Insecure’s “Hella Blows” Examines the Problem with Having Hella Expectations

I recently learned (in a grief counseling session, no less) about this boring concept in market research called expectation confirmation theory. It proposes that the interplay between a consumer’s assumptions about a potential purchase (their expectations) and their perception of its delivery (the confirmation of said expectations), leads to “post-purchase satisfaction.” That’s all a really long-winded, uninspiring way of saying: We’re happy when our expectations are met.

The notion is super basic and—like marketing in general—soulless enough that when you first talk about it, its relevance to Insecure seems… non-existent. But after spending time this week working through some of my own expectations, and after watching Issa, Molly and Lawrence do the same in “Hella Blows,” it’s clearer just how much that silly manipulative theory has always had to do with the HBO comedy.

At the very least, it’s embedded in the concept of the series’ title. Insecurity is a feeling based on our own expectations of where we are and should be, followed by some self-examination (a.k.a. “perception of delivery”) and a resulting dissatisfaction with how we delivered on said expectation. We’re confident when we meet whatever expectation is had of us, and insecure when we don’t. Simple enough.

But beyond the title, expectation confirmation theory is sunken into the sub and literal text of Insecure’s plot and characters. Whether it’s Molly’s parents not actually being the perfect couple and what she expects to get paid versus her white male counterparts. Or what Issa wants out of a relationship with anyone from Lawrence to Nico, and what she wants out of her job. Or even Lawrence’s expectation of what his business could have been and the kind of partner he wants to be versus the partner he really is.

It’s a fitting focal point, considering that one, it’s a part of the human experience; and two, it’s also the experience of many black professional and single twentysomethings. We are supposed to be here, but systemic racism. And we’re supposed to be there, but misogyny. Or we’re supposed to be this or have this or want this, but expectations meet reality. We live in a perpetual possibility gap, where much of what we’re told we’re due (or worse, see others have) isn’t actually delivered to us the same way or as quickly. So we’re stuck, struggling to access that “post-purchase satisfaction.”

Which brings us to “Hella Blows,” 30 minutes of watching everyone fall short of expectations. It’s so pervasive in the episode it’s almost hard to tick off all the ways it manifests. There’s Issa’s expectation of what it will take to fix her car, her expectation of her current ho-tation roster, her expectation of her (now not-so) future ho-tation roster, her expectation of what a blow job is going to entail. Then there’s Molly, whose entire arc is spent on what the hell you do when you’ve slept with your really close friend who also happens to be married. Lawrence, in a perfectly apt way, also manages to fall into the strangely relevant claws of this marketing theory— a little more literally—as he pitches the idea for an app before being told by a co-worker, Aparna, that it’s not as great as he thinks.

There’s arguably never been an episode of Insecure that so distinctly homed in on the gap between the characters’ expectations of what should happen and what actually does. But it works—and, to be frank, it was time. It was time to see the direct connection between Issa’s imagined mirror outcomes and the depressing reality of an uncontrollable ho-tation. A reality where even when we’ve stacked our deck and we’re ready to make all the right moves, even the hella hot Latino guy who is super into us won’t sleep with us.

It was time to see Molly—so bent on having control—realize that even when you expect to, you can’t always control things, including the rules of your relationship or your feelings for someone. It was time to see Lawrence’s expectations for his app come up againast his delivery, which leaves his bosses and now Lawrence himself unsatisfied. It was time because that’s one of the most relatable things about Insecure: Life in the series, as in the real world, can feel like one continuous blow job that you’re doing so well at and then it just… blinds you.

This review first appeared at Paste Magazine on August 28, 2017

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