The case of Arabella Essiedu is a common kind of paradox. The protagonist of I May Destroy You shares a great deal with her creator Michaela Coel, who also plays her on the show. Both Arabella and Michaela are Londoners who grew up in public housing. Both are the daughters of West African mothers and both attended rough-and-tumble Catholic schools. Both are writers who found early success by drawing on their own biographies.
But Arabella is also not Michaela, a truism that highlights an important distinction. When the story starts, Arabella is at sea, unable to write the novel she’s contracted to write for a prestigious publishing house and procrastinating with free trips to Italy. Coel, by contrast is at the helm of her second TV show. It’s a dynamic increasingly common in I May Destroy You’s crowded niche—self-styled star vehicles that take the auteur approach to TV half hours. Hannah Horvath in Girls; Abbi and Ilana in Broad City; Issa in Insecure; Ramy in Ramy: all of these antiheroes are modeled after, and often conflated with, the people who portray them, but they’re just missing the drive, luck, and success that got those creators’ personae on screen in the first place. For pure pragmatism’s sake, the difference makes sense. Conflict is more interesting than prosperity. Few people want to watch a show about the high-class problems of performers not named Larry David. More can relate to stories about entertainers’ lower-functioning, often younger selves.
In I May Destroy You, however, the gap between character and creator serves a more poignant purpose. Arabella and Michaela aren’t just at different points in their careers. They’re also at different points in their recovery from sexual assault, a trauma Arabella undergoes in the premiere during an incident modeled after Coel’s real life. Because both Coel and her latest avatar are artists, each woman channels her experience into her work—and the differences in how they do so are the most instructive ones of all.
I May Destroy You is many shows in one, to the point that focusing on any one aspect of the story almost feels reductive. It’s an observational sitcom about Black millennials. It’s a drama about assault, its aftermath, and all the nebulous forms it can take. But it’s also, to use an SAT word Arabella would surely scoff at, a Künstlerroman—a coming-of-age story with an artist at its center, tracking the growth of both a person and their creative voice. The art that Coel and her character practice is a fraught one: They work to fictionalize one’s painful history without diminishing its impact or reliving the trauma. A fictional being herself, Arabella is at once an example of this craft, a vessel for Coel’s commentary on it, and eventually, a practitioner in her own right. By Monday night’s finale, the gap between Arabella and Michaela remains intact yet diminished. When some unseen hand types out
“END,” letter by letter, in the episode’s final moments, there’s no need to ask which woman is doing the typing. The answer is both.
When we first meet Arabella, she’s charismatic and lively. She’s also a mess. Sometime in the recent past, Arabella rocketed to overnight success with Chronicles of a Fed-Up Millennial, a PDF published on and largely sourced from her popular Twitter account. We never get to read Chronicles in full, but we do hear the excerpts gushed at Arabella verbatim by fans who recognize her on the street: “He likes to play puppeteer to a broken doll but doesn’t actually know how to rescue anyone”; “Why do you care about my lipstick? There are children starving in Africa!” Her style is quippy, evocative, and personal, which makes her catnip to the agents and publisher who’ve rewarded her with a lucrative contract. Her work is also unpolished, and gives rise to the sort of celebrity that’s bound up in Arabella’s persona as much as her skill. No wonder she can’t figure out what to write for her second book, which is theoretically a novel.
To motivate Arabella, her agents pair her up with fellow wunderkind Zain (Karan Gill), a Cambridge-educated author they hope can help her with her ongoing project. He does, if not in the way anyone had in mind. What Arabella shares with Zain is predictably subpar—purple-prose retreads of ground she’s already covered, some of them involving chicken grease. But then she gets involved with him; while they’re having sex, Zain takes off his condom without telling her, an act classified as rape according to U.K. law. At a high-profile reading where Zain is also onstage (with his mother in the audience), Arabella accuses him in clear and direct terms: “He’s a rapist. Not rape-adjacent, or a bit rapey. He is a rapist under U.K. law.”
