How Michaela Coel Processed Trauma and Fought to Own Her Story With ‘I May Destroy You’

(SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains spoilers for the season finale of “I May Destroy You,” which airs in the U.S. on Aug. 24 but aired July 13 in the U.K.)

Michaela Coel is afraid of spiders, which only makes her more determined to imagine a world in which she’s not. “I’ve fantasized about living in a house where there’s spiders crawling everywhere,” she says, “and imagine that it’s nothing.” Speaking recently over Zoom from her London offices, she lifts one hand to the screen to demonstrate, tiptoeing her fingers down her forearm in a measured march. “The way I’m going to conquer my fear of the spider is to just let it do that.” She looks into the camera, her spider hand paused mid-step, and smiles. “I know that I’m in the powerful situation when a spider can do that to me and it’s nothing to me.”

This ability to not just acknowledge a fear, but confront and absorb it, forms the pulse of the multihyphenate’s new series and most personal project to date. ‘I May Destroy You,’ Coel’s gimlet-eyed exploration of trauma and its myriad ripple effects follows Arabella (Coel) — a funny, messy, sharp-as-hell London writer — after a dizzying night in which she’s drugged and raped by a stranger. At first, she dismisses the hazy memory as just an upsetting image in her head. Soon enough, though, Arabella reluctantly comes to understand it as the truth, and tries to work through that horrifying reality without coming apart.

Arabella’s journey to acceptance forces her to reconsider everything about her life: her work, her friends, her family, her attachment to social media, the ways in which she loves and is loved. Episodes weave in and out of flashbacks to Arabella’s assault, idyllic trips to Italy, her East London childhood with her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) and back to the present, where their brother-in-arms Kwame (Paapa Essiedu) is quietly struggling with his own recent assault. In some of its tougher scenes, the series has them all revisiting moments that once felt innocuous but upon reflection, ring with a truer, keener pain.

Everything in “I May Destroy You” — from the music to the graphics to the neon-tinged cinematography — comes together to tell a layered narrative about how consent, or the persistent lack thereof, informs so much of our daily lives. Co-produced by HBO and BBC One, the series premiered June 7 in the U.S. and has drawn consistent attention and praise throughout its 12-episode run. “The scope of that show is so huge,” says “Russian Doll” co-creator Natasha Lyonne, who considered Coel a “partner in emotional crime” well before she got to see the finished series. “It touches all the tentacles of what it means to be a human being.”

Not every part of Arabella has a direct line to Coel, but the series’ catalyzing experience, unfortunately, does. In 2016, Coel took a break from a marathon writing session for the second season of “Chewing Gum” to grab a drink with a friend, and was drugged and assaulted by a stranger. She’s been sifting through the emotional wreckage ever since to find some kind of clarity, if not peace. Now, with “I May Destroy You,” she’s doing it for all the world to see. “As a fellow android exploring what it means to be human,” says Coel’s friend Janelle Monáe, “watching Michaela be vulnerable on-screen as she walks in her truth gives me and so many the bravery to walk in ours.”

“I’m not anti-Netflix, but I am pro ‘the creator, writer, director, actor should probably have a right.’”
Michaela Coel

While Coel had won critical acclaim and a dedicated audience for “Chewing Gum,” “I May Destroy You” immediately became a different kind of sensation for viewers. “I’ve never felt so many emotions at once,” Adele gushed on Instagram. “Michaela is a deep talent, a true shapeshifter,” marveled Jane Fonda, interrupting her feed’s strict diet of activism for a photo of Coel. “Holy s— it’s good,” tweeted Seth Rogen, blunt as ever. Each week, it seemed, a new wave of people fell under the show’s singular spell. And as Monáe points out, “It’s rare that you see a Black woman writing, directing, and starring in their own TV show centered around the trauma she experienced.” This was something new, something all its revolutionary own.

Coel is gratified, and more than a little relieved, by the overwhelmingly positive response. Self-isolating in her London apartment during a pandemic, supervising the series edit while the world erupted in urgent protests against anti-Black violence, she became nervous about dropping such an intense show during such an intense time. “I just feel like we are more traumatized than we were last year for very understandable reasons, and I was not making it necessarily for an audience that would be dealing with the world events that we’re dealing with,” says Coel. But instead of resisting the more than occasionally wrenching themes, audiences leaned into them, searching for the kind of catharsis Coel has prioritized in recent years.

Coel began writing “I May Destroy You” in February 2017, in between acting in TV projects like the “USS Callister” episode of “Black Mirror” and Netflix’s limited series “Black Earth Rising.” She took solo mountain trips and wrote draft after draft of what would eventually become “I May Destroy You,” spilling her stories and tangled guts onto the page, rearranging them into shapes she could better recognize. In August 2018, she spoke about her trauma publicly while delivering the Edinburgh International Television Festival’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, a prestigious assignment the festival has otherwise bestowed on a cadre of white British television mainstays (as well as no fewer than three Murdochs). 

