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‘Insecure’ Isn’t Afraid to Move On

In its third season, the show seemingly does what most other serialized series won’t: write off a popular character

Issa and Daniel in ‘Insecure’ HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The most significant development in the premiere of Insecure’s third season isn’t what happens so much as what doesn’t. That’s an odd thing to say about an episode that quite literally starts with a bang, but Insecure is the quintessential summer show, like a broken-in pair of espadrilles you can always slip back into the moment the weather gets warm enough. The sumptuous, symmetrical overhead shots of South L.A., the impeccably curated soundtrack, the effortless chemistry between cocreator-star Issa Rae and her costar Yvonne Orji—everything is right back where we left it. Like many comedies, Insecure thrives on consistency. Which is why it takes a while to notice something’s changed.

This isn’t to say nothing noteworthy goes down in “Better-Like.” The audience finally gets an update on where things stand between Issa and Daniel (Y’lan Noel), the childhood friend and “Achilles dick” Issa cheated on her ex with, then asked for a place to stay when she lost her apartment. (As that pocket history suggests, it’s not great: Daniel pointedly brings girls home while Issa is on the couch, then plays dumb when she confronts him about it.) And after a head-clearing trip to the beach, complete with a vacation fling, lawyer Molly (Orji) resolves Insecure’s other emotional cliff-hanger by finally setting some boundaries with Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson), her BFF who has an open marriage. By the time Issa heads out to pick up yet another Lyft passenger, the Los Angeles–in-2018 version of getting a second job to shore up your savings account, Insecure has tied off loose plot threads and opened up new ones. It’s a strong, if mostly functional, kickoff to a fresh round of poor decision-making.

So strong, in fact, that I didn’t pause until after the credits rolled to note the single biggest shift in Insecure’s status quo. That’s partly because said shift takes the form of a quiet absence, not a noisy blowup: The reason Issa sought refuge at Daniel’s in the first place, the reason their relationship is so complicated, the reason she had to leave her Inglewood one-bedroom to begin with, is nowhere to be found. Lawrence (Jay Ellis), Issa’s ex-boyfriend of five years and one of Insecure’s core cast members, is missing. And in the three additional episodes provided to critics in advance, he stays that way.

To those who’ve followed Insecure’s production, this doesn’t come as a shock. (Ellis told radio host Angie Martinez in April that the show had been filming for six or seven weeks without him.) More importantly, it doesn’t to viewers of the show, either. Last season tracked both Issa and Lawrence as each went through the painful early days following a serious breakup, testing out rebounds and divvying up mutual friends. All the resentment climaxed in the eerie, empty kitchen of what was once their shared home. Apologies were made, overtures extended, and, in a bravura sequence, a hypothetical life together mulled over and rejected. The whole scene had an air of finality to it, a feeling Insecure has wisely opted to preserve by following through on its implications: that Lawrence and Issa would no longer be a part of each other’s lives.

As intuitive as the choice to write Lawrence off the show may seem, historically, closure hasn’t been a strong suit for serialized television. A TV show has to generate plot, and the easiest way to do that is to keep as many characters in the mix as possible. (And this is before even considering offscreen factors like actors’ contracts.) Add in a lower-stakes premise that doesn’t allow for a quick, painless exit like a character death—Insecure is hardly Game of Thrones—and comedies are in an even tougher spot. Perhaps the most infamous modern instance of a series in which multiple protagonists outstayed their welcome is Girls, where characters who appeared to strongly dislike one another continued to socialize without any clear imperative to do so. But there are smaller examples littered across the television landscape of characters marooned by the story, then left to tread water by themselves.

It’s a sign of both confidence and maturity that Insecure feels comfortable dispensing with a safety net like Lawrence—a figure into which writers and audiences alike have invested two full seasons. By Season 3, Insecure knows itself well enough to know what it is without a steady presence who played a role in its breakout success. Losing Lawrence feels like part of Insecure’s transition from a young series still proving its bona fides to a full-fledged one that trusts its own instincts.

The show hasn’t made such a seemingly drastic pivot without a backup plan. “Better-Like” is the first extended look we’ve gotten at Daniel’s life beyond his entanglement with Issa. The audience already knows he’s a music producer; in Season 1, their fateful tryst took place on a studio couch. Now, that part of Daniel’s everyday existence gets shaded in. Like so many Angelenos of the creative persuasion, he’s a semi-frustrated artist working with cringeworthy collaborators while pitching in to babysit his niece. (The same scene that introduces Daniel’s sister to the Insecure universe also includes a more lighthearted, yet equally welcome addition: a new show-within-a-show to rival beloved Underground parody Due North. This time, it’s a Friends-like hangout multicam with an all-black cast—fitting, given that Rae costarred in the Friends remake for Jay-Z’s “Moonlight” music video.)

Insecure is too emotionally textured a show to make the Lawrence-Daniel handoff into a simple swap of love interests. The dynamic between Issa and Daniel is still complicated, even without the hurdle of infidelity, and living in such close quarters only irritates old wounds. Daniel nonetheless fills a role roughly analogous to Lawrence’s old one, as a man in Issa’s life with whom she shares history, but can’t quite connect. Daniel also serves as a reminder that Insecure doesn’t need Lawrence to survive. The brief interactions with his sister, his niece, and even his regrettable business partners leave the audience wanting more, and demonstrate that Insecure is more than capable of building up supporting parts until they’re three-dimensional enough to exist outside their relationship with Issa.

However imperfect Lawrence was as a partner, he succeeded as a character, and his departure shouldn’t be taken as a retroactive condemnation. It’s not that some viewers won’t mourn the disappearance of a flawed yet likable—and, of course, easy on the eyes—bedrock of Insecure as we knew it. It’s that, in an era of TV filled with excess, there’s much to admire in the efficiency of moving past a character before he can overstay his welcome. Acting as a creator, Issa Rae shows all the conviction and decisiveness her onscreen persona can’t seem to muster.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.