tv review

Insecure Remains Magical and Messy in Its Final Season

Photo: Raymond Liu

Insecure has always existed in the register of fantasy.

In many resplendent ways, this is one of the strengths of the series, which ends this year after its fifth season. It’s on display in the glowing beauty with which the various brown skin tones of its cast are lit, making even small moments feel open to glamour and possibility. It’s on display in the bouncy, punchy soundtrack featuring the likes of Anderson.Paak and Too Short. It’s on display in the fluidity of the camerawork from mainstays like director Melina Matsoukas, who helmed the pilot, and cinematographer Ava Berkofsky, who set the style of the series. Style is what this series excels at, but this can leave the show feeling a touch vacuum-sealed from the world whose joys it seeks to reflect because various heavy concerns don’t puncture the bubble of its characters. Even when Issa struggles financially, there’s a disconnect, a weightlessness as her downtrodden struggles are played for laughs or anxiety-inducing discomfort. This trend continues in Insecure’s final season, premiering on HBO Sunday night.

Insecure is the kind of series meant to be experienced but not studied. Let its joys just wash over you and lull you into submission with its sparkling nature lest you find yourself noticing all the fissures. These fissures aren’t the sort of touching imperfections that can make a work all the more rich but are grating blunders on various levels that can curdle the light touch the show is aiming for and often hits. The first four episodes of its final season were made available to critics, and they are for the most part strong and deliciously entertaining. But certain issues linger. The fourth season ended explosively with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) learning his ex-girlfriend Condola (Christina Elmore) is pregnant with his child and wants to become a mother, which casts a pall over his reconciliation with Issa. It’s a cheap narrative move the show is now left to reckon with. All soap operatics, no depth.

Blessedly, the new season doesn’t pick up with that specific plotline. Instead, Issa (Issa Rae), Molly (Yvonne Orji), Kelli (Natasha Rothwell), and Tiffany (Amanda Seales) attend their ten-year college reunion at Stanford with Tiffany’s husband (Wade Allain-Marcus) in tow. Set against the splendid beauty of the Bay Area, the first episode illuminates the predominant considerations of the season: Molly and Issa’s efforts to strengthen their friendship after its previous ruptures; Tiffany navigating motherhood and married life; Molly figuring out what she wants romantically after years of fumbles, heartbreak, and high standards that made finding the love she desires tricky; and Issa stumbling through realizations about her own professional standing and romantic entanglements. (Kelli remains humorous, a straight shot of joy, no chaser, against the tangled complications of her compatriots, but she’s still scantly developed.)

The strength of the new season, particularly the first two episodes, is in showrunner Prentice Penny and the other writers’ efforts to nudge the characters toward deeper considerations of where they are in life and where they’re going. Kelli comes to the reunion to find that her alma mater thinks she’s dead — she even gets a song shout-out for the Stanky Leg dance because of her presumed passing. Kelli is pissy throughout the episode, for good reason, but there’s a touching scene in which Tiffany, Molly, and Issa memorialize her, speaking to her humor and commitment to their friendships. Who wouldn’t want to hear from their loved ones how they’ll be remembered?

Kelli becomes the lighter, comedic counterpoint to Issa’s more existential struggles over similar questions about her purpose in life. Issa, the true locus of the series, struggles on an alumni panel in which her new business, the Blocc, which handles event management for Black folks, is mispronounced. When faced with the question “When did you know you were on the right path?” she keeps it real: She’s not sure she has had that realization or even that she’s on the right path. Her later conversations with Molly effloresce into speaking aloud her own anxieties. “I’m in my 30s,” she says. “Everything is out of my control.” This isn’t where Issa or Molly expected to be. Later, when Issa acknowledges that she loved Molly for her confidence in college, Molly is blunt: “That’s when I thought I had all the time in the world.” Issa counters, “What if we still do?”

