Have you ever seen an episode of television so propulsive, so biting, and so outright fun that you want to watch it again moments after you finished it? That’s how “Hella L.A.,” directed by showrunner Prentice Penny and written by Laura Kittrell, left me feeling. Insecure has leveled up with this episode by pushing its characters into bold new directions while interweaving deft commentary on police, code-switching, and the fetishization of black male bodies that seems ripped straight from a D.W. Griffith nightmare.
About halfway through the Kiss ’n’ Grind party that Issa attends with Molly and Kelli, she comes face-to-face with Daniel, whom she hasn’t seen since their blowup last season. Up until that point, Issa is feeling herself. She’s cracking jokes about creating a rotation of men and reveling in the confidence she’s gained in her casual hookup with her neighbor. But there’s something performative about this version of Issa, which is clear when she decides to step to Daniel in order to clear the air at the party and awkwardly busts into a brief rendition of the Living Single theme song. This moment puts into focus how cleverly Insecure excels at exploring the aftermath of when fantasies meet reality. It isn’t pretty. This is never truer than when it comes to Lawrence.
Lawrence is fully embracing the single life, gearing up to pregame with Chad before a wild night out. His plans go awry when he’s pulled over for making an illegal U-turn to bypass traffic. (To be fair, he does this following two other drivers.) Panic seizes Lawrence. He flips his music to classical. He notices that the younger cop gets out to wait near the tail end of his car while the older one comes to his window. They’re both white. “Is this your car?” the cop asks spitefully. Lawrence leaves unscathed, but the prickly politics of this scene rest just underneath the surface — the way black people circumscribe themselves in order to survive, hoping that being a bit more “respectable” can save us. But where Lawrence’s story gets truly interesting is when he hits the grocery store.
The moment the two girls offered to buy his alcohol, since his card fell out when handing his license to the officer, I knew this episode was going to take a left turn. They eventually come up to him in the parking lot looking at Lawrence like he’s a literal snack they’d devour alive. But apparently, less than $50 of alcohol is enough for Lawrence to throw caution to the wind.
Back at their place, things get heated. First, the brunette white girl — who is clearly feeling Lawrence — puts on the Weeknd and starts doing a dance for him. It isn’t just lust they feel for Lawrence. They’re specifically into him because of the noxious stereotypes they project onto his body, which are intrinsically linked to his blackness. Once the flirtation gives way to a threesome, this becomes undeniable. The brunette, who is on top of Lawrence, yelps, “Your black cock feels so good in my white pussy!” He looks a bit shocked by the statement, but keeps rolling with the moment. He doesn’t care that they’re actively dehumanizing him, treating him like a toy in ways that go beyond the usual dynamics of a hookup. (I’m going to be completely honest right now: Lawrence deciding to still have sex with those women after their fetishization becomes clear is troubling. Love yourself, Lawrence.) Lawrence takes a step back after he and the brunette orgasm, and her blonde friend jumps on top of him exclaiming, “My turn.” Lawrence apparently doesn’t have the stamina for this threesome, and the night goes sour. “What’s the problem? We’ve been with a bunch of other black guys that can cum and keep going,” the brunette says. This sequence brings up a lot of thorny topics — about the fetishization of black bodies; about the ways some black men treat white and Asian women as prizes, even as they disregard their humanity; and Lawrence’s inability to reckon with his emotional present.
In the wake of their breakup, Lawrence has spent time with women who prove to be Issa’s antithesis. Tasha was bubbly, more traditional in looks and intent, and praised him for doing what amounted to the bare minimum. When her cheerleading proved to have its limits, the relationship went south. These women are even farther from Issa, given that they can’t even acknowledge his humanity. Hookups need not have long, in-depth conversations, but basic respect should be a given. That’s why it’s unsurprising that the episode ends with Lawrence looking at Issa’s apartment building, musing over whether to reconnect or not. Lawrence is not used to the single life that Chad imagines as ideal. He doesn’t even seem built for it. But his threesome in “Hella L.A.” proves that for all the fun the single life can provide, there’s also harrowing dilemmas that can be tricky to navigate and heal from, too. Meanwhile at the Kiss ’n’ Grind, Molly and Issa are learning very different lessons about living single.
