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 plotline starts out wickedly funny — and before you’ve even recovered from the belly laughs, you’re gut-punched by some devastating truths.
It’s a microcosm of the show itself. At its outset, ”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 cutting wit is a lead-in to incisive and moving revelations about the ways women in the public eye are often unfairly maligned and turned into punchlines.
That seamless blend of comedy and pathos especially crackles in two Season One episodes that deepen Deborah and Ava’s creative partnership, and the show as a whole. In “New Eyes,” Deborah, who is high after getting eye surgery, reveals that one of her signature jokes was actually based on a lie, because she realized making herself the butt of the joke was what audiences wanted from her. In “1.69 Million,” Deborah offers a sexist and boorish 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 encapsulation of what makes “Hacks” one of the best shows currently on TV. On its face, the episode’s premise is hilarious. Deborah, who has spent the season on tour after her Las Vegas residency ended, is out of her element. Her latest gig: performing at a state fair in the Midwest, where she is upstaged by a cow giving birth. That crushing disappointment, plus Deborah encountering an old acquaintance who retired from comedy and ended up with a simpler and more content life than hers, 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 bumped by a cow at a state fair,” Downs said, describing the process of brainstorming story ideas with the show’s writers and consultants at the start of the season. “We knew that was one really great indignity. Deborah Vance was having her dates cut in Season One. Season Two, she’s starting from scratch. So if she thought that was a low, she’s really hit rock bottom.”
The other main topic they wanted to explore was how, “in doing creative work, it’s interesting when you encounter someone who hasn’t continued to do it” ― particularly for Deborah’s generation of comedians, “when there was really only one spot for one woman,” Downs said.
Enter Susan (Harriet Sansom Harris), who came up in comedy at the same time as Deborah. But she quit after a big competition, where Deborah advanced to the final round and she didn’t. 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.
The usually unbothered Deborah seems shaken by the interaction. She tells Ava she always feels a sense of guilt “when I run into one of the ones who didn’t make it.” Then, she reveals she may have been responsible for Susan’s retirement: At that competition, Deborah erased Susan’s name from the list of finalists so Deborah would be the one 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, Lucille Bluth-style: “No, no, no. I’ll treat her and her family to a day she’ll never forget. I mean, how much could that cost? Forty-seven bucks?” But instead of just letting Susan and her grandsons have a nice time, Deborah gets overly competitive at a squirt gun game and gloats when she wins.
Later, over funnel cake, Susan tells Deborah that her decision to quit comedy wasn’t about that one competition. 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 a really interesting thing to explore, both from Deborah’s point of view — someone who was a shark and so devoted to her craft — but also from the perspective of someone who said, ‘I just didn’t want to do it. Maybe I couldn’t have,’” Downs said. “It’s also that thing of, what is behind the choices one makes in one’s life? What does it take to ‘make it,’ and does that mean you are doing good — or does that mean you’re mentally unwell? What are the sacrifices we all make, in any career?”
According to Aniello, in building the dynamic between Deborah and Susan, the show’s writers were thinking about people in their own lives who quit comedy for various reasons, “and wondering who made the right choices, and [who] made the wrong choices.”
“It does beg the question of, ‘Am I happy with how things turned out for me?’ I don’t think for everybody, having success, or professional success or commercial success or whatever, necessarily equates to ‘Oh, I’m happy now,’” Aniello said. “It is something that every person in the writer’s room was like, ‘Oh yes, this is something I have experienced: the people who don’t do comedy anymore. Here’s how I feel about it.’ Everybody had a perspective.”
When Deborah asks Susan if she ever misses comedy, Susan says she occasionally thinks about it ― like when one of their peers has a guest spot as the patient of the week on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“I think, ‘Well, I could have been funnier than that,’” Susan says. (In response, Deborah notes that the famously wrenching medical drama isn’t known for its comedy. But Susan points out: “Sometimes they use the guest actors for levity.”)
“I think it’s so relatable that every once in a while, she’ll be like, ‘What would my life have been like in some alternative timeline?’” Downs said. “Same with Deborah, who’s like, ‘Wow, would I have had a normal relationship with my daughter, and have two grandchildren? But instead I have my career’ — which she cares a lot about, and says later, ‘I like the work.’”
Devotion to one’s work is a major theme of the episode. Trying to kill time before Deborah’s set, Ava and Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s indefatigable, workaholic CEO, get their caricatures drawn. In search of some inspiration, the caricature artist asks them what their hobbies are. Both of them struggle to come up with an answer that does not involve their jobs. For better or worse, Deborah, Ava, Marcus and everyone who works for Deborah can’t untether their identities from their work. It’s who they are.
It all comes together beautifully in the episode’s last scene, when Deborah and Ava are unwinding at their hotel’s pool. Ava tries to reassure Deborah that being upstaged by a cow giving birth “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 should have just quit while she was ahead. Ava tells her that’s preposterous: Deborah will never stop working.
“I’m the same way. I can’t turn it off either,” Ava says. “And nothing matters more, even if it should.”
Case in point: They can’t stop racking their brains for a better punchline to a joke about Deborah’s business manager embezzling 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 figure out the perfect punchline.
Ava’s remark is “something that, to me, is really personal, and that I relate to a lot, and I’m sure people will relate to, whether they’re in comedy or any other creative industry,” Downs said. “In having that moment, they do have a breakthrough. For them, that’s a really powerful thing. So I hope people relate to that, because it certainly speaks to me.”
In the episode’s final moments, Ava has her own breakthrough. When Deborah goes to write down the punchline so they don’t forget it, she lets go of Ava — who discovers she’s successfully floating. It’s funny and very typical of Deborah to just leave Ava hanging. (In Season One, she abandons Ava when their car breaks down in the desert.) But it’s also a deeply moving end to the episode, which Statsky hopes is “a metaphor for what the show is.”
“Their relationship is that Deborah is teaching Ava how to exist on her own, and Deborah’s not there to help her when she’s sinking,” she said. “Then, she’s going to have to make sure she can float.”
Season Two of “Hacks” is now streaming on HBO Max, with two new episodes airing every Thursday.