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The Hollow Joys of Insecure Season Three

Photo: HBO

The third-season finale of HBO’s Insecure ends on a note of much needed growth for its two leads, Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji). Unfortunately, it’s unearned. Insecure is often spoken about — as in its after-show The Wine Down with creator Rae, showrunner Prentice Penny, and Orji — as the journey of two good friends entering their 30s and navigating the various romantic and professional obstacles that appear along the way. But “Ghost-Like” makes it evident this series is about Issa’s romantic journey, particularly with Lawrence. By making the thrust of this most recent season Issa’s dynamic with Daniel, Nathan, and then Lawrence (who made a surprising return in episode five), the show undercuts its own potential with an aversion to taking risks. What makes this season so frustrating is how close Insecure is to being a great series charting the internal lives of these black women with joy, a bit of pathos, and some much-needed emotional honesty.

All this isn’t to say Insecure has become a bad show. Far from it. “Ghost-Like”, directed by Emmy-winning actress Regina King with writing by Rae and Natasha Rothwell, has a number of pleasures as it tracks Issa on her 30th birthday. The fashion is enviable, the real estate and home decor even more so (especially for Issa). Kelli (played by Rothwell) once again proves her MVP status with bon mots that swerve from vulgar humor to scintillating truth-telling. Molly surprising Issa by taking her to an outdoor screening of the 1985 cult classic The Last Dragon represents the writers’ distinct desire to cater to their black audience. The scenes between Issa and Molly, which King shoots with warmth, carry the heartfelt rhythm of a long friendship. But these joys are dimmed by emotional dishonesty and an adherence to twists meant to set Twitter aflame. The finale ends with both Issa and Molly making overtures toward growth — Molly apologizes to Andrew for how she treated him on their date, culminating in one of the most cringe-inducing phone calls I’ve watched on television this year, while Issa chooses solitude over letting Nathan slip back into her heart and home when he shows up to apologize after ghosting on her — but this ending feels undeserved and half-formed due to their lack of proper development and emotional depth.

The best moments in “Ghost-Like” hone in on Issa and Molly’s friendship, particularly their argument that erupts during what is supposed to be a cute sleepover. Earlier in the episode, Molly spots Nathan with a bouquet about to darken Issa’s doorstep with excuses about his month-long ghosting. Molly does what many good friends would do in order for the birthday celebration to remain drama-free — she sends Nathan away in the bluntest way possible. When Molly inadvertently lets this slip (“Didn’t I just plan you a bomb birthday, bomb movie, and bomb nigga control?”), Issa quickly moves from confusion to anger (“I know you were trying to help, but I’m not you. I don’t cancel niggas left and right”). Here, the intimacy with which King shoots the scene curdles into claustrophobia. There has long been unspoken tension between Molly and Issa, which this scene begins to uncover, but after Issa goes off on Molly for her negativity and her decision to go full Annalise Keating at her new law firm (alluding to the idea that this may leave her utterly alone), it ends on an unfinished note with no clear hint of what the future holds for their friendship. (In many ways, this reminds me of the fascinating tension between Kelli and Tiffany (Amanda Seales), which is similarly touched upon only to be solved offscreen, granted none of the dissection it deserves.)

Neither woman is wholly right in this scene. Molly made an admirable choice in protecting Issa, who was edging toward Fatal Attraction–levels of deranged during her ghosting experience. Of course, Molly also has a host of issues she needs to consider: her inability to be honest with her therapist, her anger regarding Dro, her homophobic leanings (which rears its head when Langston Kerman’s Jared, a.k.a. the Best Dude to Ever Be on This Show, makes a brief return), her regressive ideas that put her two steps away from being a caricature of the upwardly mobile black woman, and her difficulty in navigating the workplace as a woman with ambition. Season three brings up a lot of meaty dynamics for her character, only to squander their potential by moving on to another dilemma or another man without her gaining much insight along the way (which makes the call with Andrew doubly humiliating).

