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Television

‘Deliberate, thoughtful love-making’: Inside ‘Insecure’s’ most romantic episode yet

Issa Rae in "Insecure."
(Merle W. Wallace/HBO)

The following story contains spoilers from the eighth episode of “Insecure” Season 4, “Lowkey Happy.”

At first, Lawrence doesn’t know what to say. He looks away for a moment, tilting his head slightly and raising his eyebrows in surprise. “Tonight made me happy,” he admits to Issa — and himself.

Issa, looking straight into Lawrence’s eyes, replies with clarity and resolve: “You make me happy.”

These lean yet loaded lines became romantic comedy canon on Sunday night, when “Insecure” reunited its central exes — played by Jay Ellis and series creator Issa Rae — for a game-changing capsule episode. “Lowkey Happy” covers a lot of shaky ground: his depression, her infidelity, how much they’ve grown while apart and what they want for the future.

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Yet their honest conversations never feel hurried, since they’re what fans have been waiting to hear for years. At a fraught moment in the world of “Insecure” — because of Issa and Molly’s fractured friendship — and a traumatic one for many in the real world, amid fury and unrest in response to the systemic dehumanization of black people, the HBO comedy offered a brief, beautiful reprieve by celebrating black love and humanity.

“It’s so nice to finally talk to someone outside the writers room about this episode, which has been under lock and key,” said the episode’s writer and “Insecure” producer Natasha Rothwell, who also plays Kelli in the series. Ahead of Sunday’s airing, The Times got granular with Rothwell about writing the sparse but strong dialogue, embarrassing Issa with a former flame and setting the stage for a potential endgame.

L.A. has always been key to Issa Rae’s “Insecure.” But now, with the city hunkered down amid the coronavirus outbreak, that love feels more vital than ever.

Natasha Rothwell as Kelli in "Insecure." Rothwell, also a writer and supervising producer on the series, penned the episode "Lowkey Happy."
(Merle W. Wallace/HBO)
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This episode is years in the making. Did you feel pressure to get it right?


Yeah, it really has been! When we began working on the season, we just kept circling the idea that we owed it to them — and to us as writers — to have the hard conversations that you have to have in order to move on. But we had to get them to places where they’re emotionally ready to have that conversation. Had it been earlier, they may not have been as receptive to each other.

It’s daunting because you’re touching these conversations that are so tricky to have in your own life, let alone on screen. How do you craft it in a way where you can touch on the sincerity and really utilize the opportunity to show two people coming back to each other and trying to understand each other?

Why write this as a capsule episode?


It wasn’t necessarily that we couldn’t accomplish the same conversation with other actors on the show present, but the capsule idea creates intimacy and allows the storyline to really have that room to breathe. That was crucial for this conversation, which needs space for these characters to really be in the moment and listening to each other.

Not even one minute in and Issa is face-planted on the floor...


For me, having that at the top was so important because that’s just real life. That dread of, “I don’t know if I can have this conversation and I’m nervous” — having those moments punctuated with laughter has always been part of my comedy. I love gravity and levity and how they speak to each other and make each other better, especially in an otherwise serious episode like this one. Like when Issa finds out Lawrence had bought her a ring, and then the Lyft driver interrupts and says, “Do it now!” In these comedic moments, you can exhale along with the characters, which I love.

Their honest conversation about what went wrong in their relationship is a big one, but it’s still one scene in a half-hour episode. How did you ensure everything they needed to say was said, in only so many words?


For me, it was about the economy of language — we never want to overwrite a moment. Yes, it’s a tough conversation, but there’s so much that just didn’t actually need to be said. They’ve had little talks here and there over the last two seasons about what happened between them, so bringing up any of that would feel redundant. Instead of rehashing things, we wanted to put on the table the things that weren’t discussed, and that was plenty to fill the moment.

Jay Ellis (wearing an Oliver Spencer jacket) and Issa Rae (wearing a Thebe Magugu top) have high-stakes conversations in the episode.
(HBO)

Also, when you have two people who know each other as intimately as Issa and Lawrence do, a few words can say so much. I mean, over the past few seasons, we’ve seen them have whole conversations with just a look.

After that meal, we get quite the treat: TSA Bae!


Yes! “Brrrap brrrap!” We wanted to embarrass her in some way. She was in this magical bubble after having this amazing, cathartic, real and almost romantic conversation with this person she thought she hurt to the point of never speaking to again. To puncture that with a [sex] buddy from yesteryear [played by Reggie Conquest] was just too good an opportunity to pass up! Even though everything is so perfect, let’s just remind everyone that we’re human and you have to face the decisions you’ve made even in the least opportune times.

When strolling through the Downtown L.A. Art Walk, Issa and Lawrence spot a “silly but also frightening” piece and shout-out to your character, Kelli. Was that a clue for viewers that you wrote the episode?


Not at all! Originally, the episode was going to be set during the wintertime, and they would be walking through South L.A., looking at Christmas lights and laughing about [how] each house reminds them of a friend. Over the course of many revisions and edits, it ended up being the Art Walk, and we still loved the idea of using the environment to help them have conversations apropos of nothing. It was fun to see the art department’s interpretation of Kelli. When I was on set, I was like, “OK, this is great!”

That entire Art Walk was amazing. Our production designer Kay Lee and her team completely transformed an empty lot in downtown L.A. We had actual artists contribute their work to the set, and this gorgeous cloud tunnel that they walk through meant to evoke this beautiful, romantic moment that we really don’t get to see people of color have.

The art also jumpstarts a conversation about what makes each of them happy — again, with an incredible economy of language.


