On a dark and cold night here in Oakland, everybody lost their ever-loving mind over the finale of Issa Rae’s long-cooked and long-awaited show, Insecure. Now, to be fair, I wasn’t one of them, because reasons (see: I don’t have cable like that, so I always end up catching things a couple days later).
But this isn’t solely about the finale itself — it’s about the entire season, and what happened near the end of it, and the conversations that have been swirling around ever since. So, welcome to the Spoiler Zoooone! You’ve been warned.
To refresh: after a bit of awkward touch and go post-breakup and revelations about Issa’s cheating, boyfriend Lawrence dropped her like a hotpocket and dived peen first into Tasha The Bank Teller’s bowl of yams. Oh, those yams.
In the aftermath of this firecracker of events, there’s been a large set of convos concerning who was at fault and why. Some say Issa is dead wrong and Lawrence should enjoy all the free checking accounts and yams Tasha can offer. Others say that Lawrence took the cruelest form of revenge in *how* he found his way to Yam City, and wasn’t much to begin with in the first place. Still, others find the story itself either complicated or too triggering to touch with a pair of meat tongs (pun in-fucking-tended).
I for one am somewhere in the middle, looking around. Word to Kendrick.
This outsider positioning is mostly because this kind of drama is the shit that Twitter lives for, and it’s also a heavily flammable and triggering subject. Relationships are hard, and Insecure pulls no punches in showing just how fucking tricky and messy the people in them can be. Word to Molly’s dizzy ass.
Initially I didn’t want to touch this, because of the above reasons. Especially because it’s an interesting and seething wound of a discussion that hints at deeper issues between black men and black women. But after a good friend shared this piece, I felt the need to dig into some of the formal aspects, and projection, that could make something as simple as a breakup be so bombastic for so many people.
So let’s begin with this: I’ve been Lawrence. At least, in a sense. I know the depths of depression that an unfulfilled dream and a relationship on the ropes can produce. Moreover, I know what it’s like to be so deeply afflicted by your own shit that you lose sight of the things your partner is going through, be they in spite of or because of you. Or both.
Secondly, I know Lawrence’s friends. Shit, the accuracy with which Lawrence’s friends are some of my friends was scary. The accuracy to which I’ve been one of Lawrence’s friends is even scarier. The bonds between black men can be joyous and invigorating. But often, and especially when it comes to emotional intimacy, they fall much shorter than any baseline relationship should.
Between these two points, I think we need to have a discussion about the empathy that is needed to understand Lawrence and his actions.
One thing to note first about Lawrence is that he has always been a muted character, especially in the first third of Insecure’s season run. Given wee screen time and attention, his character folds easily into the background of Issa’s existential crises. Because of this, his subsumed presence becomes synonymous with “Issa’s home life” or “Issa’s apartment” as we know it. He’s a bother, an obstacle that Issa avoids or has to deal with in due time. This treatment is reflected in the narrative information we get about him, but it also conditions us to pay less attention to him until he became important enough to Issa’s narrative.
I’m saying all this because it’s a shame, as tiny things about Lawrence’s condition and life were slipped into these moments. And in some of the conversations I see now, I don’t see a certain appreciation for those moments, or how little we probably actually understand about him (and his relationship with Issa, as a result).
Example A: Issa and Lawrence are on the rocks and she’s said as much, in addition to underhandedly saying that she doesn’t want to settle for him. Then she starts avoiding the shit out of him. While she’s at work, he calls up his boy who’s down in Santa Monica. After touching base, Lawrence alludes to his relationship problems and signals, albeit weakly, that he’d like to talk more about it. However, rather than further engage, his boy gets conveniently distracted by a football game and hangs up. Lawrence is left reticent. END SCENE.
Off top, I bet a lot of people don’t remember this scene. But honestly, it was really, really devastating. Because, in a nutshell, that’s the extent to which most cishet black men have emotional dialogues with each other fam. And that’s terrifying. With little more than a “you and ol’ girl will figure it out, but yo I gotta get back to this game,” tons of men are left wanting in engagement. Me included, on many an occasion. I could go on anecdotally about this, but I want this point to be formal too.
