I’m here to tell you all why the finale of I May Destroy You was perfection. Now is your chance to close this tab if you have not seen it because there will be nothing but praise and spoilers from here.
[Warning: The show itself also features sensitive subjects, particularly rape.]
Michaela Coel [Chewing Gum, Black Mirror] is back with another highly anticipated series. Acting as the lead role of Arabella, Coel is also the writer and director of I May Destroy You, a 12 episode long comedy-drama from BBC and HBO, about a young writer and the aftermath of her experience of date rape. It sounds interesting enough on paper with Coel’s reputation and a young Black British cast giving it some buzz but none of us were fully prepared for the kind of show it was going to be. It is a distressing, funny, boundary-breaking show, that was sort of weird a lot of the time but also a refreshingly realistic take on London. It’s probably the first and only season we’re going to get. We’re all sad to see it go but Michaela Coel has a restless energy and doesn’t seem like the type to drag a story along any further than it needs to go.
Episode 12: Ego Death is the very definition of this iconic meme:
I was horrified. Then I was confused. Then I was relieved. In ‘Ego Death’ you can no longer forget that you’re watching a show. You’re now a detective trying to decipher what’s going on, watching with your whole body leaning towards the screen as to not lose a single thread of the message Coel and Arabella are trying to weave and to figure out what’s real.
The whole series was surreal but episode 12 is mind-bending, showing three alternative versions of what a confrontation with Arabella’s rapist could look like. By showing us these alternative endings, Coel gives us, the audience, the ‘satisfaction’ that they all bring. After each ending, Arabella sticks more flashcards to the wall. She’s not dreaming. She is in discussion with herself on how to move her own story forward.
Scenario One – Rage and revenge
We don’t know what the episode is doing yet so we think it’s ‘real’ and we’re in proper horror movie territory. Here we see that her rage has deeply destroyed her and she’s ruined. Arabella and co drug him, chase him down, she sexually violates him too, publicly shaming him. Theo strangles him in the street with Arabella’s bright green knickers while Arabella herself beats him to death. It’s an eye for eye revenge which feels sort of good – to begin with – but then goes horribly wrong. Terry is the only one that seems to notice. Arabella carries his bloody corpse home on a bus without any worry. Anyone who may have seen what happened doesn’t think to help, which she knows more than anyone.
Arabella stuffs his dead body under the bed along with all the other painful things she hides there but the blood creeps out onto her carpet because how do you hide something like that? Escalating revenge to that level means you never can.
Scenario Two – The man behind the beast
This version is all about the need to understand why people do what they do. There has to be a reason because the idea that people can just be monsters for the sake of it can be too hard to bear. Before he breaks down, he goes into a speech on how there are other horrible things happening in the world and her pain doesn’t matter – which is what Arabella has been saying to herself to repress her pain. When she takes him home, he pleads for her not to leave him. He needs to stay embedded in her mind for him to retain his power. She can’t help him in the end, the police come for him anyway, but she sympathises with his pain – hurt people hurt people. She shows him a kindness that he has never known and he is confused and fearful when she is no longer scared of him because then he can’t play the role of the monster anymore. A little of his power has been taken away. Which leads us to…
Scenario Three – Controlling the narrative
The last of Arabella’s imagined confrontations. This one is about role reversal and controlling the story. At this point, any appearance of reality has been abandoned. This is obviously a dreamscape. It’s daytime. It’s calm. The bar is empty. Arabella approaches him and he is pleasantly surprised. Terry who has been the sexy decoy all along now sits back as the rapist’s friend dances awkwardly for her. When Arabella takes him back to hers, it’s sweet and gentle but she is in control. When they wake up, he says, ‘I won’t leave until you tell me to’. He is not begging anymore, he is advising. When she says ‘go’, he takes the dead body from the first scenario plus the other painful things she has hidden under the bed with him. And it’s then that her nightmare ends.
What David did to her could destroy her but at this point, she chooses not to let it. All the self-care activities and social media activism in the world couldn’t heal her. She had to get there herself in her own time and way. With the word ‘go’ she is free.
This feels like the only way this show could have ended. A conviction or a real confrontation would not have been right because survivors rarely get the justice they deserve. Besides, this series wasn’t about justice. We see that throughout the series, she’s not hung up on getting justice from the people who have harmed her. This series was about finding herself again after losing herself.
This episode is called Ego Death, named after the bar where she was assaulted. ‘Ego death’ is a well-known term that means many things, but usually ‘ a total loss of self-identity’. When Arabella is spiked she loses consciousness and then when she’s attacked she loses herself completely. Arabella spends 12 episodes trying to find some version of herself again.
She goes back to the Ego Death bar again and again because in her words ‘the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime’. But really, she’s there every weekend, trying to get herself back. But the battleground is in her mind and she has to confront her abuser mentally. When she finally tells the rapist to ‘go’, she closes that wound – she doesn’t need to go back there anymore. Arabella is healing. Her self has returned, of course, a different her, but she’s back. She’s tuned in again as a friend, showing Ben affection for the first time in forever and watching that show they love together. And finally, we see her healthy, surrounded by friends, with a new independently published novel. The book is described as seeming like it was written by a different writer. Arabella has transformed. And after that ending, we are too. It’s a finale we won’t forget.
Michaela Coel is a queen and indisputably one of the most talented writers and actors around right now. Coel[and Arabella] crafted a beautiful and sophisticated ending to an all too common experience that many can relate to. She showed us with flashcards and imagined futures how an awkward, intelligent, traumatised mind can stitch itself back together again.