It’s not easy being a sensitive man on TV — just ask Insecure’s Lawrence Walker, who emerged the hero of the HBO comedy’s rookie season on Sunday’s finale. A romantic male lead on television is often appealing either because of or despite his flaws — man-boy immaturity, philandering, a hot temper, and casual violence are some of the more common charms, evidenced on shows ranging from the salacious primetime soap The Affair to the bubblegum rom-com The Mindy Project. But Lawrence, played by the excellent Jay Ellis, isn’t like those despicable yet somehow irresistible men. As far as TV characters go, he’s a rare breed: a sensitive, underappreciated black man who feels pressure to live up to a hyper-masculine ideal. On Sunday’s season finale, “Broken as Fuck,” Lawrence finally gets a win.
When Insecure began, Lawrence felt like a familiar character — the deadbeat boyfriend who lives on the couch and has been at work on the same “project” for years. He found a natural foil in Daniel (Y’lan Noel), Issa’s (Issa Rae) high-school boyfriend and “what-if guy,” a music producer who tempts her with the promise of the path not taken. He’s the enigmatic, rebellious hottie that so many TV heroines inevitably fall for, from Diane Chambers to Rory Gilmore.
Throughout the first half of Insecure, I admit I, too, succumbed to the appeal of the mysterious bad boy; the finely chiseled Noel elicited a damn, Daniel! or two. But by the end, I was convinced that Lawrence is not only the more sensible choice, but the sexier one, too. And I love that the show was brave enough to throw its own heroine under the bus in order to make that point.
With Lawrence, Insecure reverses the typical gender roles — instead of the “designated put-upon wifey character,” we got the put-upon boyfriend who cooks dinner and just wants to eat at the table he so carefully set. All season long, Lawrence has done everything Issa has asked of him. With his long-gestating business plan stalled and his career prospects dwindling, he takes a job at Best Buy for which he’s overqualified— a compromise he makes largely to prove to Issa that he’s serious about finding work and moving forward. When he finally lands a good job at a start-up, he considers declining the offer to work on his own project, which he now realizes is more tenable than he thought. “I’m just mad inspired right now,” he gushes after the successful interview. But Issa discourages him — “Do we really want to go back to how things were?” — as if their happiness as a couple and his success as a businessman are mutually exclusive.
Ironically, that Best Buy job brings him closer to Tasha (Dominique Perry), the friendly, bodacious bank teller who works in the same shopping center. While Issa is waiting for her man to make something of himself, Tasha looks at Lawrence and sees a decent man with ambition, savings, and no kids — “a good black man,” as she tells him. But when Tasha strolls into Best Buy in a pair of tight jeans and a cleavage-baring top, inviting Lawrence to join him for a drink after work, he lets her down gently: “I have a girlfriend, Tasha.” Our sympathy for him only deepens when Issa succumbs and sleeps with Daniel in that same episode.
But Insecure doesn’t treat Lawrence as a milquetoast sap, and in the season finale, he behaves as if he’s taking revenge on behalf of every nice-guy character who lost the girl to the leather-clad bad boy. While Issa is off celebrating her friend Kelli’s (Natasha Rothwell) birthday, Lawrence heads to a strip club with his boys, determined to prove that he’s not the “R&B-singing-all-your-feelings-type-of-nigga” that his friend Chad (Neil Brown Jr.) says he is.
Despite his best efforts, Lawrence is a Girlfriend Guy; he looks at a stripper gyrating in a bejeweled thong like she’s Venus in a clamshell. When he buys a private lap dance and the stripper gets him all hot and bothered, calling him “cute,” he’s obviously flattered and turned on. But his face falls when she starts naming prices. After, he immediately calls Issa and tells her he misses her, and that he wants to talk.
The final moments of the finale are brilliantly structured so as to pack a devastating emotional punch. They also complete a season-long reorientation of the show’s point of view — where the early episodes favor Issa’s perspective, by the end, the show gives equal if not greater weight to Lawrence’s side of the story. The finale even renders Issa speechless before her bathroom mirror, where she usually goes to work out her inner turmoil. Suddenly, it’s Lawrence we’re rooting for, at Issa’s expense.
In the end, we feel Issa’s crushing loss just as she experiences it, when she comes home early from her trip to find Lawrence’s keys on the kitchen counter and all his clothes and belongings — including the pillow from his side of the bed — gone. He leaves one item: his Best Buy t-shirt, a painful symbol of the sacrifices he made in the name of his and Issa’s relationship. The final uppercut? A shot of Lawrence pounding Tasha-the-bank-clerk like there’s no tomorrow. And director Melina Matsoukas doesn’t cut away in a hurry, giving us an extended glimpse of Lawrence pulling Tasha’s hair and holding her down — as if granting him permission to prove his dominance after a season of noble submission.
Lawrence doesn’t really want to be bad; he wants to be wanted. One of Insecure’s savviest accomplishments in this first season is not only to illustrate how a man wants to be desired just as much as a woman, but to insist that this need doesn’t make him any less of a man. If Lawrence’s version of rebellion means laying waste to a girl who adores him, well, is that so bad?