Namely, this scene is small, quiet, discardable. I would argue it’s done in that way on purpose. Issa (the writer) and her team are trying to convey the serious lacking Lawrence has in terms of access to actual emotional dialogue and sustenance. It also serves to counterpoint the continued parries, thrusts, truces and battles that Molly and Issa have throughout their relationship. Yes, Molly and Issa are messy and occasionally totally fuck up, but at least they have each other. Who does Lawrence really have, besides Issa, when everything is on the line? Who is guiding him? Who’s in his corner? The man barely has 5 conversations with his male friends across the entire season. Again, that is terrifying and speaks to the depressive and reclusive state that he’s in.
In such a situation, where you’re dependent solely on your partner for meaningful emotional communication and engagement, it’s only a matter of time before shit hits the fan. This isn’t to excuse Lawrence (or Issa). But rather, it’s to highlight the dynamics at play, and to provide some empathic thought to this character. This also leads to my second point of discussion.
Example B: Lawrence kind of gets his shit together, landing a gig at BestBuy (shout out to product placement!) Despite it not being what he needs, he does it in order to better support himself and Issa as a couple with bills to pay in LA. (Sidenote: how much does her job *really* pay if she could afford to pay rent and bills, in LA, while her man was down and out? I need some serious answers!) Anyway, in the midst of this, Issa is still feeling existentially unfulfilled and goes and dips her waterfalls in a pool of sexual chocolate (see: old bae, Daniel). In the aftermath, she ratchets up the guilt factor and starts catering to her man or whateva. Lawrence finds it weird, but plays along. END SCENES.
This is another subtle but important set of events. Through them, we’re given another set of polar situations: Issa’s emotional availability and demeanor before and after cheating.
Now, I’m gonna say what I gotta say here and I’ll reiterate later, but let’s be clear: I’m not bashing Issa here. Nor do I want to engage in that. Rather, I want to examine the difference in how she engages Lawrence emotionally. Also, how so much of that engagement is still opaque in terms of the history of their relationship in this show.
Pre-cheatery, Issa is forever flip-flopping with Lawrence. Even in their struggle to reconcile, she can’t seem to pin her frustrations on his lack of momentum or on her own inertia in life. This is important because, again, while she engages these subjects thoughtfully (messily too, but that’s what friends are for) with Molly and crew, she doesn’t exactly engage about it with Lawrence. Whether this habit is built out of years of mutual emotional neglect, or just simply a fact of their relationship, he’s left out of a lot of her whirlwind. And, when he is, they have conflict over it. (Remember when he tried to make steak dinner to show he was showing up emotionally for her and she deadass ate Chinese on the couch?)
In these cases, heavy critiques of Lawrence as the “Nice Guy,” and the myth of Nice Guys in of themselves, are completely vindicated. Lawrence had been falling into oblivion for at least 2 years, and we don’t know how long Issa had been putting up with it. And yes, he shouldn’t get points just because he’s mundane in his lacking and not explicitly abusive or any other terrible things.
But what of this very fatal error in their communication? What of the deeper dialogue between them, as partners, that could have targeted the more mortal flaws in their relationship? I personally believe, and I think the show enforces this idea, that by way of habit they were unable to make these crucial, difficult conversations and actions happen. Why? Well, because only a mutually assured destruction of their relationship via dark chocolate loving in the studio, (though initially unbeknownst to Lawrence) brings them together.
In its aftermath, Issa guiltily rebounds to Lawrence, realizing how much he actually loves her via the YouTube fiasco. In turn, and possibly as a response to her sudden emotional availability, Lawrence’s entire demeanor and outlook changes. In light of everything we can know via the show’s exposition, this is pretty toxic behavior. And like most toxic relationships, they do not go quietly into the night. There is however, one last point to make.
Example C: Doing his damnedest to excel in the “Fuck Issa 2016” Olympics, Lawrence goes out with his boys to a strip club, because hurt. This of course leads to more hamstrung attempts at emotional things, with Lawrence’s boys egging him into singledom and regaling him with all its wonderful antics. Although he initially takes one particular stripper backstage, Lawrence has a change of heart when he realizes his first new paycheck probably shouldn’t be spent on sex in The Champagne Room. So, he calls Issa and throws out a wilted olive branch, suggesting they talk at the apartment. With Molly’s help, she rushes home from a girlfriends-only birthday trip, and he is seen entering their place. This, however, is a formal bait-and-switch, as it’s later revealed that he has moved out of Issa Town and into Yam City. END SCENES.
