Sunday night’s Insecure episode “High-Like” puts into harsh relief the pleasures and pitfalls of the sprightly HBO series: the overheated, blissful tone that makes the show perfect to watch and discuss among friends; the candy-colored, luscious rendering of Los Angeles and the gorgeous cast; and the infuriating decision to sacrifice emotional and narrative growth in favor of buzzy twists engineered to set Twitter aflame. This is never more apparent than in the closing moments of the episode, which mark the surprising return of Lawrence (Jay Ellis), whose relationship with Issa provided the arc of season one and fit curiously within the terrain of season two.
“High-Like” at first seemed to be an arch episode about the dynamics within Issa’s closest friendships, as she travels with Molly, Kelli, and a very pregnant Tiffany to Coachella to witness the glory of Beyoncé. The midseason stunner is a cornucopia of bad decisions with the girls taking molly — refusing to make things easy or even enjoyable for Tiffany, who can’t turn up to the degree they can for obvious reasons — and Issa running off to spend time with her new love interest, Nathan (Kendrick Sampson). But in the closing moments, Issa runs into Lawrence in a brightly lit 7-Eleven, closing the episode on an emotional ellipsis. It’s a jarring moment because there is no reason to bring Lawrence back. His story felt definitively concluded in the second-season finale. In many ways, this feels like a step backward for Insecure. Lawrence’s return puts the series’ nagging issues at the forefront, prohibiting the show from maturing in much-needed ways. It also calls into question what the actual thrust of the show is. Is Insecure a colorful slice-of-life series about a young woman coming into her own while her friends grow alongside her? Or do Issa’s romantic foibles with men like Lawrence provide the center of gravity for the narrative?
Season two offered a definitive ending for Lawrence’s story and the opportunity to develop Issa’s internal life free of that relationship. He already felt a bit out of place at that point, as if he was forced to return not because it made sense for the narrative but due to very pronounced audience desire. Insecure most of the time positions itself as Issa’s journey into a less awkward, more assured womanhood, with Molly providing a mirror image that touches on different grooves of modern life. Which is why Lawrence’s later story lines — navigating his new job, hooking up with various women not linked to the two leads, and other foibles — felt like they were a part of a different series altogether. Still, the season-two finale justified it with a heartbreaking scene between Issa and Lawrence when she returns her keys to their old place, only to find him waiting in their empty former home. They’re emotionally bare and honest with one another through tear-filled apologies. At one point as he stands in the doorway — between his future and the life he’s lived with Issa — he gets on one knee and asks her to marry him. What follows is a tender montage we learn is just another one of Issa’s personal fantasies. She imagines the life they could have lived: collapsing onto the couch decked out in their wedding attire, having sex, raising a kid. It’s a perfumed fantasy, the kind of stuff romantic-comedy endings are made of. Even with Lawrence sending Issa a friend request afterward, it felt like a clear ending. It operated as a gimlet-eyed argument that sometimes love isn’t enough for a relationship to survive on. Walking back this ending softens one of the boldest moments in the show thus far.
That “High-Like” ends on a momentous return of Lawrence and witnesses Issa spending most of her time with Nathan lays plain that while the show has been positioned as successor of Girlfriends and other shows about the friendships between women, it’s something else entirely. Yet again, it treats Issa’s relationships with men as having far more narrative importance than her friendships, which exist in a strange liminal state. They’re marketed as important, but as the show has grown, they don’t actually take up much residence in Issa’s emotional life. In particular, Issa’s friendships with Kelli and Tiffany — both characters who deserve more development — come across like the kind of friendships you develop in college and only maintain out of habit. Why are these women friends? What do their romantic and personal lives look like? Beyond chiding Issa about working for Lyft and the ragged state of her finances, how do they relate to one another? “High-Like” does give us one spiky moment when Tiffany drops her typical bougie posture for a bit of honesty, discussing her worry that her friendship with Issa and the rest of the group will crumble after she has a baby. It’s a worthwhile concern, given how she’s treated as a burden to Issa’s efforts to have fun at Coachella, a trip that was originally intended to be a last hurrah before Tiffany gives birth. But it’s not nearly enough.
Even more important to the show’s problems is Issa’s relationship with herself. The first four episodes of this season offered an opportunity for Issa to answer some hard questions about herself while figuring out where Daniel fits into her life. These episodes have their pleasures, but they reflect how Issa’s lack of direction and feeling adrift also extend to the show itself. After displaying a firm understanding of what he wanted in earlier seasons, Daniel suddenly comes across as confused and sometimes even passive-aggressive. His place in the narrative exists as a question mark now that Issa has moved out of his place, quit her job, and is currently enjoying time with Nathan. What could have been a good opportunity to develop Issa’s desires and where Daniel fits in to what she wants from her life instead scans as the show spinning its wheels until Lawrence returned.
As Jasmine Sanders notes in her recap of the easygoing, Before Sunset–modeled episode, “The show dedicates far too much time to each of Issa’s lovers, and before she can ever fully recover from a breakup and spend significant time alone, another beau is slotted in. This could be an attempt at honestly portraying the scattershot, ill-advised dating patterns of younger women, but it often reads as trepidation to have the series carried by its protagonist alone.” Despite being three seasons deep, there are so many questions left unanswered about Issa’s desires, family, and trajectory — questions that are ignored in favor of an attractive partner to revolve her story around. That Insecure spends so much time uncovering the sexual and romantic dimension of Issa’s life isn’t a problem. But without knowing more about her own desires and internal life, it’s difficult to feel invested or even understand the decisions she makes. By not developing Issa more, Lawrence’s reemergence feels both unearned and deflated. It’s hard to brace ourselves for how he might upend her life when we don’t even know what she wants or where she’s going in the first place.
Even with these issues, Insecure is one of the most blissful confections television has to offer at the moment. It also deals with an untold level of expectation, as a black-run and black-led show that has been positioned to fill the gap left behind by iconic works like Girlfriends and Living Single in creating a hilarious, raucous portrait of a woman coming into her own. But the writers seem torn between what they set out to do originally, the ravenous expectations of an audience that can easily (and loudly) tell them what they want, and a much-needed turn toward character evolution. As “High-Like” ends, it brings up many questions about Issa’s romantic life. She now has three very different men in her orbit, and she shares very different histories with each of them. But the answers Insecure needs to prioritize are about Issa’s relationship with herself.