Scenes such as these underscore the fact that, five seasons in, Rae remains an uneven actor. She nails the awkward energy of her character and most of the comedy bits, but when called to the dramatic, her limitations arise. (There’s a moment when she cries into the mouth of a lover during an ongoing make-out session, and her tears are so artificial-seeming I couldn’t understand how there wasn’t a better take.) And while the comedy in these episodes mostly retains the light, airy quality and commitment to Black vernacular that has made the show a lightning rod for Twitter conversation, not all of it works. There’s a joke about how Nathan (Kendrick Sampson), who inhabits Issa’s professional and personal life in ways they’re both still feeling out, looks like “prison bae” that is jarringly dated and unfunny. There are oblique allusions to the state of the world, though nothing directly about COVID-19. The moderator at Issa’s alumni panel mentions “everything going on in the world right now,” and when discussing what food to order in the car ride from the airport, Lawrence mentions he’s not sure a restaurant is still open since “everything has been so crazy.” Such allusions are grating half-measures. Does COVID exist in this world? Should it? Insecure has always been committed to a light fantasy, evoking the joys of Black life to the point that its horrors don’t fully enter the world; the characters’ romantic foibles seem to comprise their greatest dilemmas.

Just when I thought I had a handle on where the show was going, it jumps forward a year in the second episode. Molly has cropped her hair and wears it natural. She’s more confident, grounded, and aware of her romantic fuckups, displayed in a montage of past moments kicked off with her deciding to fire up an old online-dating profile. Issa’s business has grown successful, but she’s still awkward and yearning. The time jump is a canny way for the writers to move forward with the characters’ growth, allowing the story to end on what is, hopefully, a secure and final note. But I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to witness the steps leading to the characters’ subtly dramatic shifts, instead of gliding over a year’s worth of living and loving.

Visually, the show remains a feast. Its graceful, sloping camerawork delights. The costuming puts the beauty of the characters on display. (I’m especially fond of Molly’s cobalt-blue power suit in the second episode.) The soundtrack is on point. The color scheme of cool blues, warm amber, and deep green enlivens the frame. Mirrors hold possibilities for your past to reach out to your present. It’s all beautiful in a way meant to highlight the hard-won joy of Black life.

Such lush visuals serve as a counterpoint to the sparseness of the writing in the dramatic scenes. Regarding Molly and Issa strengthening their relationship: It doesn’t quite work. Their friendship, in all its fraught yet intimate nature, deserves a meatier reconciliation. (Although this decision does speak to the history and understanding the characters share with each other.) Where it does work is at the end of the first episode, which has a crucial scene between Issa and Lawrence. The sparseness and quietude of the scene — both in the writing and the aural qualities — alludes to the fact that some things don’t need to be said but felt in a gaze or a pregnant pause.

The show remains committed to Lawrence’s story line, with the third episode focusing on him entirely. He’s struggling with fatherhood and his dynamic with Condola, whose mother (Lela Rochon) and sister (an always delightfully bawdy Keke Palmer) rightfully can’t stand his ass. Ultimately, it’s more frustrating than revelatory as a story line. Part of the problem is the writing feels born of an interest to set Twitter aflame with conversations about Black fatherhood and Lawrence’s growth, rather than illuminating the weight of this dramatic change in his life. Another glaring issue: Condola isn’t much of a character. Thus far this season, she’s framed as an overwhelmed mother but little else. Who is she? What does she want? I’m unsure, which is a huge problem for this story line. I don’t think Lawrence is an interesting enough character to ground an episode solely focused on him, and the further his story line moves from Issa, the more I wonder about his purpose in the narrative. It’s clear everyone involved in the show digs Jay Ellis, but is that a good enough reason for a character to hang around?

I’m more intrigued by everything going on with Issa, especially in the professional sphere as her business continues to grow, offering her a level of visibility and power she’s still grasping the full scope of. One of the most engaging plotlines centers on her working relationship with Crenshawn (a drop-dead-gorgeous and rough-hewn Kofi Siriboe), a fashion designer and former convict whose business employs those fresh from prison. They’re putting on a runway show — the biggest event of Issa’s career, which is established as booming in various ways, especially with a cameo from author Brit Bennett. But there’s friction between the two. Issa has to navigate the expectations of a white higher-up who wants to curtail Crenshawn’s extravagance and worries about how much of a neophyte he is. Is Issa selling out, as he believes? What does it mean for a Black person to sell out in this climate? What does it mean to work in powerful systems, and is it possible to retain the authenticity that led you to become noticed by them in the first place? All are questions on the show’s mind that I’m curious to see answered.

While recording her podcast, Kelli poses a rich question: “If you knew the end is coming, what would you do with the time left?” It’s a question that hovers over the season, and I’m eager to see how Insecure answers it in the final six episodes. Legacies are considered. Emotional ruptures are born. But most important, the beauty of Black people in moments of glamorous joy and wonder is found.

Insecure Remains Magical and Messy in Its Final Season