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 storyline starts insanely funny – and before you even get over the stomach ache, you’re deeply moved by some devastating truths.
It’s a microcosm of the show itself. At first, “Hacks” is a dark comedy about the mismatched partnership between legendary comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her writing assistant Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder). The show’s sharp humor sparks poignant and moving revelations about how women in the public eye are often unjustly vilified and turned into punchlines.
That seamless blend of comedy and pathos crackles, especially in two seasons, one episode that deepens the creative collaboration between Deborah and Ava and the shows,” Deborah, who is high after eye surgery, reveals that one of her signature jokes was based on a lie because she realized the audience wanted her to be the butt of the joke. In “1.69 Million”, Deborah offers a sexist and crass male comedy club host $1.69 million never to set foot on stage again.
The fifth episode of the show’s second season, “Retired,” is another roundup of what makes “Hacks” one of the best shows on TV. At first glance, the episode’s premise is hilarious. Deborah, who has spent the season on tour after her Las Vegas residency ended, is not in her element. Her final appearance: performing at a state fair in the Midwest, where a cow ambushes her in labor. That crushing disappointment, plus Deborah running into an old acquaintance who quit comedy and ended up living a simpler and more contented life than hers, leads to several profound moments.
In an interview, “Hacks” creators and showrunners Lucia Aniello, Paul Downs, and Jen Statsky explained the inspiration for the episode, which premiered Thursday on HBO Max.
“We were talking about getting hit by a cow at a fair,” said Downs, who described the brainstorming process with the show’s writers and consultants at the start of the season. “We knew that was a really big humiliation. Deborah Vance cut her dates in season one. In season two, she’s starting all over again. So if she thought that was rock bottom, she hit rock bottom.”
“Hacks” co-creators and showrunners Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Paul Downs.
The other main topic they wanted to explore was how “when doing creative work, it’s interesting when you meet someone who hasn’t continued to do it” — especially for Deborah’s generation of comedians, “when there was only one place for one woman. Downs said.
Enter Susan (Harriet Sansom Harris), who appeared in the comedy simultaneously as Deborah. At the start of Thursday’s episode, Deborah runs into Susan at Lord & Taylor, where she now works in the shoe department, and invites her and her grandchildren to the state fair. But she quit after a big game where Deborah advanced to the final round, and she didn’t.
The usually undisturbed Deborah seems shocked by the interaction. She tells Ava she always feels guilty “when I run into one of those who didn’t make it.” Then she reveals that she may have been responsible for Susan’s retirement: In that contest, Deborah cleared Susan’s name from the list of finalists so that Deborah would be the only woman picked to continue.
Deborah shares her guilt at the state fair in typical Deborah fashion. When Ava suggests that Deborah apologize to Susan, she says Lucille Bluth-style, “No, no, no. I treat her and her family to a day she will never forget. I mean, how much could that cost? Forty-seven dollars?” But instead of letting Susan and her grandsons have a good time, Deborah becomes overly competitive at a water gun game and beams when she wins.
Later, over a cake, Susan tells Deborah that her decision to quit comedy wasn’t about that one match. It was because she realized she didn’t want Deborah’s life and didn’t think she had the stamina for it.
“We thought that was interesting to explore, both from Deborah’s point of view — someone who was a shark and so committed to her craft — but also from the perspective of someone who said, ‘I didn’t want it. Maybe I had that.’ can’t do it,'” said Downs. “It’s also that thing of, what’s behind the choices you make in your life? What does it take to “make it,” and does that mean you’re doing it right, or is it not good mentally? What are the sacrifices we all make in any career?”
Deborah runs into Susan (Harriet Sansom Harris) in ‘Retired’.
According to Aniello, when building the dynamic between Deborah and Susan, the show’s writers thought about people in their own lives who dropped out of comedy for various reasons “and wondered who was making the right choices, and [who] made wrong choices.”
“It does beg the question, ‘Am I happy with how things have turned out for me?’ I don’t think having success for everyone, professional success or commercial success or whatever is necessarily like, ‘Oh, I’m happy now,'” Aniello said. “Everyone in the writer’s room thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is something I’ve been through the people who don’t do comedy anymore. Everyone had a perspective.” this is how I feel about it.”
When Deborah asks Susan if she ever misses comedy, Susan says she thinks about it now and then — like when one of their peers has a guest spot as the patient of the week in “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“I think, ‘Well, I could have been funnier than that,'” Susan says. (In response, Deborah notes that the famed medical drama isn’t known for its comedy. But Susan points out, “Sometimes they use the guest stars for levity.”
“I think it’s so relatable that she occasionally thinks, ‘What would my life have been like in an alternate timeline?'” Downs said. “The same goes for Deborah, who says, ‘Wow, would I have had a normal relationship with my daughter and have two grandchildren?’ But instead, I have my career – which she cares deeply about, and later says, ‘I love the job.'”
Dedication to one’s work is a major theme of the episode. Ava and Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s tireless, workaholic CEO, try to pass the time before Deborah’s set begins and have their caricatures drawn. Looking for inspiration, the caricature artist asks what their hobbies are. Both struggle to come up with an answer that doesn’t concern their work. For better or worse, Deborah, Ava, Marcus, and everyone who works for Deborah cannot separate their identities from their work. It’s who they are.
Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) get their caricatures drawn in ‘Retired’.
It all comes together beautifully in the episode’s final scene when Deborah and Ava relax by their hotel pool. Ava tries to reassure Deborah that what happened to a cow in labor would have occurred to anyone in her position. Deborah scathingly points out that “no one of my levels would be in that position” – a legendary comedian who has to start from scratch and perform at state fairs. She wonders if she shouldn’t have stopped while leading the way. Ava tells her that’s ridiculous: Deborah will never stop working.
“I am the same way. I can’t turn it off either,” Ava says. “And nothing is more important, even if it should be.”
Example: They can’t stop racking their brains for a better punch line of a joke about Deborah’s manager obscuring her. Deborah suggests taking a break and clearing their heads by teaching Ava to levitate — which is when they finally come up with the perfect punch line.
Ava’s comment is “something that, to me, is very personal, and that I have a lot to do with, and I’m sure people will do something with it, whether they’re in a comedy or any other creative industry,” said Downs. “By having that moment, they have a breakthrough. For them, that is a very powerful thing. So I hope that will help people because it defeats me.”
Deborah teaches Ava to float.
In the final moments of the episode, Ava has her breakthrough. When Deborah goes to write down the punch line, so they don’t forget, she lets go of Ava, who discovers that she floats successfully. (In season one, she abandons Ava when their car breaks down in the desert.) It’s funny and very typical of Deborah to leave Ava hanging. But it’s also a touching ending to the episode, which Statsky hopes is “a metaphor for what the show is.”
“Their relationship is that Deborah teaches Ava how to exist on her own, and Deborah isn’t there to help her if she sinks,” she said. “Then she has to make sure she can float.”
Season two of “Hacks” is streaming now on HBO Max, with two new episodes every Thursday.