How ‘I May Destroy You’ Forged TV’s Most Beautifully, Brutally Realistic Friendships
A series about trauma is only as believable as the support system that grounds it.
Let me get this out of the way now: I will not spoil anything about the stellar finale of Michaela Coel’s gut-wrenching drama I May Destroy You here. All I will say is this: When Arabella and Terry huddle together in a bar bathroom, murmuring “The alliance is spicy” one last time, chills ran up my spine.
In 12 bracing episodes, I May Destroy You explores questions of trauma, consent, and recovery. It’s a journey its creator and star, Coel, knows all too well; as the multi-hyphenate has publicly discussed, she was assaulted during the production of her Britcom Chewing Gum.
Although I May Destroy You revolves around Arabella, her friendships are perhaps the show’s most striking feat; they’re some of the best-written relationships in TV history. A series like I May Destroy You can only work if Arabella’s support system is both complex and believable. And Coel, it seems, knew that better than anyone.
Weruche Opia, who plays Terry, credited Coel’s writing with setting the tone for the show’s imperfect but forgiving friendships. Coel, she said, “highlighted the fact that nobody was a villain in the stories and placed huge importance on the humanity of each character.”
There’s a fierceness to Arabella’s friendships with both Terry and Kwame—a protective streak that, as one episode highlights, could stem in part from growing up Black in a society that prioritizes white lives and emotions over all others. Still, Arabella, Kwame and Terry also profoundly fail one another at times. In one heated moment, for instance, Terry and Arabella struggle to support Kwame as he recovers from his own sexual assault; Arabella criticizes Kwame for having sex with a woman who did not know he was gay without taking into account all the confusion and fear that Kwame would have been grappling with at that point.
Sometimes after these clashes the tension dissipates; other times, one is left to wonder whether some resentment might linger. But through it all, the three are clearly and consistently trying their best to do right by one another—even when they fail miserably.
“To be good friends with someone doesn't mean that you're always happy and you're always there for them and always saying the right thing and like, you're perfect,” Essiedu told The Daily Beast. “We’ve all got friends and none of our friends are like that... We really wanted to kind of debunk that.”
“At all times,” Essiedu said, “we were just like chasing that truth.”
It might seem odd to praise a show largely about one woman’s traumatic assault for its portrayal of friendships—but as any trauma survivor knows and I May Destroy You itself makes clear, support systems are vital to those in recovery. Friendships dictate one’s emotional landscape—which, for those who might feel disconnected from the world around them, can become just as vital as physical settings.
Palpable on-screen chemistry between the three performers doesn’t hurt, either.
It was there from the moment Opia and Coel read together, the actress said—more than ever before in her career. She described the feeling as “magical.”
“We just got on really well,” Opia said. “And then when I met Paapa... They were friends before, so I was the new one into the group, but they welcomed me with open arms.”
Essiedu recalled waiting with Opia for rehearsals when they first met—a long wait that wound up giving them some time to bond. “We just sat in a park and ate sushi for, like, three hours and just chatted, and like she's so funny and so kind, and so like interesting,” Essiedu said. “That was actually very effortless, which is a real blessing.”
“We just couldn't stop talking,” Opia added. “And I remember the end of that day being so relieved, like ‘Great, we like each other, we get on.’”
On-set rapport is always a good thing, but it’s especially vital on a project where the stakes are so high and the subject matter so fraught. And coming away from I May Destroy You, both Essiedu and Opia found that their understanding of questions of trauma and consent had, indeed, shifted.
Working on the series, Opia said, highlighted just how important self care and support systems can be in processing a trauma. Coming out of the production, she added, “I have had to address my thoughts on sexual assault; I have had to learn about the different kinds of it to be aware.”
Essiedu, whose character is assaulted partway through the series, prepared for the role by speaking with friends and others who had survived similar experiences to Kwame.
In the process, Essiedu said, the main idea he absorbed was, “There is no right way to respond to trauma, and there’s no expected way to respond to it. And the most important thing is to be able to sit in your response... And I think that's something thats a journey that Kwame really goes on.”
The series got Essiedu thinking about issues of consent, as well as “the stories that we allow ourselves to represent or see.”
“It really made me confront my own kind of preconceptions and prejudices around that and debunk them and challenge them,” Essiedu said. “And that’s something that I continue to do and I will have to continue to do.”