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‘Insecure’ Season 3 Review: No Lawrence, No Problem, as Issa Rae Makes the Most of Small Moments in Quiet New Season

Jay Ellis is gone, but the one big change in HBO's comedy doesn't mean more are needed for this series to say its piece.

Insecure Season 3 Issa Rae

Issa Rae in “Insecure”

Merie W. Wallace/Courtesy of HBO

There’s a scene in the fourth episode of “Insecure” Season 3 when Issa Dee (played by Issa Rae) has a conversation with herself in the mirror. Unlike in other shows, this “mirror bitch” talks back, mimicking her reflection’s excitement at having their own private space to divulge thoughts, un-judged. So thrilled is Issa’s outspoken other half to be back, she keeps talking even as Issa walks away from the mirror — telling her she’ll always be there, as if she has anywhere else to go.

These surreal touches have become a staple of the HBO comedy. It’s how Rae often shows Issa’s true self, hidden behind her insecurities. Whether such scenes are specifically about Issa finding confidence in her rapping or just the witty insights that emerge from a smart, soft-spoken person who still has something to say, these little bits of sharp levity often have more to say — about Issa, about her life — than full episode arcs. That’s certainly the case through four episodes of Season 3, as “Insecure” adopts a more decisive yet still familiar tone to support its strong characters. After a second season filled with creative gambits, these fleeting flashes of Issa’s unbridled self indicate the series is on the cusp of something special.

If anything, the show needs more of them, in part because there are stretches where Issa’s motivations remain obtuse for too long. The season premiere is a prime example. Still living with Daniel (Y’lan Noel), Issa has hit a personal and professional skid. There are no wistful memories of Lawrence (Jay Ellis), who does not appear in any of the first four episodes, but now she’s wrestling with “yes, no, I don’t know” feelings for her new roommate. Moreover, she’s been pulled off the streets and into a desk job at work, making her all-around dissatisfied.

Insecure Season 3 Lamine Diop, Y'lan Noel.

Lamine Diop and Y’lan Noel in “Insecure”

Merie W. Wallace/Courtesy of HBO

Season 2 explored similar issues more thoroughly and with more complexity. Issa was unwillingly paying her penance for cheating on Lawrence and couldn’t kick a sexual dry spell. All her old relationship issues were mixed up with her new relationship goals, and the episodes shifted perspective, structure, and tone to match the whirlwind Issa was going through. In Season 3, she’s beyond her baggage from Lawrence (as evidenced by his rightful absence) and casually looking for something new. The narratives are more direct, but what’s keeping her from Daniel is unclear long enough to make it seem like the writers just wanted to fill some time with a will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic.

Still, the conclusion to their dynamic in Episode 4 is another example of blunt brevity wielded with purpose; of a quick moment used as punctuation but that keeps speaking beyond the exclamation point. The culmination is treated purposefully — as if the whole arc was leading up to this — but it’s handled in just six short words. Helped by a hard cut to the title card, the exchange shows how charged “Insecure” can be when it displays the confidence its main character lacks, and why it can be important for storytelling to not always mimic the behavior of its leads.

“I feel like my whole life is on some tiptoe shit,” Issa says in the first episode. “I can’t speak up about anything.” That’s fine — dealing with repressed feelings, let alone being afraid to speak up, is what the show has been examining all along. Yet what stands out in Season 3 are the moments, no matter how short, where Issa exposes her true feelings.  (Sadly, few come from Yvonne Orji’s wonderful take on Molly, who’s saddled with some far-too-basic early plotlines.)

Insecure Season 3 Issa Rae Yvonne Orji

Issa Rae and Yvonne Orji in “Insecure” Season 3

Merie W. Wallace/Courtesy of HBO

Just look at the highlights:

  • When Issa is running through text options on her phone, an ominous, nasty voice comes out of nowhere to tell her not to send a particularly harmful message.
  • Upon hearing a racist and otherwise ill-advised pitch at work, Issa imagines lashing out at her ignorant boss.
  • After seeing a tweet with gun violence in a local club, Issa mutters under her breath, “[Black people] always showing up in the wrong news.”
  • Issa daydreams of an ideal sexual encounter — while eating Cheetos.
  • The t-shirt collection Issa sports is not only excellent, but as honest as anything she actually says.
  • “Mirror bitch!”

Every one of these is either something Issa imagined but didn’t do, or said but not so anyone other than the audience could hear her. They inform the audience as to what she’s really going through, in the big and small picture, as opposed to taking a complacent camera and pointing it at Issa’s day-to-day activities. Each of these moments is handled with a confidence, attitude, or as so matter-of-fact it’s impossible not to see the contrast between who Issa is to others and who she wants to be. Connecting those selves is part of the series’ ongoing journey, and Season 3 feels like a tipping point for her growth; that’s why, again, it’s so good Rae is focusing on Issa more than anyone else, but also why more is expected from the character.

A lot has been made about Jay Ellis’ absence from the new season, but it’s hardly a detriment. “Insecure” doesn’t treat it like a big change because it’s a) not his show, and b) it’s not a show in need of an overhaul; Rae is leaning into the stories she wants to tell — Issa pointedly says in Episode 2 that she doesn’t want to be the voice of all black people — and while that’s resulted in less bold, creative choices so far, it doesn’t mean they won’t be coming. If Issa’s “mirror bitch” is given more chances to make an appearance, all these little moments could add up to something major.

Grade: B

“Insecure” Season 3 premieres Sunday, August 12 at 10:30 p.m. ET on HBO.

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