Insecure and the Fiction of Possibility

The HBO show’s Season 2 finale takes a Sliding Doors approach to its characters’ lives—to masterful effect.

What will become of Lawrence?  (Justina Mintz / HBO)

This post contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 8 of Insecure.

It was the conversation that had been building since the beginning of Insecure: Issa and Lawrence having the heart-to-heart they’d been needing to have since even before they broke up—in the now-gleaming kitchen of the apartment they had shared for so many years. “I’m sorry,” Lawrence said. “For not being who you expected me to be. Who I expected me to be.”

“I wanted to be better for you,” Issa replied. “Because of you.”

And then: “Lawrence, I still love you so much.”

And then: “I love you, too.”

It was soft and honest and cathartic. It was a repetition of the kitchen scene shared by Lawrence and Aparna—the latter, like Issa, perched precariously on the counter—earlier in the episode, Insecure’s Season 2 finale. But, now, the couple in question was Issa and Lawrence. And the two, having said what needed to be said, embraced, for a time that was long and meaningful and laden with what ifs. Were they getting back together? Were they finding, finally, some closure? Were they becoming friends?

“So ... I’m gonna head out,” Lawrence says.

“Okay,” Issa replies, hesitantly. They walk out of the kitchen. Lawrence steps out of the apartment’s doorway, into the open air outside. “Bye, Issa,” he says.

And then: He steps back into the apartment. He drops to his knee, in the doorway. He tells Issa he can’t imagine his life without her. He asks her to marry him. She giddily accepts. She looks at the camera, directly. And then the frames flash forward: to Issa in a wedding dress, cuddling with a suit-clad Lawrence on the blue couch they’d bought together. Issa with a swollen abdomen. The couple bringing the new baby into the same spot where Lawrence had proposed: that doorway, that place of there and not-there, that space of possibility both embraced and foreclosed. Issa looks at the camera again.

And then the scene’s action flashes back to the current moment, to that same threshold: to Lawrence, standing on the one side of the doorway, and Issa, standing on the other. The two, so very close, and so very not. “Bye, Issa,” Lawrence says again. And then he walks away. The future(s) will not come to pass, at least not now.

I believe the critical term for the emotional arc of this series of scenes is aaaaahhhhh. Insecure has, from the beginning, made artistic use of such gut-wrenching, fourth-wall-bending fakery: The show is extremely skilled at subverting audience expectations and exploring that blunt but fine line between what is and what might be. Lawrence, at the end of Insecure’s first-season finale, in that other apartment, in that other bed. Issa, in the show’s second-season premiere, having that heady conversation with her estranged ex—but only, it will turn out, in her mind. It’s a technique that takes that core element of the literary romantic—the pathos of the paths not taken—and makes it cinematic.

Insecure’s Season 2 finale is titled “Hella Perspective,” and it’s fitting: This is a piece of television devoted, explicitly, to the exploration of points of view. The episode, in an extremely literal interpretation of its title, on the one hand uses the frame that so many sitcoms have before: the multi-perspectival one. “30 Days With Lawrence,” it begins, via title card. And, later: “30 Days with Molly.” And “30 Days With Issa.” But that frame itself, it turns out, is another fakeout: “Hella Perspective” is not an episode told, strictly, from the differing points of view of those differing characters—an act of aesthetic empathy along the lines of You’re the Worst’s “Twenty-Two” or Master of None’s “New York, I Love You” or pretty much any episode of Orange Is the New Black—so much as it is one that adopts a more sweeping sense of possibility: the kind traditionally seen in science fiction. The stuff of Star Trek and Stargate and Doctor Who. The alternative-reality impulse that has occasionally been adopted by sitcoms and cinema, but that is extremely difficult to execute in a manner that isn’t also swathed hopelessly in Sliding Doors cliche: one fate versus another, pop philosophy in action.

For Insecure, though, an exploration of what might be—and what will never come to pass—makes a fitting conclusion for a season that has, from its outset, cared so much about the dynamics of possibility itself. Issa and Lawrence. Or Issa and Daniel. Or Issa and Eddie. And also: Molly and Lionel. Or Molly and Dro. Or Molly and Quentin. Each one, after all, is not merely a romantic pairing; it is also a path. It is a direction a life might take: marriages, children, fates individual and collective, doors passed through and shut. Insecure is a show that is deeply interested in the trajectories of fate—in how small events can escalate to become big ones, in how life can change in an instant. In ways that are immediately obvious, and ways that will reveal themselves in their fullness only much later. This is one of the things that makes Insecure at once sitcomic and exceptionally poetic: Two roads diverged. Waiting with myself. In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

And, of course, that sense of twisted fate is not merely a matter of the show’s romantic plotlines. Lawrence gets pulled over, and he drops his credit card as he’s getting his license out, and everything changes from there. Kelli gets her period during the race she’s running, and all her training is rendered useless in an instant. Issa ends Season 2 confronting the door-framed logic of decision-making: She’s unclear about the future of her job. She’s unclear about her living situation. Molly is deciding between staying at her current job—a job where she is not respected as she deserves—and moving on to another one. So many people here are caught in the in-between, weighing options, choosing fates. And so many things are, too. Inglewood is being gentrified (“I-wood!” a perky future barista informs Issa). Even the show’s media environment is exploring—via Due North, Insecure’s brilliant show-within-a-show—alternative realities. “Hella Perspective” is an episode, and Insecure is a show, in many ways about the frustrations of flux: That life is a series of choices means also that it is a series of rejected possibilities.

Little surprise, then, that doorways have factored so prominently in the show—that thresholds have served as locations for some of Insecure’s most dramatic and pivotal scenes. They are powerful in that way—as places that divide the public from the private. As spaces that bring people together, and that enforce separation. Doors are constantly opening in this show, and it’s often a mystery who will be on the other side; doors are constantly closing, too. The doorway is where Lawrence and Issa have come together; it is where, in the place where he might have proposed, he said goodbye. “There’s a medical term called ‘magical thinking,’” Dr. Pine tells Molly, early in Insecure’s second season. The therapist observes that Molly frames much of her life with “should,” when there’s so much more power in the “could.” Who can blame her, though? The “could” can be stifling. The “could” can be overwhelming. The “could” is there and not there, a door that is always ajar, a spectral reminder of all that is not but might have been.