Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

I May Destroy You refuses to be defined in its incredible season finale

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Photo: Natalie Seery
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In last week’s episode, “Would You Like to Know the Sex? I May Destroy You revealed its biggest mystery: what exactly happened the night Arabella was drugged. After running into her attacker again, Arabella the memory comes back to her. “Ego Death” is an entirely fantastical look at how Arabella could respond to this sudden realization. Some of these fantasies play into stereotypes of the revenge rape genre’s hybrid of sexual violence, exploitation and reclaiming the physical self. Some of them play into society’s unfair demand that victim’s forgive and understand abusers. In the end, it doesn’t exactly matter. None of these vignettes are part of Arabella’s journey. If you wanted a singular takeaway on sexual assault and healing, “Ego Death” tells you to take your fucking pick.

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Did you want justice? Forgiveness? Revenge? Did you just want to see Arabella move on with her life? All of those can be paths to healing, they just might not be Arabella’s path. Vignettes of revenge and confrontation in “Ego Death” play out entirely for the audience. In terms of linear narrative, the season ends with Arabella remembering her attack which brings her stalking of Ego Death to an end. She decides to stay in and bond with Lonely Ben. Later, she celebrates Terry’s commercial and finishes her book. Her attacker isn’t brought to justice. There’s no true moment of reckoning that offers a clear conclusion to Arabella’s journey, like the fantasies we see promise. That isn’t realistic.

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The reality is that Arabella will always carry that night with her and she will also continue to live and heal. What we now see is that Arabella is capable of living her life without packing her worst impulses and memories away under her bed. Arabella’s journey as a character isn’t served by any of these neat, traditional conclusions. Instead, it ends with her back in her purple wig, by the sea. She’s back in her place of power, comfort and clarity. She looks directly at the camera and smiles. It’s playful. Or sinister. Or unconcerned. It doesn’t need to be one thing. It’s a perfect final shot.

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Screenshot: Screenshot
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That isn’t to say Arabella won’t still be impacted by her attack, she’s just no longer the shadow version of herself she almost became in the aftermath. The finale is more interested in giving us the conclusion to Bella’s healing process than information on her attacker. It’s impressive how the finale manages to weave increasingly fantastical moments with such a straightforward conclusion. Plants grow, a book is written, relationships develop—life goes on. Within each alternate reality, Michaela Coel and costume designer Lynsey Moore drop clues that things aren’t as they appear. In the first fantasy, Arabella suddenly goes from her messy, vintage bomber jacket to a perfectly fitted spy wig and plastic dress, made for handling tossed spiked drinks. It’s all too perfect. Honestly, Arabella has not worn a wig that nice all season.

Theo appears and has a pink stripe in her hair, a look we haven’t seen her with since the high school flashback. Things aren’t right and by the time Arabella is wiping blood on her walls and we snap back to her, in the garden with Ben, the episode’s concept makes sense. In the second fantasy, Terry takes charge and Arabella is unusually honest with herself and her mental illness. It’s another sign something is off. There’s a fake, blurry second Arabella dancing in the background as actual Arabella does coke and pretends to get drugged. Why does Terry suddenly have so much coke? When Arabella and her attacker suddenly escape the police and appear in her bedroom, the intimacy is uncomfortable but we also know this can’t be real either.

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That’s important, because this is a difficult episode to get through. In episode 11, we saw Arabella’s attack, but that wasn’t as hard to watch as some of the moments in “Ego Death.” I barely liked seeing Zain re-introduced as Arabella’s saving grace so watching her make full-on-dom-pegging love with the man we saw attack her in flashbacks all season was….Well, it was hard to watch. The season has built up Arabella’s bedroom as a true safe haven and seeing him in her room hurt to see. It felt like such an invasion, even when she’s “regaining” the power of their dynamic by penetrating him and telling him when to leave (along with all the other versions of him.) Arabella has thought through all of these possibilities and they can all go.

Michaela Coel
Michaela Coel
Screenshot: Screenshot
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Seeing her attacker in this state of vulnerability was the hardest for me, personally, to watch so I appreciated that it’s also the most imaginative of the fantasies. Arabella sees the woman from the police station in the bar bathroom. Terry sits back while the man she’s been sent to distract twerks for her. Arabella speaks to her attacker in an entirely empty bar. She whispers in his ear but we don’t know what she says. By now, the episode’s pattern has established that none of this is real which makes the moment easier to stomach.

Every fantasy seems almost possible before dipping into the uncanny. When Arabella reaches for her attacker’s penis as he’s passed on the sidewalk, you don’t want this to be real. It also seemed too fitting that Theo and her white girl nonsense would lead to Arabella facing a murder charge. In the alternative where Arabella helps her attacker evade the police and listens to his sob story as though he deserves to be understood as a character, it’s frustrating. This finale succeeds at forcing us to really examine what we wanted from Arabella and her healing process. In the end, there is no perfect answer and Michaela Coel can’t offer one. She can only give us Arabella’s story.

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I May Destroy You is revolutionary storytelling and “Ego Death” is a befitting finale. It almost seems like a gift that Coel also manages to provide a glimpse at what season two could explore. How will Arabella’s book be received and how will this attention impact her? Are Terry and Kwame really just happy now that they’re in great relationships? Is Ben still super lonely? Do Biagio and Arabella stay away from each other forever (as they should)? That we manage to walk away from this season knowing so much about Arabella while still wanting to see more of her world points to the success of Coel’s vision.

Episode Grade: A
Season Grade: A-


Stray Observations

  • I wish Kwame and Terry’s love interests had been introduced sooner. The scene of them watching Terry’s commercial would’ve played better if we’d known some of these characters a little longer. Looking at the season as a whole, some of the social media stuff really threw off the pacing. It was also handled so quickly, I’m not sure why it was more of a focus than Terry’s love life or Kwame’s new boyfriend. These are also things the show can explore in a second season, so this is really just nitpicking.
  • Arabella finished her book! I love that Sion was her interviewer at her reading. I almost wish Sion had come back to help her with the book instead of Zain.
  • I loved the shots of Ben’s plants growing.
  • Seriously, I hated seeing that guy in Arabella’s bedroom.
  • This finale is one of the most complex episodes of TV I’ve ever watched. You go from fearing for Arabella’s safety to being annoyed by her to rooting for her to hating her again in seconds. It’s graphic and intimate. It’s some of the most impressive storytelling I’ve ever seen. I recommend repeat viewings and watching the entire season all the way through.
  • That’s season one of I May Destroy You! Thank you for reading along with me. This show is such a heavy and personal watch, it’s hard to just step away. You might also enjoy this interview I did with Michaela Coel! I also do visual appreciation threads for each episode over on Twitter if you want to get into the details of a specific scene or outfit. Personally, I could talk about this show forever! I May Destroy You is truly special.
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Ashley Ray-Harris is a stand-up comic and writer.

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