The majority of Coel’s speech, delivered to a room of the U.K.’s most powerful entertainment brokers, traced the constant racism and classism she endured on the way to that Edinburgh stage — a theme subtextually underlined by the fact that Coel was, and remains, the only Black woman to have that platform. She spoke about turning her solo play “Chewing Gum Dreams” into a “Chewing Gum” TV series (which aired 2015-17 on the U.K.’s Channel 4), a transformative time that taught her the technicalities of making television and confirmed just how disinclined certain white gatekeepers are to trust a poorer Black woman’s vision. Toward the end of the 50-minute lecture, Coel revealed her assault and elucidated the industry’s inability — or unwillingness — to handle such a human emergency when pages are due. As for her recovery, she said, “It’s been therapeutic to write about it, and actively twist a narrative of pain into something with more hope, and even humor.”

When it finally came time to translate it all to the screen, “I May Destroy You” was so close to her bruised heart that Coel took on the challenge of playing several roles throughout the series’ development: creator, writer, actor, producer, director. Netflix offered her a total fee of a cool $1 million to make and star in the show, but the proposed contract wouldn’t grant Coel even a tiny percentage of the rights. She hadn’t fully realized how much claiming legal proprietorship over her work mattered to her until the prospect of not being able to emerged, at which point it became crucial. Then, after some Googling, she realized that her CAA agents would also be profiting from the deal via the endangered practice of packaging. Stung and surprised, Coel walked away from both her agents and the offer. “I’m not anti-Netflix,” she’s quick to say now, “but I am pro-‘the creator, writer, director, actor should probably have a right.’” She’s hyper-aware of how much this project required of her, and how comparatively little granting her “a right” might cost a powerful network like Netflix. “That’s not quite fair, is it?” Coel muses. Creating the show, after all, took almost everything she had.

With the BBC, a million-dollar paycheck might not have been in the cards, but more important to Coel, she didn’t have to fight half as hard to claim ownership. (As a matter of industry course, it’s far more common for British studios to afford creators rights to their work than it is for American equivalents.) They struck a deal, and Coel got to work. In stark contrast to Arabella, Coel thrives when given a set of constraints that force her to get more creative; she delights in finding a plan B just as much as, or maybe even more than, she does a plan A. “When you’re restricted,” she explains, “sometimes that’s where you find great things: in the lack of possibility.” She attributes this rather Zen approach to Hugo Blick, the “Black Earth Rising” showrunner who showed her the value of keeping a cool, empathetic head on set. Blick’s ability to step away from a gnarly situation for even 30 calming seconds is one that Coel has worked to hone for herself, especially while steering a series with such fraught ties to her history. No matter how sideways things might go, she never wants to forget just how much she loves the collaborative act of building a television show, wild complications and all. “It’s just very brilliant, what we’re doing,” Coel says, a beaming smile crossing her face. “I’m still just really excited about TV!”

Having learned to embrace a certain amount of uncertainty, Coel’s unusually willing to kill her darlings to solve a problem. In fact, she’s axed so many beloved elements of her scripts that it’s become near impossible for her to recall any specific edits. When asked about previous versions of “I May Destroy You,” she laughs, happily mystified. “I don’t remember,” she says with a shrug. “I’m not holding onto it … because, for me, you’ve got to keep practicing the habit of letting things go.” For as much as Coel loves a good set of rules, her approach to writing is consciously freeform, mimicking the ebb and flow of the fragmented memories that inspired her.

This learned habit of letting things go is a handy way to approach the uniquely chaotic process of making a television show, but it’s also a familiar coping mechanism for trauma survivors. For too many, there will never be a neat conclusion, let alone justice. For too many, the most feasible “solution” is to join Coel in that figurative house of spiders, becoming one with the fear in order to release it.

That space is where the astonishing finale of “I May Destroy You” lives. “Ego Death,” which airs on HBO on Aug. 24 but aired in the UK. on July 13, sees Arabella in the middle of a frenetic writing sprint, trying on a few different endings to her story for size. (Spoiler alert) It opens with the kind of kickass revenge fantasy that Hollywood has long loved to indulge and ends with a surreal love scene between Arabella and her rapist (Lewis Reeves), after which she tells him to leave. In so doing, Arabella accepts the painful but clarifying truth that she can never truly resolve this open-ended horror, but she can learn to live with it. Coel sees this epiphany as a hard, necessary part of the grieving process. “[In] manipulating how she engages with her trauma, she’s realizing she has total power over this thing,” Coel explains. “And now it’s like, how do I now make this not something I’m afraid of? First, I have to know it. I have to really know this thing.” In that moment, Arabella doesn’t just recognize her past but moves forward alongside it.

Lyonne, who explored similar terrain in “Russian Doll,” is floored by Coel’s take. “There’s no resolved ending to a traumatic experience, only this sort of honesty,” she says. “Michaela does such a revolutionary job of articulating that. In some ways, we continue to be the walking wounded — and in other ways, we’re triumphant.”

Now that the entire show is out in the world, Coel has been doing her best to take a hard-earned breath. She grabs meditative breaks between Zoom interviews, grapples with the surreality of doing “The Tonight Show” from her flat, bikes through London to see her mother. She’s in no rush to find her next project, especially because she may not be fully conscious of what that even is until it’s already pumping through her brain. “I sometimes feel like a story is walking around, looking for a body that’s available to come through,” she says, “and I spend so much time by myself in the mountains, with nothing, and the story is like, ‘You look really easy and available.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come here.’” 

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