It’s to speak to the growth that each of them have had. They’re able to share these parts of themselves that they’ve come to realize while they were away from each other, and be appreciated for it. That was one of the really vulnerable moments for them because, for me personally, saying it out loud makes it real, and sharing it with someone else makes it even more real.

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Over the course of the series, we’re always playing with the idea of Lawrence and Issa: Are they better apart or together? If they matured into these beautiful characters who understand themselves and know what their happiness is, can they continue that together?

When invited into Lawrence’s apartment for a few minutes, Issa points out the couch they bought in an attempt to refresh their relationship in Season 1. Why was it important for her to do that?


Couches are a big symbol in our show, and its presence for sure is evocative of what happened between them, and it’s almost an opportunity to see it and say, “I can’t do this after all.” But Jay’s sitting on it and recognizing, “It looks good here, right?” They really stood by their promise to not tiptoe around anything that evening, and you can’t tiptoe around a giant green couch! It’s definitely in the room! I think by calling it out, it takes away its power. They’re not out running from the past; they’re accepting it and reincorporating it into what could be a future, or the potential to at least try.

"I love gravity and levity and how they speak to each other and make each other better," said Natasha Rothwell (pictured with Jay Ellis).
(HBO)

How did you come up with those two lines?


I wanted that moment to have all of the magic of a rom-com moment, and all of the gravity of what had transpired between them, if that makes sense. When she says that, we remember all of these seasons of her attempting to find happiness elsewhere. It calls back to their conversation at the Art Walk but also the comedic moment in the Lyft, when the driver is saying how marriage is the best thing she’s ever done. It’s subtle, but this woman who’s driving Lyft, she knows what makes her happy. It’s as simple as that.

I put those two lines in my first outline — which is always very detailed and specific — and they stayed all the way through [revisions and edits]. Jay and Issa are such incredible actors that they understood what those meant, not just in the context of the scene but in the context of the series. These words have to address everything they’ve been through from the beginning and then come back to the present, you know? And they made those two lines mean everything they needed to mean in that moment.

How did you feel when you first heard them on set?


I cried! The first take was really powerful. It was a very cathartic moment as the writer to hear it performed so beautifully.

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We tried different deliveries and played with, more than anything, their proximity to each other. Ava Berkofsky — our director, who has been a cinematographer for “Insecure” from Season 1, so she’s watched this journey between Issa and Lawrence with front-row seats — beautifully orchestrated this apartment scene and how they’re always physically apart from each other: When they walk in, she goes to the bar, he sits on the couch, and the tension between them is heightened by virtue of the blocking. But in that moment, she’s literally stepping toward him; she’s making her way back to him by taking these incremental steps. She just says the words and allows her eyes and her heart to really carry the message across that distance to him.

The sex scene that follows is one viewers haven’t seen throughout the four seasons of “Insecure.”


Exactly. We’ve seen them have sex that’s relatively quick and riddled with subtext, like when Lawrence comes over after Issa cheats and they have sex on the couch and she doesn’t even come. Approaching this scene, we wanted something tender and slow. We have moments with Issa smiling and Lawrence smiling as they’re having sex — that is deliberate, thoughtful love-making, where they really see each other, accept each other and express how the other makes them happy. We don’t get to see people of color make love that way often on screen, and it was very true to them in that moment.

Jay Ellis in "Insecure."
(Merle W. Wallace/HBO)

Why end this episode with Issa’s walk?


We wanted her to walk out of there by herself, intentionally self-possessed. This is not a walk of shame; the morning after, there’s no shame at all. They both were grateful for the night and how they spent it. It’s that energy that carries Issa out on that prideful walk through South L.A. They live walking distance from each other, but it’s just very hilly in that part of L.A. So in lieu of taking a Lyft for two minutes, it’s a metaphor for her standing on her own feet, shoulders back, confident and joyous and proud of the decisions that she’s made. To have South L.A. be the backdrop of that is indicative of our character Issa’s love of where she’s from, and Issa Rae’s love of where she’s from.

Does this episode mean #TeamLawrence will ultimately win?


That’s above my pay grade, but my hope is that this episode will at least allow audiences to consider him a contender. And, much like real life, when it’s just you and your partner, it’s great; when you introduce your job and your friends and the rest of the world, who knows what’s gonna happen outside this capsule-episode bubble? It’s gonna be interesting to see if this affects who audiences are rooting for her to end up with.

We wanted the end of the episode to feel like the beginning of a conversation and show the potential that they’ve created after this night. As writers, we’d be doing a disservice to put a period on the end of that sentence rather than an ellipsis. The next morning, there’s no DTR — defining the relationship — but just an appreciation for this honest and happy moment they’ve had.

This joyous episode happens to be airing amid another horrible moment of the dehumanization of black people. What do hope black viewers specifically get from watching this at this time?


I mean, it’s been a week. It’s tiring and exhausting and, at once, predictable and also unbelievable. But this episode is a reminder of what the struggle is for. To have an opportunity to portray people of color in this kind of beauty is really a privilege right now, because it’s an image of black love, and how we can be good to each other. Our show speaks to our humanity in a way that images of the lynching of black people, let’s just call it what it is, do not. It’s an honor to be able to offer a nuanced view of who we are.

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There’s a lot happening right now that makes me feel less than human. And it’s hard. I mean, I’m searching for words, and I’m a writer! Because it’s just hard to even imagine that in the eyes of police officers and other individuals who aren’t in law enforcement, black lives just don’t have value. Our show is a love letter to black people. My hope is that it is for at least a half-hour — don’t ask if it’s going to be an hour because it’s not going to be an hour, it will never be an hour, it’s a half-hour comedy! — and for the people who have the privilege of tuning in, who still have breath in their bodies and the means to do so, they can have a reprieve from the hellscape that is going on right now.


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