I May Destroy You proved to be a fiery and fearless exploration of sexual consent that cemented Michaela Coel as a creative force not to be ignored (following her previous success with hit Britcom Chewing Gum). As creator, writer, and star of the HBO series, Coel unfurled a catharsis-fueled finale that included a revenge fantasy for her character, Arabella (also a writer), who spent a full season unraveling the mystery of who had drugged and raped her during a night on the town. What emerges is a subversive and provocative commentary on consent in many contexts.
The finale turned out to be shocking and empowering and painstakingly perfect for the pitch-black humor of the show. In the episode, Arabella drafted several permutations of how to find closure with her rapist. Surreally, we saw her rally with girlfriends and kill him outside the scene of the original crime. In another version, she danced up to him at the bar to the tune of The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” with controlled chaos and limbs flying everywhere. Finally, we saw her find peace with the situation as his corpse disappeared from underneath her bed. In the end, Arabella wrote her own peaceful ending while taking back her soul from the stranger who had stolen it from her.
Previously, we spoke with co-stars Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu about the so-called “grey areas” of sexual consent and the many masks worn by the show’s characters, respectively. Michaela was kind enough to talk with us about how she conceived and crafted the multiple “endings” explored in the finale.
Can we talk about the wonderful title of this show, and at what moment did you decide that was going to be it?
Funnily enough, I landed on that title three months into the shoot, when we were actually shooting the show.
That’s wild since it fits the show like a glove.
Yeah! So it came really late, and at that point it just occurred to me, so I emailed my team and floated it out as a possible title and then forgot about it. Then we were in post-production. This was March of this year, and it came back. The name I May Destroy You came back, so I said, “Guys, this is the title.” So yes, it came quite late.
Did it have a working title before that?
It did. January 22 because that’s the day that her draft was due and the day that she goes to the bar. That’s the day of Episode 1. Rubbish! It’s not good, is it?
It does not have nearly the same ring. In the finale, why did you decide to use The Prodigy’s “Firestarter” when Arabella toyed with her rapist? It’s such a great song for that scene.
There’s a part of this story that was writing itself and was simply using my fingers to put the words onto the keyboard into the script. It just happened, as I was typing!
What led you to inject those hyper-real, fantasy elements, which worked through alternate resolutions to Arabella confronting him?
That was probably decided during my time in Michigan on the farm. I was writing there near the lady who owned the cabin that I was staying at, in the middle of nowhere. I had told her why I was there because I don’t think that most people go to that cabin and stay by themselves for as long of a period as I did. They come in couples for the weekend. I was just there, and she was like, “What are you doing?” I said I was writing the show, and she said, “Oh, I’ve got something for you.” And it was this Margaret Atwood book, a a short story [“Stone Mattress”] within a whole book of short stories. This one was about a woman on a boat cruise who ended up bumping into a man who assaulted her many years ago when she was a teenager. I began to read this book in a way to be inspired, but as I was reading it, I began to notice that this was probably going in the direction of bloodshed. So, I said to her, “Is somebody gonna die?”
That’s dark stuff, but I can see how it could fuel your process here.
And I kind of wanted to do something a little bit different, but I also understand the need for this kind of ending. It lights something within us, doesn’t it? This revenge fantasy, so I thought about doing that, and what I realized, even early on while I read that Margaret Atwood book, is that this isn’t going to give me (or Arabella) any kind-of closure. She’s gonna kill him, but now, she’s a murderer, and now she’s gotta deal with being a murderer.
Well, that’d be a Season 2 story, but not the one that Arabella deserves, or that people would want to see happen to her.
She’s already Black, she’s already female, she’s already working class. She can’t also deal with a new label of murderer. How’s she gonna deal with that? I’m trying to get her to a place of well-being, peace, and empowerment, so now that she’s murdered him, what exactly happens now with her? It doesn’t seem like closure. So then I would try a different version with, “Like, let’s have the police come back and bring justice.” But once she had engaged with him a little bit, it didn’t really help, so I began to just go through these different versions, and also what I found is that just continuing to engage in this (and find different ways to deal with it) also wasn’t giving her closure. So, she needed to get to a point where she could let it go.
You mentioned “bloodshed,” and I wasn’t going to mention this yet, but now that there’s blood involved, why did you decide to include the period-sex scene earlier in the season?
Yessss! You know, I was writing, and a lot of this is inspired by my real life, so a journalist mentioned that I had told The Guardian about a lover taking a tampon out of my vagina [laughs], so I’ve already basically shared that this is my reality. But what I love about the scene, and the moment, is that it’s so consensual. So for me, this is a fond memory of beautiful, consensual sex, and it’s one of the rare moments that sex is ever consensual in the show, but I — just to have a lovely, cute scene of two people having sex, for me, I’m not interested in that — so what can I do to make this consensual sex a little bit… challenging for us? Using that moment of my life, the period, was [the one]… The blood clot came out of nowhere, it just happened.
They do that! You can’t stop it. Getting back to the serious stuff, multiple new shows are reframing the discussion around sexual trauma, like Unbelievable.
I’ve seen a few episodes, yes.
That show explored the challenges faced by an “imperfect victim.” When you crafted Arabella, she was “imperfect,” but proudly so.
Well, I wanted to make her human. That’s the base point. I got this commission in 2017 and had my first drafts in April 2018. It was always very clear to me that, in order to tell the story, I had to tell it in all of its fullness.
I appreciated that her trauma wasn’t the only facet of her personality.
I’m glad we already got through the period-sex part because, oh boy, that’d be a rough transition to make now.
So you obviously have a lot in common with Arabella, including the nature of her trauma. And there’s also the suggestion that her following up on her first book mirrors you following up on your first TV success.
I would definitely say that it actually isn’t one of the things that we really have in common, and I think that’s because I was so into writing poetry first, so it began there, where I was like, “I wrote a poem, so how am I going to top that? Perhaps it’s there, so I’ve got to write another poem.” So I’ve always learned to manage that, and by the time that Chewing Gum came out, I’m sort-of just constantly living off the buzz, off of that show. And my problem is understanding that it’s time to do something new! Even now, it’s like, “What are you gonna do?” And I’m still buzzing, I’m on a looooong break, I’m not anxious about it at all. So we didn’t really have that sophomore thing in common. There are different permutations of what she was like with that. Is she confident about it, is she casual, or is she nervous? So at that end, I thought that most people would identify with the second-album anxiety, so that’s why I chose to make her that way. People might relate to that a bit more.
If you could put Arabella into any other show right now for a guest episode, where would you like her to visit?
Oooooooh, I love that question!
Where would I put her? I’d probably put her in Atlanta.
Would she hang with the central trio or simply featured?
I think she’d be featured, definitely.
And how do you feel about Arabella (or you) being called the “voice of a generation”?
Yeah, that’s in the summary things that they do for the show, and that was my team, so I certainly did not know about it, and I’m reading it, thinking, “My my, are we going to write that in there?” But I let it happen, I didn’t mind. It’s guess it’s definitely, perhaps from one angle, meta, but I don’t know that I see myself as a voice of a generation. This generation is so varied and diverse, that it would seem impossible to be the voice of an entire generation.
HBO’s ‘I May Destroy You’ can be streamed on HBO Max.