‘Hella LA’ Is Insecure’s Boldest Episode Yet

Jay Ellis as Lawrence. Photo: HBO

Insecure is a deceptively simple show. It distills the swooning romanticism and warmth of perfect summer days so effortlessly, it’s easy to glide past its deeper commentary. In its second season in particular, the HBO series is exploring more complex ground with humor and honesty: the wage gap, the trickiness of modern dating for black women, and the racial dynamics between blacks and Latinos, to name a few. Episode four, “Hella LA,” directed by showrunner Prentice Penny and written by Laura Kittrell, is its boldest yet thanks to one particular arc: the somewhat caddish, now completely single Lawrence enters into a threesome with two women, a narrative that starts off as a fantasy straight out of the back pages of Hustler, but gives way to something far more complex, and in some ways even horrifying, bringing up fraught conversations about the stereotypes thrust upon black men’s bodies and companionship across racial lines. What makes Lawrence’s descent into this hellish situation, and “Hella LA” as a whole, so finely wrought is that it encapsulates what Insecure does best — chart the particulars of how quickly fantasies curdle when they’re met with reality.

It’s important to understand the predicament Lawrence was in before he stumbled across these two overeager women. He was heading to the grocery store to pick up some alcohol for a pregame with Chad before a raucous night out. On his way, he made an illegal U-turn to bypass traffic after seeing two other cars do the same and is pulled over by two white cops. The scene is anxiety inducing. Lawrence ends up fine — no unlawful arrest, no brutality — but the panic that seizes actor Jay Ellis’s face shows that he understands the weight of this incident, and how quickly it could go wrong. In this light, it’s understandable why Lawrence would be open to spending time with two complete strangers he meets in line at the grocery store. After his run-in with the police officer, he’s feeling both anxious and perhaps a bit vulnerable, wanting to put the entire incident behind him. Putting him in an even more vulnerable position: When he was pulled over, his credit card fell out of his wallet. This is when the two women — a brunette white woman and a blonde Japanese woman* – step in and offer to pay for his alcohol. Later, in the parking lot, they ask what his plans are for the night. There’s something vaguely predatory about this, but when I first watched it, I shrugged it off as a byproduct of the hypervigilance I’ve gained watching too many episodes of Unsolved Mysteries. Back at their place though, while the lighting is hushed, warm, inviting, the tenor is off. The way they look at Lawrence is how I’d imagine a siren looks at a sailor before leading him to his death, or a lioness seconds before pouncing on her prey. This is more than just simple lust, especially when it comes to the brunette white woman, who makes the first move by turning on The Weeknd, dancing for Lawrence, and finally, by licking his face and sending the picture to his friend, Chad, who she seems annoyed he keeps texting.

The scene nails the delirious joy and oh my god is this really happening? feeling that comes from a completely unexpected hookup. But it isn’t until their threesome is underway that it takes a darker turn.

The brunette rides Lawrence with gusto, while her dirty talk consists of a lot of odd remarks about his blackness in contrast with her whiteness. “Your black cock feels so good in my white pussy,” she exclaims. “It’s so fucking huge!” The camera cuts to his somewhat bewildered face, but he doesn’t seem offended enough to question her motives or stop. Insecure has always been sexually brazen. But this scene has not even a hint of intimacy or the kind of awkward humor I’ve grown used to in scenes like this. I laughed out of discomfort and thought of every nonblack person I’ve dated in the past who treated my blackness as the center of their attraction to me. Seconds after Lawrence and the brunette finish, her blonde friend hops on top of him — she insists it’s her turn, treating him like he’s a 25-cent ride outside of the supermarket. Pop a quarter in, and he’ll be ready to go. But Lawrence isn’t a ride, he’s a person. He pleads for her to give him a minute so he can get aroused again. “What is the problem? We’ve been with a bunch of other black guys that can cum and keep going,” the brunette casually mentions as her blonde friend rolls her eyes at Lawrence’s inability to bounce back quickly. The women quickly grow callous and act as if Lawrence isn’t even in the room. Sure, hookups like this can often feel transactional, even impersonal, but this is more than that. It’s hard not to draw a line from Lawrence being pulled over by an overeager, older white cop and the way he’s fetishized in the threesome. Both experiences are predicated on the ways the black male body is interpreted as either a threat or vehicle for a pleasure. In both instances, Lawrence isn’t so much a person, but a symbol and tool. The writers subtly draw parallels between the lust these women had for Lawrence and the ease with which they dehumanize him later. But there is also a complex history simmering beneath the surface of this scene’s uncomfortable humor: the noxious stereotypes attached to black men’s sexual performance.

The Mandigo stereotype — which suggests black men are sexually aggressive, exceedingly hung, and capably skilled in that department — is a belief that’s snaked its way from white slave owners to early films like Birth of a Nation to the covers of reputable magazines. It’s meant to suggest that black men are primitive, not wholly human, and driven by their sexual urges. It informs so much of American culture to this day. In “Hella LA,” Penny and Kittrell don’t make this history blatant, but it sits just underneath the surface of the women’s casual disregard of Lawrence’s humanity, and his growing discomfort and inability to say anything about it. Ellis nails the mix of shock, bewilderment, and discomfort these scenes call for. The threesome is also fascinating to consider within the larger pop-culture landscape in which interracial relationships between people of color and white people have become more common as of late. It’s the photo-negative representation of the idea that if just enough mixed race kids are born, the prickly racial dynamics of our society will be smoothed out. (As someone of a mixed race/cultural background, this belief holds no real-world weight to me.)

When I was in a Lyft ride a few days ago, my driver (a black man who couldn’t be too far from my age) made a similar statement, arguing that all of society will be interchangeably brown in the near future, as if racism can be screwed out of existence. Master of None, Loving, A United Kingdom, and many other films and TV shows often position these unions as the ideal to varying degrees — beautiful and politicized with the sheen of an “us against the world” mentality, as if the intersections of love and race are ever that simple. As Lauren Michele Jackson wrote in a superb essay for BuzzFeed, “The desire for a future filled with tan mixed babies at times looks less like working away racism and more like washing out blackness […] Pop culture loves repurposing the aesthetic of a multiracial future, especially during times of political strife.” A lot of times pop culture of this ilk doesn’t stop to consider the misunderstandings, complications, loneliness, and silencing that can occur in the very relationships they uphold. In a single scene, Insecure does. Lawrence’s narrative this week twists the show’s trademark easygoing, warm, inviting nature into something that could feel at home on The Twilight Zone. The surreality isn’t in anything fantastical, but how easily fetishization and dehumanization can be confused for genuine attraction in these unions, no matter how fleeting.

*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.

‘Hella LA’ Is Insecure’s Boldest Episode Yet