Like most early 30-somethings, the myriad characters of Insecure are largely dogged by gnawing disillusionment — with careers they thought they’d love; with lovers they thought they knew; with white people who frequently forget to think at all. In her relationship with Lawrence, Issa had grown restless and eventually wandered, cheating with her current (maybe) beau, Daniel. Now, unmoored after a breakup and in stasis at work, Issa is entangled with Daniel and — at his request — sharing his bed. As in real life, the inevitability of disaster does nothing to dissuade either party; they coast and skate along, boundaries elided, intentions dangerously unstated. In “Backwards-Like,” a revelatory, fluid episode, each character’s disenchantment with his or her current lot is keenly dissected.
The episode opens with a familiar vignette: Issa and Daniel, together in bed again. We were always headed here. In last season’s easy conclusion, when a crestfallen Issa came knocking on Daniel’s door, we knew that she was seeking respite in more ways than she would admit. The lusty will-they, won’t-they intrigue was one the show could have dragged out, to the delight of Team Daniel, all season. Instead, the suspense has been curtailed and the characters sleep together in this episode.
The rapport between Issa and Daniel isn’t sexual, not at first. It flows with the breezy intimacy borne of familiarity, the buoyant ease of long-term couplings. After the cutesy banter over hogged covers and pillows and food crumbs in bed, Issa’a mind wanders, rapt in a lewd daydream. I’ve often found the depictions of sex in Insecure peevish; they frequently lack the bawdy, sticky feel of the act itself. The sex scenes have grown a little formulaic with regard to the two female leads, so the choreography of Issa and Daniel’s romp is a familiar one: eyes closed in dispassionate kissing, mouth open in ecstasy, then someone (not the women) starts making their way down with the camera placed dead center. Recapping season two, Angelica Jade Bastién noted, “Issa’s quest to have a rotation and robust casual-sex life has always felt a bit inauthentic […] But which does she really enjoy: the image of a carefree, sexually open woman, or her sex life itself?” For me, Issa and Molly’s sex scenes strike a similar, flat tenor intended to service the plot, not verisimilitude. But this week’s scene is refreshingly comic: Daniel starts to go down on Issa and, as the tryst goes on, he hands her a bag of chips that she’d been eating in bed. The silliness of the moment gives it away as a daydream, and it ends shortly thereafter. Issa and Daniel are, at least for now, platonically sleeping together.
Going back to the early influence of Melina Matsoukas and cinematographer Ava Berkofsky, Insecure has always been masterfully shot. There’s a bright prettiness to the images; the characters are stylish and well lit. The show is set in Los Angeles, and its visual sensibilities are the greatest indicators of the time and place that the characters inhabit. In “Backwards-Like,” almost every scene utilizes a shot of the L.A. landscape as a transition to the next one: The showy glint of the metropolis and the palm trees drenched in sun obscure the harsher realities of the stories contained. Issa meets up with Molly at a ritzy pet supply store/groomer, where Molly’s pooch, Flavor Flav, is receiving a blueberry facial. Issa is only quasi-engaged in conversation with Molly as the latter details her latest professional endeavors. Issa also reveals to her friend that she and Daniel have settled into co-sleeping, while admitting her libidinal desires for him. Molly, like any good girlfriend, voices her concern over Issa and Daniel’s arrangement, but doesn’t chide her too harshly.
Meanwhile, Daniel has linked with the producer and high school comrade from last week’s episode, hoping to collaborate with the young SoundCloud rapper Spider. It’s suggested that Daniel tone down the jazzy flute of his arrangement and up the bass, and he resists some, but mostly sulks. Whether he’s willing to sacrifice what he considers the essential artistry of his work in order to achieve significant success is an issue he’s been concerned with for some time. Similarly to Issa, his professional and romantic lives are in a state of turmoil, and the prosperity he’s seeking in both seems to evade him. I still think that the show’s decision to devote so much time to him and his conflict feels misguided, though. Why such an excoriation of Daniel, and not Alejandro, who has a wife and is a part of their larger friend group?
