When the night first starts to go south, Arabella (Michaela Coel) chalks it up to a mistake she’s made before. After promising herself that she’d stay sober, get productive and be good, she gives in to her restlessness and goes out for “just one drink.” Some time later — impossible to tell how much — she wakes up right back where she started, as if shaken out of a nightmare. And no matter how hard she tries to shake it, the shadow of the nightmare lingers and grows, before taking over her life completely. No matter how much she wants to believe that it was a night like any other, a night in which she just lost control, she’s forced to recognize that her own control was, in fact, ripped right out of her unsuspecting hands.
It takes until the second episode of “I May Destroy You” — HBO’s blazing new series from creator Coel, writing from her own harrowing experience — for the truth to come into focus. Even then, there’s no official confirmation. It’s only when Arabella traces her steps back to Alissa (Ann Akin), another woman who, as she puts it with an alarmingly casual shrug, also “got spiked,” that Arabella understands what happened to her. She didn’t just get a little too drunk and sleep with some random guy: She got drugged and raped by an opportunistic predator.
Coel and director Sam Miller unveil this truth in fits and starts, blurry half-remembrances and hopeful second guesses. Arabella, a longtime fan of chaotic nights out, doesn’t want to believe that this one went so horribly wrong when it’d be so much easier to chalk it up to bad judgment. As the specter of terror lurks just in her periphery, Arabella spends much of the second episode trying to figure out the trajectory of her night while desperately assuming she must’ve had more to drink than she realized. It takes someone else saying outright that she also mysteriously blacked out, and must have been roofied, for Arabella to recognize and accept, that the same might have happened to her. By that point, though, it’s too late to confirm it with a test; most of those drugs work their way out of your system within 24 hours. She can never “officially” know what happened, even as she feels the keen pain of the truth radiating through her bones. With Coel’s gimlet-eyed view of her own trauma guiding the way, “I May Destroy You” offers a startlingly real, empathetic depiction of a situation that TV rarely gets even halfway right.
“I May Destroy You” doesn’t spell out what happened until Arabella and Alissa compare notes to confirm it (as best they can, anyway). But when the first episode showed Arabella taking one (1) tequila shot minutes before she loses herself completely, I knew exactly what had happened, because I’ve had the same thing happen to me — twice.
Getting roofied — an annoyingly passive phrase for someone committing an inherently violent act against an unsuspecting person— makes for a dizzying, infuriatingly opaque experience. Trusting yourself, your body, and the intentions of everyone around you afterwards is a suddenly unimaginable hardship. You reach back into the haze of the night to try and grasp something solid, but every shard of memory that does manage to cut through the fog is a tease. And if it doesn’t immediately fade away, it stabs at the open wound of your confusion to make the pain more visceral than the drug’s numbing effect otherwise allows. It’s disorienting enough to make the center of your own gravity collapse, over and over again. It’s lonely, until you find someone else who had the same thing happen to them, and then another one, and another one, until you know so many people with different versions of the same story that it makes you shake with a deep, devastated pulse of anger.
So when I watched Arabella’s eyes sliding sideways as she fumbled for the bar door, just barely aware enough to know that something had gone horribly wrong, I felt the phantom echoes of my body doing the same. When I watched her come to the next morning, confused but determined to carry on through what seemed like a terrible hangover, I remembered trying to do the same. When I watched her talk to another woman who had a suspiciously similar night, watched the gears of her exhausted brain reluctantly connect the dots, I remembered finally doing the same. And when I watched her jolt into a sudden memory of someone assaulting her, I shivered, remembering the double-edged relief of feeling lucky (lucky!) to have somehow gotten home without someone taking advantage of me first, because if I’m certain about anything from those two awful nights, it’s that I couldn’t have fought back.
What I wasn’t expecting from watching Arabella retrace her steps, though, was relief. For as common as people drugging others is, television has vanishingly few thoughtful depictions of what it and the aftermath are actually like. For every “I May Destroy You” or “Veronica Mars,” there are easily ten screwball punchlines that undercut the severity of the crime. Characters accidentally drink the wrong soda, render rivals unconscious, spike an annoying aunt’s tea. The bodily experience and emotional wreckage of being drugged — of having someone secretly hijack the controls to your own body — isn’t one that any single episode can realistically convey without, I guess, resorting to jokes or rushing to neat conclusions.
But a drug’s deliberate scrambling of your brain renders absolute closure impossible. There will always be questions, loose ends, and fevered flashbacks to worst-case scenarios that may or may not be true. It will always require some level of weeding through the wilds of your memory and trauma to adjust to a new normal of latent distrust. It’s an experience that deserves more time and consideration than a throwaway plot or joke can ever afford it. For those of us who recognize this on a visceral level, “I May Destroy You” is an astonishing work of patience, empathy and, finally, understanding.