For much of Hacks season one, we’ve watched Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder) fight her way out of limbo (and, depending on how you feel about the Las Vegas heat, hell). A joke about the hypocrisy of a closeted senator sending his gay son to conversion therapy made Ava persona non grata in Los Angeles, though her reputation as a comedy writer was hardly sterling before that Twitter debacle. When her agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) gets her a gig writing for one of his other clients, stand-up legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, who just owns the small screen these days), she reluctantly accepts the offer. Then she promptly botches her first meeting with Deborah, though that’s not entirely her fault. Deborah is every bit as prickly as Ava—she resents the idea that she has to revitalize her act, an act that’s gotten her through more than 2,400 shows at the Palmetto casino.
Even once they agree to work with each other, Deborah and Ava struggle to find common ground. Deborah’s a Boomer who’s fought and scraped for every measure of success she has, while Ava is already a (town)homeowner in Los Angeles at the age of 25. They’re both quick to dismiss each other over generational differences, but from the beginning, there’s a glimmer of shared recognition of each other’s talent. They see, almost grudgingly, how they can help one another—which is also how they help themselves.
Series creators and writers Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Paul W. Downs derive suspense from one of TV’s more unconventional will-they/won’t-they pairings. The weekly release schedule has also lent itself well to Deborah and Ava’s unpredictable partnership, with viewers wondering from week to week—even episode to episode—if they’ll start taking digs at each other again, or if the latest truce will stick. Thanks to some top-tier work from Smart and Einbinder, there’s been as great a thrill in watching Deborah and Ava let down their guards around each other as in any mystery show. But over the last eight episodes, a genuine affection has grown between the two women, a feeling they’ve both had trouble identifying. We’re rooting for them as individuals and as a team. Now that Deborah has finally embraced taking her comedy in a new direction, one that will leave her more vulnerable than she’s ever been, we can really see what she’s capable of on stage.
As her 2,500th show—and the curtain call on her record-breaking Palmetto residency—looms, it also becomes clear what she stands to lose. No matter how close they’ve gotten, Deborah believes she’s the only one out on a limb. In episode eight, “1.69 Million,” Marty revealed (post-coital) that he was buying out her contract, blackmail be damned. She snapped right into action with Ava, working on a new, far more confessional act. She hasn’t quite shaken her misgivings about change, but what Deborah doesn’t acknowledge is something the audience can plainly see: She thrives in that place, that moment of “do I dare disturb the universe?” She’s been shaking things up for much of her career; it’s only in recent years that she’s gotten comfortable, dare I say, complacent.
But, to show Deborah the same empathy the series demonstrates, I’ll acknowledge that is a gamble to wrap a historic run with an entirely new set in the hopes that Steve Wynn or some other Vegas impresario will want to scoop her up. Which is why my heart sank a bit when, in the opening moments of penultimate episode “Interview,” Ava got an alert for her flight to Los Angeles. She’s young, talented, and ambitious, and should absolutely be thinking about her career. And yet, Deborah would probably burn her to the ground if she bailed right now.
Here’s one of the many, many times we can credit the work of the Hacks writers, including Samantha Riley, Ariel Karlin, and Jen Statsky, who penned the final two episodes. Their warts-and-all approach to these dynamic and difficult women has exposed as many strengths as flaws. The conflict I’m feeling over wanting good things for both Ava and Deborah, even knowing they might not be the same good things for both, is all by design. I am so invested in this relationship that waiting to learn whether Deborah finds out about Ava’s interview with the creators of The Bitter End had me on the edge of my seat. You know you’ve created a great character study when there’s so much anticipation about personal decisions that wouldn’t seem to carry the weight of the world in any other context.
The final two episodes, “Interview” and “I Think She Will,” follow the trajectory of the rest of the season: up and down, then further down, then a little bit up, and… you get the point. Deborah feels confident, and even urges Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) to enjoy some free time. Marcus has hitched his wagon to Deborah’s star, though, so he can’t really relax while she’s working, especially since she’s doing the opposite of what he’d like. He’s given up so much, dedicated himself so thoroughly to Deborah, that you can’t blame Marcus for wanting more. The problem is that they all have vastly different ideas of what “more” is. Again, you don’t have to like everyone on Hacks (you probably won’t), but you are invested in what happens to these characters.
