TW: sexual assault and detailed spoilers
“We are the generation that decided, if you won’t look at us, we’ll look at ourselves.” - Michaela Coel.
The curtain is raised and everyone’s eyes are on Michaela Coel and her new hit TV show I may Destroy You. Continuing her legacy of fictionalising her lived experiences, Michaela revealed that her own ordeal overcoming sexual assault inspired the show’s plotline. In the words of E. Alex Jung, the show is so sincere that watching it feels like “entering a pool of Michaela’s consciousness”.
Though the acclaim about it’s writing and directing is unanimous, the finale wedged a rift between fans with some claiming it weakened the winning streak of it’s previous episodes. To make matters worse, Arabella’s rapist is not convicted. However, the show's unsettling nature and attention to detail make it clear that Michaela is more inspired by capturing ugly truths than overindulging in fan service. The harsh reality is that most abusers are rarely ever convicted for their crimes. In the face of such adversity, the finale pays homage to the psychological journey that brought Michael solace.
Despite all the episodes leading up to the finale alluding to Bella’s life taking a wrong turn, the finale is entitled “Ego death” for all the right reasons. Arabella keeps returning to a bar called “Ego death,” which happens to be the scene of the crime. To the viewer, this is a constant reminder of how fixated she is with finding her rapist so she can finally be at peace but revisiting Arabella’s journey suggests that ego death is more than just the name of a bar.
In order to appreciate the title’s appropriateness, demystifying the philosophy behind ego death is crucial. The ego is defined as the ‘mental construct of our “self”’.The components of the ego include “the view an individual holds of themselves, how much value is placed on themselves), and the many beliefs that an individual holds”. During this process, you don’t necessarily kill the ego but “you dilute the power it has over you”.
Arabella’s spiritual rebirth begins when she is assaulted because it creates a conflict in her ‘ego’ by diminishing the value she places on herself. When she is plagued by violent flashbacks she rests on the possibility that it could be a “falsely implanted memory” and even attempts to convince Terry about them. At one point during her support group meeting, she states that she is there to “learn how to avoid getting raped”. Arabella doesn’t want to be a victim who is not in control of her life because it would reflect the societal falsehood that victims are weak. Michaela stresses that surviving near-death experiences like assault can result in you losing your sense of self. Arabella is still living but she isn’t necessarily alive.
After processing her assault, Arabella erects boundaries to protect her ego and inadvertently isolates herself from the people around her. Jeff Lebowe explains that while the ego is crucial because it helps us to quantify our reality, it shuts out “thoughts and sensory input which could potentially harm our self-esteem.” This creates a cognitive bias where we view life through a dualistic lens. In a world that lacks nuance, all aspects of life are divided into opposing forces like love/hate and good/bad. The devil is in the detail and Michaela ingeniously explores this in episode 9, which follows Arabella’s life after her case is dropped. On their hunt for Halloween costumes, Arabella picks a Maleficent inspired outfit as a foil to Terry and Kwame’s holy angels., Kwame tells them about his date with a girl whom he didn’t choose to disclose his sexuality to until after they’d had sex. On hearing this, Arabella accuses Kwame of being an abuser because she is viewing him through the prism of her assault. Through this sinful act of judging Kwame, we see her evolve into her own worst enemy.
Arabella's healing process stops being superficial when she finally substitutes materialism with mindfulness. Since outing Zain, Arabella has become a social media star sensation who uses her fame to call out injustices. The more her followers feed on her momentum the more lifeless she looks (more manic she behaves) because she doesn’t spare this energy for her health. Her therapist gives love over likes a whole new meaning by drawing a diagram with a line that illustrates the dualism in Arabella’s mind. She says that “Feelings are crucial in… recovery, if we can't process and understand them, then we can’t understand ourselves”. Towards the end of the episode, we see a strange figure that looks like Arabella talking to her in the corner of her room. It tells her, “Just look in the mirror, you know what I mean? It’s really uncomfortable and unnerving for everyone”. By coming face-to-face with her ego, it’s death is finally induced.
Presenting us with three alternate scenarios gives us insight into the deliberations inside Arabella’s head before she is ready to let go. This episode is inspired by absurdist genres because it lacks coherent structure and is filmed ina . Arabella’s first instinct is to consider revenge and humiliate her attacker the way he abused her. “I want to see his penis” she demands, and ends up murdering him and dumping him under her bed. Hereafter, she considers deterrence and Terry hatches a plan to achieve legal justice. While Arabella and her abuser are in her room, she gives him the room to explain his actions. Before the police arrive, he breaks down by telling her “If you’re not scared of me, I don't know what I am”. In scenario three, she unpacks a restorative approach where she reclaims her sense of self. She buys him the drink, takes him to the bathroom and invites him back to her place. During sex, she is the one that penetrates him. In the morning, he tells her that he won’t leave unless she tells him to. She tells him to “go” and he and the bloodied version of himself from under the bed leave. Though she has figuratively gotten rid of the monsters under her bed, she still hasn't dealt with the monsters inside her head.
In the real scenario, she decides to stop rationalising everything and decides to live. It’s the only scenario where she can rise above the past and embrace the promise of her future. Arabella’s self awareness is born and she finally completes her book.
This show honored survivors by bringing stories that are often dismissed as too raw or unsettling to the mainstream. As she wrote 191 drafts, she thought about how to end Arabella’s story and give her closure. She said that If she could think of a way to achieve it for Arabella she could do it for herself. This insight into the nature of victimhood demonstrates how survivors often gaslight themselves to avoid reconciling their assault. Processing those emotions was a necessary evil that may have destroyed her. But she surrendered herself to her fears and found peace. That to me is transformative justice.