This week, Issa Rae’s “Insecure” wrapped up an eight-episode second season that, on top of exploring the thorny nuances of racial and sexual politics, played with narrative structure and character development in ways that places it far beyond its contemporaries and set it up to become a groundbreaking series about love, sex, race, and gender. The show’s creativity in the realm of storytelling was topped only by its phenomenal soundtrack, which filled the transitions between scenes with glossy samples from the likes of Sampha, SZA, and even a track recorded for the show by Jazmine Sullivan & Bryson Tiller.
While sex and love against a background (and sometimes foreground) of racial politics featured prominently in the storylines, “Insecure” also explored race in other contexts this season. It introduced us to a middle school vice principal (A. Russell Andrews) who was Black but clearly biased against Hispanics and showed us the ways that Issa (Rae), a Black woman (not to mention a woman who likes to ignore problems), and her co-worker, a white woman, reacted to that. We watched her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) handle the pay inequities at her office and the indifference with which her professional ambition was met: an arc that culminated in the finale with a patronizing “Rising Star Award,” handed to her by three white men bearing self-congratulatory sneers, in place of the raise she was hoping for.
Rife with nuanced, multilayered explorations of the lives of these young Black characters, “Insecure” has moved from a straightforward first season about a relationship in decline and the friends that surrounded it, to a complexly structured study in the way that its various characters navigate life, not only as Black individuals but as women, as men, as professionals, as friends, as couples. While the leftover drama from Issa and Lawrence (Jay Ellis)’s relationship remains relevant and cuts into the plot periodically, those scenes are actually the least compelling moments. Instead, the show works best when it sets up complex storylines for characters that used to sit on the sidelines, like Molly’s relationship with a man in an open marriage, or Lawrence’s confusion about his own feelings towards Issa and the other women in his life.
This summer’s season picked up shortly after the split between Issa and Lawrence, set off by Lawrence’s discovery of a brief liaison between Issa and her high school friend Daniel (Y’lan Noel) that Issa pursued out of sheer boredom and frustration at Lawrence’s lack of ambition and dedication to the “sweatpants” look. Guilt-ridden and heartbroken, Issa spends most of the season pining over Lawrence while struggling to establish a “hoetation” to prove that she’s doing just fine. Unsurprisingly, she’s not.
Lawrence, on the other hand, delves headfirst into a relationship with the bank teller who was so desperately crushing on him in season one, moving subsequently into a shaky but somewhat charming romance with his co-worker Aparna (Jasmine Kaur), with a very strange thirty-second interlude with Issa in between.
What’s great about the way that “Insecure” has split up its characters is that by carving out space for Issa’s best friend and ex-boyfriend, it has opened up all these opportunities for itself to probe issues that could not have been explored through Issa alone.
Take Lawrence, the flat deadbeat boyfriend trope from season one who’s been developed into a full-fledged character, a confused young Black man navigating the choppy seas of bachelordom in L.A. while dealing with the aftermath of a messy break-up. While his behavior towards and around Issa helps move along her storyline, his primary role is, for the most part, an independent entity.
One especially sharp episode where “Insecure” took full advantage of Lawrence’s potential as a character was “Hella LA,” where Lawrence, terror-stricken, interacts with a cop after making an illegal U-turn that two cars before him failed to get pulled over for. He eventually ends up in a threesome with two white girls, where what began as slightly off-putting objectification becomes full-blown racism in a truly discomfiting but sharply portrayed exchange.
And then there’s Molly, whose high-profile law career is ripe for commentary on hyper-professional environments and the glaring inequities that women, especially Black women, face in offices—and fields—like hers. Not to mention her edgy relationship with Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson), a childhood friend whose open marriage prompts him to pursue a somewhat manipulative relationship with Molly, who lets him use her as a sort of side piece despite her obvious wishes that they could become more than an affair.
This all brings us to Sunday’s finale, a 45-minute episode split into three segments in a Rashamon-esque portrayal of Molly, Lawrence, and Issa’s lives over the course of one month. The first segment, introduced by a title card that reads “30 Days with Lawrence” in the series’ signature slick, playful font, opens with a marathon, which Lawrence, in his new life as an employee at a tech company, is running with his coworkers (girlfriend included). Briefly, he catches a glimpse of Issa and Molly on the sidelines, but we’re quickly transported into subsequent scenes narrating the development of his relationship with Aparna. In brief cuts under five minutes each, we watch their partnership become stronger before jealousy grows when Lawrence notices her laughing with a co-worker she briefly dated. His segment ends in a fight between the two, made worse by an incoming call from Issa, which we later learn is her trying to give back the couch they bought together last season.
Up next: 30 Days with Molly. We’re back at the marathon, this time on the sidelines with Molly and Issa, who are waiting for their friend Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) to run by. (We soon find out she was bussed to the finish line after getting her period.) Similarly, brief scenes show Molly getting an offer from a group of Black lawyers, getting advice from (and eventually hooking up with) her friend Quentin (LilRel Howrey), who’s appeared in scattered episodes throughout the season, and—thank god—returning to her therapist. The section closes with her also receiving a call from Issa, but not before the Rising Star Award scene, where, in a heartbreakingly sarcastic moment, one of her bosses informs her, “Your picture will be prominently featured on the firm’s website!”
Issa’s segment features by far the longest—and most central—scene of the episode, a painful but touching exchange between her and Lawrence that takes place in her empty apartment as she returns her keys in preparation to move out. Cutting between a variety of inventive camera work and framing, the most interesting of which is a shot from across the apartment where only their torsos are visible, the scene is ostensibly one of closure. The show, per usual, briefly indulges Issa’s fantasies with a quick cut of her imagined life with Lawrence whereby they get married and become the coolest parents in L.A., before we thud back into reality, where Lawrence simply says, “Goodbye, Issa.”
In the final sequence of scenes, the first bricks of Issa and Molly’s season three storylines are laid down: Molly’s resistance to Dro’s intermittent texts is finally worn down and she welcomes him into her apartment in a lingerie getup, while Issa—plot twist!—shows up at Daniel’s door, declaring that she’s only sleeping on the couch.
“Insecure”’s democracy of characters is no easy feat, and Rae and her cohorts have pulled it off stunningly in a season that gave each character inventive, unique storylines and asked its viewers a collection of tough questions about race, sex, love, and relationships. If the writers plan to continue down this road, it’s poised to become a truly unprecedented portrayal of the way that overarching topics like race and love and sexism affect individuals on a personal level and the way that they interact with one another in ways that are anything but binary. They’re messy, and sometimes they’re ugly. But they make for an outstanding show.
Danielle Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.