So let’s start with these boys of his. That first scene there is kind of a patented one at this point right? A trope of the wronged or tempted man, being encouraged to enjoy himself at the expense of his emotional health and of those who potentially love him. The problem here is, again, there is no real engagement with Lawrence’s emotional state. Rather, it’s simply a background setting for his own cacophony of what is sure to be a slew of feelings: anger, sadness, betrayal, love, etc. In the mix of them, he’s still left alone to make a choice.
There is no critical and empathetic connection between him and his male friends — just a muted emotional connection passing itself off as logical and simplistic (the false bastions of “male” reasoning in a gender binary.) Enjoying being single through sex is not the single answer to healing or confronting the wounds caused by a relationship, self-inflicted or otherwise. But for many men, if emotional stability were a home, sex and wanton savagery are the ginger ale and Robitussin of household medicine — mythical cure alls for every wound they carry. Which, isn’t good because it makes them, and in this case Lawrence’s friends, just as emotionally lost as he is.
This is hinted at earlier in the show wherein his main boy basically dialogues with himself about his bewilderment at being engaged. To him, it seems that he loves the woman he’s courting as much as he can, but there isn’t really a deeper attachment or discussion of why other than superficial notions. This dangerous, and tenuous relationship, reflects the shallow emotional waters in which he swims and in which Lawrence is invited to inhabit. Needless to say, this is all bad and contributes to Lawrence’s confusion/depressive state.
But let’s get back to the point here.
There’s a small, ambiguous moment that’s a great bit of writing in these final scenes: that damn phone call.
Why would Lawrence call Issa if he knew he wanted to jimmy jazz in Yam City? Did he do it out of spite? Was it his last moment of second-guessing the mission at hand? Bueller?
Honestly, I think the ambiguity of his intentions are the most important part of that episode. Because, again, if Issa is all colorfully messy drama, Lawrence is very much muted suffering. Any man who’s truly loved a woman knows that phone call. It’s the moment where you’re trying to decide what’s right, in spite of your pride. Or it is a moment of revenge. Maybe it’s something else entirely. I won’t call morality plays here, because it’s all messy.
Whatever it is, I think it’s the point at which we as watchers all projected what we wanted onto it.
Formally, the show suggests what it could have meant with later scenes. But it also counteracts that very suggestion with its prior history of Lawrence’s character. Is he so much of a dog that he wanted to make a statement by causing Issa to drive all the way back to their apartment and not be there? Or, did he call her almost involuntarily, not realizing that he already knew there was nothing to repair until that crushing moment when he enters the apartment?
I personally feel that it’s the more complex answer. But to each their own. And for the purposes of this piece, it’s moreso an issue of us realizing that Lawrence’s character is just as worthy of empathy as Issa was and is. Not solely because he’s a man, but also specifically because he is.
Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
I will never sit here and claim that Issa (or any black woman, women, or partner) should sit around forever and wither waiting for their significant other to break through inertia that they seem unwilling to even engage. But I do think that in many of these situations, the factors at play are just as complex as they can be damning.
And in the case of Insecure, everyone is damned. And messy. The show has made that very clear from the outset. However, we need to be willing to explore these conversations around depression, inertia, toxicity and a dearth of emotional connections that black men face each and every day, especially in relationships. Note that these conversations shouldn’t be in spite of the pleas, health and love of black women. Quite the opposite: they should be made for these folks. Because the healthier and more realistic black men can be about their shortcomings and needs, the more they can be mo’ betta partners to said black women, and whomever we choose to love as partners.
So while we can enjoy the jokes, and claim Lawrence as a patron saint of hurt niggas everywhere, let us not fall into a pit of allowing that hurt to exponentially hurt us, nor blind us to the pain (be it caused by us or not) of the women (and men, and partners) that we love. Instead, let him be a harrowing reflection of us and our friends, and a case study as to how we should peep the warning signs of those things we run away from. And how we can work to fix them, with or without a partner. And then some.
[Correction, Aug 27, 2017: An earlier version of this piece stated we don’t know how long Lawrence was couch surfing. But we did; 2+ years.]
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter