It was a sexual misfire that first broke me. I’d been coasting along, appreciating the low-stakes ebbs and flows of HBO’s Insecure, when suddenly the problem was right in my face.
Well, rather, it was in Issa’s. Midway through Season 2 of the series, which follows a group of black Millennials meandering through adulthood in Los Angeles, Insecure’s protagonist was ready to shake things up. Still reeling from a breakup, Issa (played by Issa Rae) decided to embrace more casual sexual encounters and found herself in the living room of an old friend. The two ended up diverging in their understanding of what would happen at the climax of their rendezvous, and thus began a sequence that I’m loath to revisit but will recount for posterity: A squeamish Issa zigged when she should’ve zagged, and the physical product of her efforts landed in one of her eyes. Aghast, she stormed off, and the image of her pressing a napkin over her afflicted eye took on a life of its own as a meme.
Undignified sex can be great fodder for physical comedy. But, for me, this scene and its aftermath crystallized Insecure’s worst instinct: treating its characters’ dalliances primarily as commentary on real-life Millennial dating, rather than as parts of a larger story. The series especially used these flings to make generalizations about the romantic foibles of straight black people. Issa’s aversion to oral sex could have simply been a personal preference, but Insecure found a way to make it about the hang-ups of heterosexual black women as a whole. Many conversations that Issa had with her friends were full of baffling lines that’d be more at home in a Steve Harvey advice column: I just feel like guys see black women as disposable after you give them head—like you’re forever a ho if you do it. Why do you think black men are out here chasing after white women?
In early seasons, such retrograde dialogue sometimes made Insecure feel like a prompt for weekly Black Twitter debates on dating. The characters registered as symbols rather than fleshed-out people. Lawrence (played by Jay Ellis), Issa’s omnipresent ex, was less an interesting figure with hopes, dreams, and feelings, and more an angsty avatar for straight men to identify with. Moments such as the eye scene seemed written entirely to generate chaos online—but Twitter drama alone does not a satisfying TV show make. It’s been a pleasant surprise, then, to see Insecure course-correct in its most recent season. Season 4, which ended this week, deepened its two central relationships—between Issa and Lawrence, as well as between Issa and her best friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji). Though Sunday’s finale still introduced a twist that shocked Twitter, Insecure focused more on the growth of its core characters, even shading in details about them that added more gravity to previous seasons.
This year, the show finally began to make good on its original promise: to meaningfully explore the friendship between two black women. This decision to recenter Molly and Issa, and to examine the rifts that can emerge between friends as they get older, gave Insecure a cohesion and a profundity that it’s never quite had before. Season 4 began with a revelation that upended the relationship viewers most took for granted. While on the phone with an unspecified person, Issa casually states that she and Molly aren’t really friends anymore. The show then rewinds several weeks to trace what happened—each episode revealing a new tear in the fabric of the relationship and prompting audiences to contemplate how platonic bonds can change. Molly, an ambitious lawyer, is often hardheaded at work and in her romantic dealings, but her stubbornness toward her best friend this season was most galling.
Fortunately for Insecure, as things between Molly and Issa devolved, the women grew into themselves as individuals. Molly began trying to show up fully in her new relationship, and Issa committed herself to the community-event-planning work she’d fallen in love with. Their escalating face-offs courted online chatter, to be sure—Vulture even kept a running list of whose fault any given fallout had been. But the conversations about Molly and Issa’s distance provoked more intriguing questions among Insecure’s viewership than prior debates over conventions of heterosexual dating: What does it take to hold a friendship together as two people age into different versions of themselves? When is it time to call it quits?
Issa’s and Molly’s romantic lives also changed, but these shifts took on more significance when framed through the women’s dissolving friendship. The biggest heartbreak of the season, after all, was the one caused by their separation. That chasm made their respective successes feel hollower, and their low points much deeper. How exciting can reignited love be if you can’t share it with the person who’s been by your side the longest? Season 4 explored such conflicts with grace and empathy. Issa faced her shortcomings as a friend, her negative habits, and her general aimlessness. Molly, for her part, shirked accountability, up until a painful situation reminded her that Issa is the only person she wants to help her. That realization was a kick in the pants for the characters, who had thus far cruised through many key life decisions (especially Issa, the more idle of the two).
In another sign of narrative maturity, the show disclosed more about Issa’s and Molly’s family lives. In past seasons, audiences got used to seeing Issa turn to casual sex for comfort or validation. Season 4 did briefly introduce a new man (a charming TSA employee played by the Philadelphia comedian Reggie Conquest), but the more revelatory shift was Issa’s willingness to lean on family, to speak openly with her brother and mother. Some of these moments of growth seemed possible only because of Issa’s distance from Molly. Meanwhile, Molly was at her family’s Thanksgiving gathering when a slight from Issa cemented her frustration.
Issa’s eventual reunion with Lawrence, meanwhile, felt earned not because of the time he’s spent hovering in the background of her life, but because of the scenes in which the pair joke with and embrace each other. Their love has a language of its own, and, belated though it may be, Season 4 started to let viewers in on that. Even with a new wedge that came between them, Issa and Lawrence grew enough on their own to feel like two complicated people appreciating the simple things they still share. That situation is far more compelling than the alternative, in which they serve more as stand-ins for universal experiences.
And though Insecure has at times struggled to maintain a dynamic story arc throughout its run, its aesthetic sensibilities never wavered. Since its premiere, Insecure has been a visual feast, portraying black Los Angeles with a warm and generous eye no matter which director shoots a specific episode. The list of auteurs who’ve lent their vision to the series is diverse and impressive; among them are Melina Matsoukas, Kerry Washington, Stella Meghie, and Nijla Mu’min. The music has been reliably excellent. That the two women at its core are finally getting the kind of complex characterization they’ve deserved from the outset makes these other triumphs all the more enjoyable. Even Season 4’s more perplexing turns (especially one rather maddening development in the finale) register as less jarring than prior seasons’ gimmicky twists. Insecure never needed to speak for all black Millennials; this year, it proved that it’s best when it just speaks for Molly and Issa.
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