I May Destroy You, nominated for multiple Emmys, follows Londoner Arabella (Michaela Coel), an adept social media user with pinkish hair and a wardrobe of loud cardigans and vinyl coats, who, after a lost night, has unnerving flashbacks of being raped by a stranger in a toilet.
Arabella laughs it off at first but once she starts to believe it might have happened, and that someone spiked her drink, this extraordinary series takes us deep into the messy complexities of what is meant today by consent when it comes to sex.
She and her best friends Terry (Weruche Opia), an actor auditioning for parts who Arabella has known since school, and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), who is gay, live on their phones, connecting with people, setting up jobs, and in Kwame’s case checking Grindr for his next anonymous hook-up. Slowly their stories unfold.
Arabella, who was supposed to be putting in an all-nighter writing a book but went out drinking instead, promises her publishers she is on track with a follow-up to her best-selling Chronicles of a Fed-up Millennial. Her feeble excuses convince no one. Distracted, she backtracks to the night by visiting the friends she started out with, checks her credit card transactions and pieces together enough remnants of evidence to report it to the police, where she is treated with concern and respect. But what is she actually reporting?
In the process of eliminating consenting sexual partners, she must re-connect with an ex-boyfriend in Italy and an episode is devoted to her entirely consensual fling with him. The sex scenes are a lot, not because they try to be erotic but because they feel real, and are especially confronting. When she contacts him later and visits him in Italy, he shuts her down.
Their story, peripheral to the main one, is an alleyway into how consent comes burdened with expectations about what having sex implies for a relationship, if there even was one. So does another episode back at school when someone she and Terry knew, a white girl they weren’t friends with, is caught out lying about a rape in the school toilets. The girl had agreed, yes, but to what?
Arabella later reconnects with the same girl, who is now an adult running a group for survivors of sexual assault, making her reappraise her own behaviour at the time. We also watch on, painfully, as Kwame tries to report his brutal rape that happened at the end of an otherwise consensual session of sex with a Grindr contact whose name he does not know. It was consent until it wasn’t.
There are missteps along the way; Arabella’s public denouncement of another sexual transgressor, an opportunistic act during an otherwise agreed encounter, is sour and overplayed. And the final episode feels clumsy after the explosion of creativity that preceded it. But I May Destroy You is also funny, smart, wildly innovative – it nails the vacuity behind Arabella’s attempt to play out her victim status on social media – and one of the best contemporary social dramas going.
Watch I May Destroy you on Foxtel or Binge.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.