Arabella’s snap decision becomes an instant sensation. Afterward, she and a couple of friends sit in a bar, glued to their phones: “I’m a GIF, Bella!”; “They’ve made a meme of him running away.” The feedback Arabella gets for sharing a new, even more intimate part of her history is positive, immediate, and addictive, especially compared to the complexities of her everyday life. In one scene, she goes directly from a tearful fight with her sort-of-boyfriend to posting a selfie, then scrolling through comments that praise her as a warrior and a truth-teller. Arabella’s disclosure gets an enthusiastic response, but the response is to something unfiltered and raw from a woman still processing her pain, not a considered reflection from the other side of said process. Nor does that response always come from parties who have Bella’s best interests at heart. When she learns of Arabella’s first assault, predatory publisher Susy Henny (Franc Ashman) is positively thrilled. “Rape!” she trills. “Fantastic!”
After Zain, Arabella does make halting progress towards some kind of breakthrough. She reads her agents a passage about discovering her femininity, drawn from an actual conversation Coel had while rehearsing a play in 2014: “Prior to being raped, I never took much notice of being a woman. I was busy being black and poor … The Bible says you cannot serve two masters. Am I too late to serve this tribe called women?” But for every artistic step forward, Arabella finds herself drawn back into the comforting maw of social media, which encourages an absolutism that’s antithetical to effective storytelling and her own healing. “It helps us avoid feelings like guilt, uncertainty, self-blame,” Bella’s therapist explains at an emergency session. “These feelings are crucial in the stages of recovery. If we can’t process and understand them, we can’t process and understand ourselves.”
Arabella is hardly the first writer to fall into the Pavlovian trap of online discourse, and Coel uses her to expand I May Destroy You’s impact beyond her singular story. Coel has spoken in interviews of practicing empathy as a skill that requires constant honing. “I spent a lot of my life asking, pleading, hoping for empathy,” she told Vulture last month. “It only feels fitting for me to try to do the same thing. I think it crosses these very stubborn wirings in our brain.” Later in the same profile, Coel carefully avoids words like “racism” and “microaggression” dulled by overuse—precisely the same sort of absolutist words used in discussions of volatile subjects like sexual assault. In I May Destroy You, Coel practices nuance and understanding when Arabella often doesn’t. Zain may have hurt Arabella, but he also tries to atone for it by helping her funnel her emotions into a structure, diagrammed on note cards pinned to her bedroom wall.
Coel is aware how all narratives are condensed when squeezed into 280 characters or the caption beneath a photo. She’s also aware how trauma and assault, specifically, are hungered after by a marketplace that loves to commodify women’s suffering. (The internet spent several years in the mid-2010s churning out personal essays from sites like Thought Catalog and xoJane; now, the industrial complex is more decentralized, though still very much in place.) And so Arabella finds herself branded around a story she doesn’t feel entirely ready to tell. In fact, the entire finale is her figuring out how to tell it.
“Ego Death” shows three different versions of the same encounter at the namesake bar, where Arabella was drugged and raped by a stranger in the series premiere. When she first spots her attacker after months of compulsive stakeouts, Arabella drugs him, kills him, takes the corpse back to her apartment, and stuffs it under the bed, where she once hid the evidence bags from her case for months on end. Then the clock rewinds and the night plays out again; this time, Bella takes her rapist back to her apartment, listens to him tearfully explain his compulsions, and sees him hauled out by the police. Finally, there’s a third scenario in which Bella has a consensual tryst with her targent which she’s unmistakably in charge. By now, the audience is well aware this is a fiction inside a fiction. We aren’t watching Arabella; we’re watching Arabella decide what’s going to happen to a constructed version of herself, as Coel has done—is doing—for herself.
At long last, Bella is asserting a form of authorial control over her story instead of simply exposing it, unmediated. She’s come to terms not just with her assault, but her entire approach to art. In the penultimate episode, she and Zain survey her massive wall of notes. “I thought you were writing about consent,” he says, uncertainly. “So did I,” she responds, calm. Like the show it’s a part of, the book that will soon be known as January 22nd (after the night of Arabella’s attack) can’t be reduced to being just “about consent” without losing part of its essence. “I don’t understand it,” he continues. “I do,” Arabella replies. To readers of January 22nd, and viewers of I May Destroy You, that’s all that matters.