August 24, 2020 9:40 PM EDT

I May Destroy You is a cryptic title. It could be a threat, a warning or merely an observation. But throughout Michaela Coel’s phenomenal HBO series, whose finale aired on Monday, the phrase functions more like a collection of questions. Who is speaking here, and to whom—who is the “I,” and who is the “you”? Does “may” mean “might,” or does it imply the granting of permission? Even “destroy” has some ambiguity; are we talking about fully obliterating a person or tearing apart their already-crumbling psyche in order to rebuild them stronger, better, healthier? After a full season in which Coel declined to outright explain her title but embraced complexity at every opportunity, the answer to all of these either/or questions seems to be: yes.

The semi-autobiographical story of her character, Arabella, doesn’t zig-zag from incident to incident so much as it expands to absorb the fullness of her experience. By the end of the premiere, she has been a pink-haired Londoner traveling to Italy to see a man who’s clearly not worth her time; a goofball who conducts business calls while rolling a joint in the loo, with the door wide open; an author who needs to submit the manuscript for her first book but can’t resist a night of partying at the bar with her friends; and, finally, a young woman struck by the sudden realization that she was raped during that outing. In the 11 episodes that follow, we meet many more Arabellas: the party girl whose friendships aren’t as solid as she thinks, the Me Too warrior, the social media influencer, the adult scarred by aspects of her childhood she’s blocked from her consciousness. Her approach to life shifts more often than her ever-changing hairstyle.

And yet, as the finale underscores, the stages she goes through aren’t linear or mutually exclusive; they’re cumulative, even when they contradict each other. So when the series’ penultimate episode ends with Arabella recognizing her rapist, it’s apparent that vengeance alone would make for a hollow resolution. Before she acts, this emerging author needs to weigh every possible outcome, because she’s reached a crucial juncture in her life, and her decision will dictate the kind of person she becomes. It’s a universal moment. Not everyone has survived rape, but we all have formative experiences to which we must either respond, ideally by growing into more self-aware versions of ourselves, or make the passive choice to repress and therefore stagnate. As Coel explained in a recent interview, “The show is calling for introspection.”

Michaela Coel (left) and Weruche Opia in 'I May Destroy You'
Natalie Seery/HBO

So it’s fitting that most of the finale takes place in Arabella’s writerly imagination. Like those touchstones of time-loop cinema, Sliding Doors and Groundhog Day—along with more recent takes, from Palm Springs to Russian DollI May Destroy You offers multiple potential endings. The episode, titled “Ego Death” after the Jungian concept of total psychic transformation and the show’s fictional bar of the same name, opens with the slick revenge scenario viewers might, at first, cheer. Wearing a platinum wig and patent-leather jumpsuit, our hero lies in wait at the bar with her best friend Terry (Weruche Opia) and their angry, problematic childhood acquaintance Theo (Harriet Webb). “A criminal always returns to the scene of the crime,” says Arabella. “But who’s the criminal, you or me?” When she lures her attacker, David (Lewis Reeves), to the bathroom where he raped her, Theo emerges with a syringe to inject him with the same dissociative drug he slips into women’s drinks. Fair enough.

But because this isn’t actually a spy movie, things start to go wrong. David lurches out of the bar with her underwear, which could be used as evidence, so the women have to follow him through the streets and take it back once he collapses. At that point, Arabella can’t resist the temptation to unzip his pants: “He saw my thing,” she says. “I wanna see his thing.” It’s here that Coel confronts viewers with the absurdity of the standard rape-revenge plot—the way it turns victims into the spitting image of their assailants and perpetuates a cycle of violence and degradation. When Arabella subsequently loses control, accidentally beats David to death and has to drag his body home to be hidden under her bed, that purposely ridiculous conclusion suggests that if she does something truly terrible to her attacker, she’ll never actually be rid of him.

The second scenario begins in a perfect world where Arabella would simply have to spot David at the bar and call the police to ensure that justice is served. But reality interferes again, when Terry points out that she has no evidence to support her allegations. (Coel lets the sad likelihood that a Black woman accusing a white man would be taken even less seriously than most rape accusations remain unstated.) The alternate plan Terry hatches on the spot is a total mess, requiring Arabella to get high on cocaine to counteract David’s date-rape downers, giving Terry enough time to summon the cops to the bar bathroom, where they’re supposed to catch him in the act. Before that can happen, David turns the situation around on Arabella. He accuses her of fixating on her own petty, privileged troubles in a world where there’s so much homelessness and war—and putting this argument in the mouth of her rapist exposes its profound stupidity. Still, it activates her guilt. She takes him back to her place, they have a heart-to-heart, and then the police turn up to arrest him anyway. So much for healing through mutual understanding!

Michaela Coel in 'I May Destroy You'
Natalie Seery/HBO

The third time around is utterly surreal. Ego Death is eerily empty. Arabella buys David’s drink, they make out and then she brings him home, where they have sensual sex and she appears to be penetrating him. They fall asleep in her bed and wake up together the next day. Would things be different, Coel seems to be asking us, if Arabella had all the power? If women were the dominant gender? Yet this isn’t what Arabella really wants, either. “I’m not gonna go unless you tell me to,” David tells her as they lie side-by-side in the morning. This, it turns out, is the outcome she’s been seeking. She needs him out of her head, evicted from the subconscious where he’s been living rent-free. “Go,” she finally says, and the other two versions of him she dreamed up—the dead David and the penitent David—follow the submissive David out the door.

Each of these scenarios, which are really possible conclusions to the book Arabella can’t finish until she sorts out who she is and what she wants to say, begins with what looks at first like a throwaway scene. She informs her gentle, homebody roommate Ben (Stephen Wight) that she’s going out to hunt down David, and he settles in for a quiet evening of gardening, bird-watching and YouTube videos about loneliness. But in the last, and probably the real, version of this fateful night, she decides to stay home with Ben. She really has banished David from her life. (Still, a few loose ends have been rattling around in my mind. Are Arabella and Ben becoming more than friends? My sense is that Coel means to leave this ambiguous, maybe to avoid making a different man into a deus ex machina. Yet it must mean something that Arabella’s friend Kwame, played by Paapa Essiedu, asks Ben in the previous episode, “Do you ever get that feeling that someone is right for you, but you’re not yet the person you need to be to also be right for that person?” Meanwhile, here’s a more troubling question: doesn’t this resolution leave David free to keep hurting other women?)

Flash-forward several months, and her book is a hit, her friendship with Terry has never been stronger—and Terry has grown, too, falling in love with a trans man and channeling her nerves into a commercial where she gives an authentic performance as a woman having a panic attack. In a narrative sense as well as in a moral sense, for Arabella the character and Arabella the writer and Coel the writer, revenge is a crutch. Trying to understand other people’s cruelty can be a dead end, a waste of energy. Though it’s a tougher path, the way to make peace with the awful things they do to us, Coel suggests, is to let that adversity teach us who we really are. And the “you” who’s ultimately destroyed and created anew? Reader, it’s us.

More Must-Read Stories From TIME


Contact us at letters@time.com.

Read More From TIME

Related Stories

EDIT POST