Much of the tension of this final combined hour of the season comes from recognizing that some things aren’t meant to last—not marriages, creative partnerships, relationships with hot girlfriends (Lorenza Izzo as Ruby), and certainly not careers in comedy. (Though, thankfully, we know the show will continue for at least one more season. Ava and Deborah’s relationship has always been somewhat tenuous (okay, in the beginning, it was very tenuous.) Ava’s never seen Vegas or stand-up comedy as anything but a detour. So naturally, she jumps at the chance to meet with the very British creators (played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Chris Geere) of some brilliant show.
This opportunity isn’t what it appears to be, as Ava quickly learns. The very British duo seem charmed by Ava, but they’re more interested in her time with Deborah than her own talents. Their new show is about a tyrannical female prime minister, whom they want to model after Deborah Vance. They don’t view the premise as misogynistic, either: “We believe that true feminism is being able to say that some women are cunt-y monsters.” A disillusioned Ava responds, “It’s a show about a shitty woman?,” because recognizing that women can be shitty isn’t nearly as revolutionary as Very British Duo seem to think. This exchange is filled with exquisite discomfort and disgust, but Ava’s question is one people have probably wondered about Hacks (and even recent movies like Cruella). The show quickly answered that question, showing itself to be part generation-clash comedy, part meditation on the nature of fame and artistry. Hacks has delved deep into the creative process, ruefully observing that the industry allows for hacks to make it while shutting out new voices. Like Deborah and Ava, the show refused to simply accept that. It challenged itself to envision a way for these two women to create, to innovate, even in that toxic environment.
For a moment, we think Ava’s blown her chance—with Deborah, that is. She turns down Very British Duo, and promptly falls on her face, possibly earning a little karmic retribution for skipping out in the first place (or not, because again, she wants to be a TV writer). Deborah finds out about the meeting, thanks to Marcus, and she reliably lashes out at her mentee, who’s just learned her father’s had another stroke. Their growing intimacy is a double-edged sword: Deborah knows how much it will hurt Ava to know she’s abandoning their new work. Deborah’s never been afraid to be cruel, but this is another one of the rare occasions in which she’s acting out of fear. She punishes Ava so viciously because she still thinks she’s the only one risking anything, and she’s terrified. Turns out, they’ve both been in limbo, though Deborah’s exile is arguably more self-imposed. There’s no shame in a Vegas residency, but someone like Deborah, who still has so much inspiration in her, is hiding out. (Feel free to tell me I’m wrong in the comments, though!)
The Hacks finale, “I Think She Will,” is an emotional rollercoaster which doesn’t let up even in the final moments. As Deborah and Ava reconcile and prepare to head back out on the road to hone the new act, I can’t help but wonder what Marcus, the new CEO, thinks about the change in gear. He effectively chose Deborah over Wilson (Johnny Sibilly), their work over his relationship. The questions of how he’ll respond and whether Deborah and Ava can continue to make it work are enough to chew on, but Hacks then drops another bombshell. It turns out, in typical Ava fashion, she emailed Very British Duo after Deborah smacked her. Whatever she sent was compromising, judging by Jimmy’s frantic call. I literally went “GULP” as Ava hung up the phone and took her seat next to her boss and mentor. Season two can’t come soon enough.
And now, just a few words on this surprisingly suspenseful season. Fraught and funny, Hacks is the kind of show that understands how rich women’s lives are at any age. Deborah Vance is the role of a lifetime, and yet Jean Smart makes this feel like it’s just the beginning. It can’t be easy to square off against such a consummate pro, but Hannah Einbinder holds her own. Hacks tests Deborah and Ava’s ability to “hack it”—to endure, to roll with the punches—in a culture where few people, let alone women, thrive. But instead of merely being an exploration of survival, the show helps them find a way to rise above.
- I could just list a bunch of jokes here, but this is already kind of long. Thanks for your patience! We’ll have a post-mortem interview with the creators on the site overnight.