Even as it makes gestures toward some intriguing narratives, the season forgoes risk in favor of shaping the backbone of Issa’s arc around her romantic dilemmas with three very different men. The first few episodes posed a question that has long been bubbling underneath the surface of the show’s glossy facade: What would Issa’s life look like if she and Daniel got together? Of course, it wasn’t the fantasy Issa imagined in the past, but an uncomfortable living situation in which she slept on his couch, listened to him have sex with other women, and neither of them seemed to know what to say to the other. Daniel has always been presented as the one who got away for Issa, a man who she could pin her hopes on, but he was unlike himself in these episodes: passive-aggressive and unable to speak honestly about what he wanted, a stark contrast to how he had behaved in previous seasons. It’s as if the writers had to adjust his character in order to unceremoniously move him off of the playing field before Lawrence’s eventual return.

After Daniel is abruptly nixed from the narrative, Nathan is introduced as the hazel-eyed Lyft rider who captures Issa’s heart. This leads to “Fresh-Like,” a Before Sunset–modeled episode that sees the would-be couple careening through Los Angeles guided by her history. It’s an effervescent episode weighed down by two issues: how quickly Issa jumps to a new romantic prospect instead of deciding on her own desires, and how she seemingly adjusts her personality in the process. When Nathan returns in the finale’s closing scene to explain to Issa why he ghosted on her for a month, we only get a garbled answer about how he went back to Houston because he felt “really down” and “kinda negative.” It seems that Nathan might be dealing with depression, or even bipolar disorder. But perhaps that gives Insecure a bit too much credit, since it’s hard to glean what exactly he’s hinting toward when he tells Issa, “I just can’t talk to people sometimes. And I didn’t want to put you through that.” Neither Daniel nor Nathan are given enough weight or screen time for their interactions with Issa to resonate beyond the first flush of curiosity.

Then there’s Lawrence. After the second season concluded with a moving good-bye between the former couple, with Issa imagining a rosy version of the life they could have lived if they weren’t torn apart by his emotional issues and her cheating, it seemed like the show was finally taking a risk by letting Lawrence go, despite his ardent fans. Then, after four Lawrence-free episodes, the two bump into each other in a harshly lit 7-Eleven at the end of “High-Like,” a stunning half-hour that spins the third season into a new direction and unfortunately makes him the focal point. Nothing in the subsequent episodes is charming, interesting, or dynamic enough to justify Lawrence’s return. Why should we care about his various jump-offs? Is it necessary to listen to him tell his father (played by the excellent and undersung Harry Lennix) that he wants a woman with no baggage when that is all he has to give himself? What does he even have to do with Issa’s story line at this point? It’s no surprise that Lawrence’s story line only shows Issa intermittently, since he has crafted an entire life outside of her since their breakup. But it’s a life that doesn’t seem to provide much insight or nuance. When I watched the finale with a friend of mine, we both groaned when Lawrence was revealed to be going on a date with Condola (Christina Elmore), the divorced woman who organized The Last Dragon screening and with whom Issa is growing friendly. It’s the kind of twist that this show has become fueled by — heavy on the shock value, low on the emotional nuance. Seriously, how small is Los Angeles?

By the end of its third season, Insecure is stuck in a liminal state spinning between different modes and fulfilling none — wish fulfillment and a more honest slice-of-life document about young, modern black life of a specific sort in Los Angeles; a sincere celebration of female friendship and a moving, occasionally raunchy romantic comedy. This season touched on a host of intriguing topics: ghosting, what happens when a friend gets pregnant and moves into a new chapter of her life, and the struggle that comes with following your passions (or, for some, realizing you need a passion in the first place). But each thematic underpinning, whether wrenching or humorous, lacked the development necessary to resonate. By short-changing the dynamic that has drawn viewers in the first place — the caring, complicated friendship between Issa and Molly — that leaves the show with a hollow center it needs to address going forward. Much like Issa herself, Insecure needs to decide what it wants to be.

The Hollow Joys of Insecure Season Three