arabella’s assault into its long-term aftermath, even flashing back to the months and years before that give the event its context. The show’s focus expands in kind: Arabella remains the center, but she’s supported and paralleled by her two closest friends, who both have disturbing encounters of their own.

Played by Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia, fitness instructor Kwame and aspiring actress Terry help form the foundation of I May Destroy You. Their characters’ journeys underline the show’s focus on the intricacies of consent, even as their lived-in rapport can make it a surprisingly easy watch, considering the subject at hand. Critics talk all the time about the concept of romantic chemistry—whether we believe two actors are as attracted to each other as their characters. Less discussed, but equally vital, is the concept of platonic chemistry. Would these people actually hang out with each other, let alone be vulnerable or intimate? Coel, Essiedu, and Opia sell their trio’s soul-deep connection, which in turn gives credence to the complicated scenarios their characters are forced to navigate.

“They’re able to accept each other regardless of the flaws, the mistakes, the decisions they make,” says Opia, speaking from her London apartment via Zoom. “I think that’s rooted in their love for each other, which is somewhat unconditional. Regardless of who does what, when, or how, they have decided to be each other’s birth and each other’s death”—the catchphrase Arabella and Terry, who goes by T, use to express their lifelong bond.

Even though T and Arabella’s relationship is the oldest on the show—a midseason episode shows them as rowdy teenagers—Opia was the relative newcomer behind the scenes. Coel and Essiedu have known each other since their time at London’s Guildhall School for Music & Drama; for their graduation showcase, the two performed an original piece set at an East London basketball court, written in the same casual vernacular that gives I May Destroy You much of its texture and realism. Opia, on the other hand, had never met her costar prior to her chemistry read. A fan of Chewing Gum and Coel’s roles in shows like Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising, Opia says she had some reservations about joining a cast that was already so tight-knit: “I was a bit concerned before; I was like, ‘Ooh, I’m gonna be the outsider. How’s it gonna work?’”

But according to Essiedu, Opia’s onboarding was seamless. “I felt really lucky, because sometimes you really have to do the acting when it comes to playing friends,” he jokes. As one of Coel’s longtime friends, Essiedu had a longer, more indirect path to his role than Opia’s straightforward audition; he heard about the project throughout its nearly 200 drafts, but the idea for him to play Kwame ultimately came from casting director Julie Harkin, not Coel herself. Once Essiedu signed on, though, he and Coel started to workshop the character in collaboration. “I really respect her. I think she respects me, but maybe that’s wishful thinking,” he says, laughing. “There’s a symbiosis to the way that we work, to the way that we think creatively.”

As we meet him on the show, Kwame is ultraconfident, but quietly so. The character uses hookup apps with practiced ease, slipping away from a grocery trip with an elderly woman to have oral sex with the checkout clerk. There’s a straightforward satisfaction to Kwame’s romantic life that makes it much less fraught than his female friends’, at least before the upsetting events of the show. “It’s about a safe space for him to express himself,” Essiedu explains. “There’s a freedom attached to that, and I think he relishes that freedom and leans into it. It makes him really happy.” So when a previously consensual hookup turns coercive, it’s not just a breach of Kwame’s personal safety; it’s a challenge to his very sense of self.

Earlier versions of Kwame were “way more flamboyant, way louder, way more in your face,” Essiedu says—more like the person we see urging his aerobics charges to be “phoenixes.” But Coel and Essiedu were interested in how a more low-key, introspective character might respond to such a violation. “There are so many different expectations of people in their responses to trauma. I just felt like that was a quite unexpected response for a character like him—to have him hold it down more, and keep things to himself,” Essiedu says.

Kwame’s reaction is also shaped by his relationship with Arabella, whose more cut-and-dry assault is met with empathy and understanding by the authorities. When he accompanies Arabella to her interview, Kwame sees firsthand how gently she’s treated, allowing her to acknowledge for the first time the truth of what’s happened. His own attempted report, by contrast, is abruptly brushed off. To Americans pleasantly surprised by Arabella’s interactions with the police, Kwame’s cruel dismissal will be tragically familiar. For his part, Kwame ends up suppressing some of his own feelings in order to support his more visibly—and in the eyes of some misinformed observers, more understandably—distraught friend.

The truth is that Arabella’s experience fits comfortably within many people’s understanding of what sexual assault looks like, in terms of both gender (a female victim, attacked by a man) and the event itself (entirely nonconsensual, initiated by a stranger). Such assaults do happen, as evidenced by Coel’s own biography, but to expand her story into a wider-ranging look at sexuality and trauma, she added story lines that fall further into shades of gray. Kwame’s ordeal fits into that category, but Terry, too, has her own ambiguous memories to process. While visiting Arabella on a writing retreat in Italy, Terry has a threesome with two men she meets at a club. At first, she feels triumphant, but when she watches her partners leave together, Terry realizes the night may have been more coordinated than she initially thought. “She’s not completely sure where she stands on it,” Opia says. “We can see her confusion, whether she feels actually completely liberated by it or whether she feels taken advantage of.” Terry is fiercely protective of Arabella, encouraging her to take her own memories seriously when she dismisses her flashbacks as just “a thing.” But Terry doesn’t quite extend the same benefit of the doubt to herself.

At an audition where she’s asked to take off her wig and show her natural hair, Terry tells the casting director the threesome is the most liberating thing she’s ever done. “I think she says that, at that moment, because she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to say, or what they’d like to hear,” Opia says. In a world where your boundaries are casually disrespected as a matter of course, it’s easy to ignore your inner alarm bells. It’s what an actress like Terry has to do to get through her workday.

I May Destroy You is filled with blurred lines between fiction and reality, even beyond the fact that Arabella’s story is drawn from that of the actress who plays her. Arabella’s last name, we learn in the single therapy session her agency will pay for, is Essiedu; during our conversation, her namesake accidentally refers to Arabella as Michaela, an understandable mix-up. And while Opia may be more successful than Terry, she’s also an actress playing an actress, one whose anxieties and insecurities she knows all too well. “Especially in the creative world, where you know this is what you want to do, but in actual fact, can you do it? I can definitely understand where she’s coming from,” Opia explains. “It’s a reflection of a reality for a lot of people, a lot of creatives. Trying to decide between the life you want and the life you have. The reality in comparison to what you see yourself as, project yourself as.”

The observational details that make I May Destroy You such a convincing portrait of its protagonists’ lives are the same ones that give its story weight. “The language helps a lot,” Opia says. “It’s what’s most representative of being a young person in London. Michaela knows how we speak.” And the quick, slang-laden speech characters use to joke around is also what they use to make sense of what they’re going through. “We’re not seeing these portrayals in the films we watch or books we read,” Essiedu says of Kwame’s assault, trapped in the legal no-man’s-land between consensual and not. “The show has a more accurate representation of different people’s experiences.”