This story contains spoilers for season two, episode five of HBO Max’s “Hacks.”
One of the best things about “Hacks” is when a scene or plot begins wickedly funny – and before you’ve even recovered from the belly laughs, you’re hit with some devastating truths.
It’s a microcosm of the show itself. Debuting, “Hacks” is a dark comedy about the unequal partnership between legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her writing assistant Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder). The show’s sharp wit is an introduction to incisive and moving revelations about how women in the public eye are often unjustly slandered and turned into punchlines.
This seamless blend of comedy and pathos particularly crackles in two Season 1 episodes that delve deeper into Deborah and Ava’s creative partnership, and the show as a whole. In “New Eyes”, Deborah, who is stoned after having eye surgery, reveals that one of her signature jokes was actually based on a lie, as she realized making herself the butt of the joke was what that the public wanted from her. In “1.69 Million”, Deborah offers a sexist and rude male comedy club host $1.69 million to never set foot on stage again.
The fifth episode of the second season of the show, “Retired,” is another encapsulation of what makes “Hacks” one of the best shows currently on television. At first glance, the premise of the episode is hilarious. Deborah, who spent the season touring after her Las Vegas residency ended, is out of her element. Her final gig: performing at a state fair in the Midwest, where she is overshadowed by a calving cow. This crushing disappointment, plus Deborah meeting an old acquaintance who retired from acting and found herself with a simpler, happier life than her own, leads to several profound moments.
In an interview, “Hacks” creators and showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs and Jen Statsky explained what inspired the episode, which premiered Thursday on HBO Max.
“We talked about being hit by a cow at a state fair,” Downs said, describing the process of brainstorming story ideas with the show’s writers and consultants early on. of the season. “We knew it was a very big indignity. Deborah Vance had her dates cut in the first season. Season 2, it starts from scratch. So if she thought that was a low, she really hit rock bottom.
The other main topic they wanted to explore was how, “in doing creative work, it’s interesting when you meet someone who hasn’t continued doing it” ― especially for the generation of comedians of Deborah, “when there was really only one place for a woman,” Downs said.
Enter Susan (Harriet Sansom Harris), who appeared in the comedy at the same time as Deborah. But she gave up after a big competition, where Deborah qualified for the final round and she didn’t make it. At the start of Thursday’s episode, Deborah meets Susan at Lord & Taylor, where she now works in the shoe department, and invites her and her grandchildren to the state fair.
Deborah, usually carefree, seems shaken by the interaction. She tells Ava that she always feels a sense of guilt “when I meet one of those who didn’t survive”. Afterwards, she reveals that she may have been responsible for Susan’s retirement: during this competition, Deborah erased Susan’s name from the list of finalists so that Deborah would be the only woman chosen to advance.
At the state fair, Deborah compartmentalizes her guilt, in typical Deborah fashion. When Ava suggests Deborah apologize to Susan, she says, like Lucille Bluth, “No, no, no. I will give her and her family a day she will never forget. I mean, how much could it cost? Forty-seven dollars? But instead of just letting Susan and her grandsons have a good time, Deborah gets too competitive at a water gun game and gloats when she wins.
Later, over a funnel cake, Susan tells Deborah that her decision to quit acting wasn’t about that competition alone. It’s because she realized she didn’t want Deborah’s life and didn’t think she had the stamina.
“We thought that was a really interesting thing to explore, both from Deborah’s perspective – someone who was a shark and so dedicated to her craft – but also from the perspective of someone who said, ‘I just didn’t want to do this. Maybe I couldn’t have,” Downs said. “It’s also this thing of, what’s behind the choices you make in your life? What does it take to “succeed,” and does that mean you’re doing good — or does that mean you’re mentally ill? What sacrifices do we all make, in any career?
According to Aniello, in building the dynamic between Deborah and Susan, the show’s writers thought about the people in their own lives who were giving up acting for various reasons, “and wondering who made the right choices, and [who] makes the wrong choices. »
“It begs the question, ‘Am I happy with how things have turned out for me?’ I don’t think for everyone to be successful, or professional success or business success or whatever, necessarily equates to, ‘Oh, I’m happy now,’ Aniello said. that every person in the writer’s room was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s something I’ve been through: people who don’t do comedy anymore. Here is how I feel about it. Everyone had a point of view. »
When Deborah asks Susan if she misses acting sometimes, Susan says she thinks about it sometimes, like when one of her peers gets a guest spot as Patient of the Week on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“I think, ‘Well, I could have been funnier than that,'” Susan said. (In response, Deborah notes that the famously heartbreaking medical drama isn’t known for its comedy. But Susan points out, “Sometimes they use guest actors for levity.”)
“I think it’s so relatable that every once in a while she’ll wonder, ‘What would my life have been like in an alternate timeline? ‘” Downs said. “Same with Deborah, who’s like, ‘Wow, would I have had a normal relationship with my daughter, and have two grandkids? But instead, I have my career’ — which she cares about a lot, and later said, “I like the job.
Devotion to his work is a major theme of the episode. Trying to kill time before Deborah’s shoot, Ava and Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s tireless CEO and workaholic, get their caricatures drawn. In search of inspiration, the cartoonist asks them what their hobbies are. Both struggle to come up with an answer that doesn’t involve their work. For better or for worse, Deborah, Ava, Marcus and everyone who works for Deborah cannot separate their identity from their work. It’s who they are.
Everything goes wonderfully in the last scene of the episode, when Deborah and Ava are relaxing at the swimming pool of their hotel. Ava tries to reassure Deborah that being upstaged by a calving cow “would have happened to anyone in your position.” Deborah devastatingly points out that “nobody at my level would be in that position” ― a legendary comedian having to start from scratch and perform at state fairs. She wonders if she shouldn’t have stopped when she was in front. Ava tells her that’s absurd: Deborah will never stop working.
“I am the same. I can’t turn it off either,” Ava says. “And nothing matters anymore, even if it should.”
Case in point: They keep racking their brains for a better conclusion to a joke about Deborah’s business manager stealing funds from her. Deborah suggests they take a break and clear their minds by teaching Ava how to float – and of course, that’s when they finally find the perfect punchline.
Ava’s remark is “something that for me is really personal, and one that I very much identify with, and I’m sure people will identify with, whether they’re in comedy or any other creative industry. “Downs said. “By having this moment, they have a breakthrough. For them, it’s a really powerful thing. So I hope people will understand that, because it certainly speaks to me.
In the final moments of the episode, Ava has her own breakthrough. When Deborah goes to write the punchline so they won’t forget, she lets go of Ava – who finds she’s successfully floating. It’s funny and very typical of Deborah to let Ava hang. (In the first season, she abandons Ava when their car breaks down in the desert.) But it’s also a deeply emotional ending for the episode, which Statsky hopes is “a metaphor for what the show is all about.”
“Their relationship is that Deborah is teaching Ava how to exist on her own, and Deborah isn’t there to help her when she’s sinking,” she said. “Then she’ll have to make sure she can float.”
The second season of “Hacks” is now streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes airing every Thursday.