It isn’t just the presence of Daniel that becomes a problem for Issa. She has a very casual meetup with someone from Tinder at the party, named Felix (Broderick Hunter). What confidence Issa had left completely withers under Felix’s gaze. He isn’t just uninterested, he’s an asshole. “I didn’t recognize you at first. Your hair is different than your picture,” Felix says, before asking if she ever changes it back. Felix, you should know that a lot of black women love switching up their hairstyle on the regular. He doesn’t stop there. “Does your voice always sound like this?” Felix asks before harshly dropping any pretense of interest and leaving to find his friends. It’s easy to criticize Issa for deciding to hook up with her neighbor and getting curved by one very attractive dude after another. It’s also easy to blame a lot of things on her awkwardness. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Any man who is meant for her won’t find that an issue, but recognize that’s part of the hilarious, down-to-earth tapestry of Issa’s personality. While Issa nurses the momentary knocks on her self-esteem, Molly is having to face how she conceives relationships should be.
Dro, who we met last week with his wife, Candice, happens to be at Kiss ’n’ Grind. Candice, of course, is out of town on some yoga retreat, giving Dro room to play. At first I thought nothing of the easy shorthand he and Molly share. They grew up together, after all. But the flirtatious edge to their conversation grows harder to ignore once they get on the dance floor. Their dancing starts off as a friendly trip down memory lane, but the sexual tension is obvious. Once “Slow Motion” comes on, they start grinding on each other, and he wraps his hands around her waist. Molly decides to nix the dancing, bringing up that she knows Candice wouldn’t be cool with this. “Candice and I are open,” Dro admits. Molly needs to talk to Candice about this first. How does she know Dro isn’t lying? Would Candice even be okay with him having sex with a longtime friend he already has a strong emotional bond with? Open relationships have boundaries. This sends Molly into a bit of a panic. “Is anyone married like my parents anymore?” she wonders when she admits what happened to Issa and Kelli. That Molly even considers becoming a sidepiece to Dro while she ignored Lionel (a man actually interested in commitment) says a lot about her own confusion.
After Kiss ’n’ Grind, Kelli decides to link up with some dude she met who she calls Sweetie, since she can’t remember his name, at a food joint. Issa and Molly tag along. While Molly fends off text messages from Dro, Issa finds herself sitting next to Kelli and Sweetie when things take an unexpected turn. Kelli sort of reminds me of acquaintances I have who can be fun to hang out with in small doses, but are too extra to be anything more than that. Case in point: Sweetie starts fingering her under the table. It isn’t subtle, but it is hilarious. Issa locks eyes with someone across from her: Daniel. He sends her a text since he surmises what’s going on with Kelli and Sweetie. Daniel and Issa share a laugh before she moves to sit by him. Everyone ends this week at different turning points — reconciliation, heartache, personal examination. No matter where the characters go, Insecure proves that it’s one of the most emotionally layered and audacious shows on television with “Hella L.A.”
• I love that Syd was the DJ at Kiss ’n’ Grind.
• So Issa has all these pricey new clothes yet has a running tab where Molly covers things for her? Okay.
• Looking at the Kiss ’n’ Grind scene, I couldn’t help but think about that behind-the-scenes video in which Beyoncé complained about the lighting during her run-through for the 2006 MTV VMA Awards. “You can’t put blue lights on a black girl,” she said. Are there exceptions?
• Issa calling a woman trying to jack their table at Kiss ’n’ Grind a “Fashion Nova ass bitch” is my favorite line of the night.
• I love the way Insecure incorporates texts and GIFs into the visual language of the series.
*An earlier version of this piece mistakenly stated that both women in the threesome are white, when in fact one is white and the other is of Japanese descent.