Note: This review discusses, and the show contains, scenes depicting, and stories about, sexual assault.
In the first episode of the HBO series I May Destroy You, Arabella has other things going on before she's sexually assaulted. She's trying to meet a book deadline, and she's worried she can't, and in the great tradition of writers doing everything else when they can't write, she steps out for a drink. When she next comes to, she realizes she was drugged and assaulted.
But before that, she has friends, she has family, she's struggling with her path from social media breakout star to author, and she's navigating a long-distance relationship with a man she met in Italy, where she meant to be writing but then didn't, quite. Played by creator Michaela Coel, also the writer and star of Chewing Gum, she's not a character constructed to be traumatized; she's a character, full stop.
I May Destroy You is about sexual violence and consent; those themes come up over and over in different stories that change characters in different ways. But it avoids the flatness that would come from drama as a didactic explainer. Arabella's is a story that widens out to show how being assaulted affects her sex life, her relationships with her friends and her family, her career, her aspirations, and her health. It documents the police investigation without centering it. This is not a whodunit, even though Arabella's drive to understand what happened propels some of the plot.
Coel doesn't just star in the series. She wrote these 12 episodes herself. She co-directed much of the season with Sam Miller, who's worked on Luther and on episodes of everything from Luke Cage to American Crime. She's a producer and the star. Her face is the series' indelible image. And she based the story of Arabella's assault on a night in her own life. It is, transparently, the most personal of projects.