Issa’s growing disenchantment with We Got Y’all is put center stage when she attends a job fair intended to lure more diverse candidates. She encounters an organization focused on introducing children to the arts in the city. Seeing her perked up and expressing genuine interest in a career is a welcome change, and a reminder of the misery wrought by workplace dissatisfaction. I hope, for Issa’s sake, that the tide at work turns soon. Her unhappiness is further highlighted when interviewing one of the candidates, another black girl. When the woman states that Issa “must be happy” since she’s been with the company so long, the look on her face is one of quiet dejection.
This episode is full of brief, biting comedic moments, via dialogue and small narrative touches alike. While doing their laundry, Issa reveals to Daniel that she plans to move out, courtesy of her new gig as a property manager. While Daniel attempts to dissuade her, a roving, older woman “accidentally” attempts to take Issa’s clothes for herself. Eventually she lands a younger black man who exclaims about his stolen clothes.
Insecure has always insisted on topicality, attempting to parse the varied issues faced by today’s young black professional. Sex, dating, consent, and microagressions in the workplace are all topics the show has broached. In this episode, the quartet assembles and litigates the messiness of intraracial conflicts. Molly, who has started working for a black law firm, is dissatisfied with the company’s lack of organization. At work, she states (and restates) that the ship ran smoother at her old firm, which happened to be white. The four girls all take a differing stance, with Kelli suggesting that black people often have higher expectations of each other. The girls, including a very pregnant Tiffany, suggest that Molly herself may be the issue, not the firm. Issa makes a somewhat convoluted point about Tidal, inquiring whether Kelli, a Bey stan, supported the streaming company. It’s a stance which veers a little too close to, “We gotta support our own/FUBU” rhetoric for comfort. The show is super–plugged into its viewership: Was Issa Rae, or the show’s writers, subbing their black viewership or just attempting a dialogue? Is there a question of race-based loyalty, of the expectation that black consumers will patronize and enjoy the work of “our own?” The dinner with four girls is, otherwise, as enjoyable and laughable as always, especially the revelation that Kelli, Issa, and Molly have a group chat that doesn’t include Tiffany. This is also where Issa reveals that despite getting the job as a property manager, which means affordable rent, she plans to stay at Daniel’s a bit longer. Each woman is hesitant, and even more so after Molly slyly offers that Issa and Daniel are sleeping together. Still, good news is good news: Issa’s new employment opportunity may mean an escape from We Got Y’all.
Elsewhere, Daniel’s brio gets the best of him when he finally meets with Spider. In the studio, Daniel opts to play the original flute-heavy beat, a somewhat less banging version of Future’s “Mask Off.” Spider hears both versions of the beat and again expresses ambivalence towards Daniel’s music, meaning that he’s unlikely to be the propellant Daniel had sought for his career. At dinner with Issa, he grows dejected and snappy, stating how she doesn’t understand his plight because she isn’t incredibly invested in her career. The dinner dialogue is again filled with brief comic moments, until Daniel begins expressing more malice towards Issa than he’s ever shown before (barring the time he ejaculated in her eye). His disposition solidifies that Issa needs to move out of his place and live on her own.
Later, in bed, neither Daniel or Issa can sleep. He attempts an apology for his earlier callous behavior, and the fantasy from earlier comes alive. They make out and Daniel goes down on her, as she’d imagined. But Issa, in a burst of maturity and levelheadedness, stops the encounter. It’s a decision I applauded, and saw as indicative of her own growth. Daniel was always appealing as a fantasy. When she dated Lawrence, he also offered the appeal of an illicit affair. Once she was single and attempting a ho phase, he was again an exciting conquest. For the first time, Issa is forced to contend with Daniel as a full being, flaws and attitude and all. The fantasy of who they could be as a couple is deflated. As a 30-something woman who attended college, then likely bounced through a string of long-term relationships, it may be Issa’s first time living alone — a vulnerability all of us relate to. The jump is as intimidating as it is necessary.