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Bummer: ‘Insecure’s’ third season was about depression, but it didn’t let anyone know until the end

Issa and her friends are all silently battling the disease

The big reveal of Insecure’s third season turned out to be that everyone’s depressed.

Sunday night’s finale, in which Molly (Yvonne Orji), Nathan (Kendrick Sampson) and Issa (Issa Rae) all end up acknowledging how depression has been coloring their actions, was a frustrating revelation.

As a result, the finale ended up being most effective at revealing the shortcomings of the rest of the season, which didn’t feature much character development and, aside from a trip to Coachella, felt extremely confined. But there was little to signal to the audience that these choices were deliberate and part of a larger narrative until the season’s end.

The result was a loose collection of typical late-20s problems decoupled from the glue that connected them, depression. If it’s that important to the show, why not tease it out more, and earlier? Instead, Insecure appeared to have become a (still very watchable) show about nothing.

Molly questioned whether moving to a new law firm was a good idea and mourned the end of her relationship with Dro (Sarunas J. Jackson) by throwing herself into work and becoming increasingly pessimistic about humanity. Nathan dropped off the face of the earth for a month without answering Issa’s calls or texts and went back to Houston to deal with his issues. And Issa upended her life after exiting a long-term relationship. She quit her job and found a new one that provides housing. But she spent most of the season surrounded by moving boxes, battling self-doubt, driving for Lyft and obsessing about Nathan.

Even the show’s peripheral characters are affected. Kelli (Natasha Rothwell) is consumed with the idea of losing her best friend, Tiffany (Amanda Seales), the only one in their friend group who is married, pregnant and moving on to another stage of her life.

All of these situations are worthwhile and relatable. But to become more than just a collection of vignettes, they needed to be explored in greater depth.

The impact of depression on Insecure’s characters was so subtle that it became a surprise reveal in the season finale.

Depicting depression is challenging in a show with a format like Insecure’s. It still debuts new episodes weekly rather than releasing them all at once for bingeing. It’s also not focusing on a single theme for two hours, which is where a film like Manchester by the Sea drew its emotional power. The FX comedy You’re the Worst has the same format challenges as Insecure, but its third season was one of the best depictions of depression on television. Part of the reason that it worked so well is that it clearly identified what’s going on with Gretchen (Aya Cash) and also the ways that affects those close to her.

Conversely, the impact of depression on Insecure’s characters was so subtle that it became a surprise reveal in the season finale rather than an identifiable obstacle manifesting in different ways throughout the season. The audience was just as clueless about Nathan’s depression as Issa was. We don’t know what’s happened between Kelli and Tiffany or how it affected the group’s dynamic.

Issa turned 30 this year, which means she likely graduated from college in 2010, in the middle of a slow recovery from the country’s worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. Her relationship with Lawrence (Jay Ellis) provided a tiny but significant bit of economic security for both of them. The dissolution of their relationship yanked that security away, which became obvious when Issa was forced to sleep on Daniel’s (Y’lan Noel) couch while trying to save money for a place of her own. Now, Issa’s a participant in the gig economy, piecing together a living from two jobs and trying to identify the thing that makes her feel fulfilled.

In a Facebook post on the third season, Vibe deputy editor William Ketchum III identified the weight of Issa having to deal with two men (Nathan and Lawrence) who had depression. It’s not just Nathan and Lawrence, though. Molly’s undiagnosed depression has the same impact on Andrew (Alexander Hodge). She’s a jerk to him because of her own stuff that she’s not addressing, even though she’s seeing a therapist.

Insecure and Atlanta are television’s two foremost shows about the lives of black millennials. Depression factored heavily in both of their most recent seasons, and arguably they’re reflections of something in the culture at large. When it comes to Insecure, the show can only be improved by connecting and examining what’s behind the depression in the first place.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.