‘Hacks’ Is Sooooo Back and Better Than Ever

Hacks returns for its third season this week, bringing back together our favorite toxic work wives Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) for another romp through the farcical worlds of Hollywood, standup comedy, and Las Vegas. We pick up a year after the events of last season, when Deborah’s confessional standup special became an overnight sensation and she subsequently fired Ava in order to push her to work on her own art instead of just writing for her. In other words, we ended with a creative breakup.

We pick up in season three with a fakeout, too. The premiere opens with a long tracking shot from behind as we follow a glitzy-glam woman from behind who we’re meant to believe is Deborah before it’s revealed she’s just a casino showgirl on her way to promote the unveiling of a Deborah-themed slot machine. Deborah has indeed grown too big for her Vegas stage. She’s busy riding the career high of her sensational special, performing in front of audiences who laugh before she even gets to the punchline. Hacks is one of my favorite works of art about making art, and right away in its season three premiere, it starts asking probing, illuminating, difficult-to-answer questions, such as: What if you make it to the supposed top of your field and still feel unsatisfied? Watching Deborah tell jokes in front of an audience that eats everything up almost too much, there’s a sense she’d almost feel more, that it would almost mean more to her if she were bombing.

I often worry about shows as well written and tightly executed as Hacks overstaying their welcome, but the third season as a whole proves Hacks has a lot more to give. That’s all I’ll say about the season holistically for now so as to avoid spoilers and also because I’ll be writing about the season weekly (which won’t take the shape of beat-by-beat recaps but rather deeper dives into standout moments, themes, and scenes). But just know: If you were among those who (myself included!) wondered if Hacks should come back for more, rest assured. It’s still very much giving.

Deborah and Ava on a couch together in Hacks

These first two episodes of season three really reinforce one of my favorite throughlines of the show: its positioning of creative partnership as every bit as meaningful and intimate as a romantic relationship. When I call Ava and Deborah toxic work wives, it’s only kind of a joke. They are the embodiment of a working relationship with bad boundaries, blurring lines between the professional and personal. But Hacks simultaneously zeroes in on these power imbalances and problems while complicating matters even further by showing there’s truth, depth, and maybe even a little good to be found in this kind of artistic marriage. Ava and Deborah push each other creatively. They’re unlikely collaborators, but when they hit their stride, their comedic chemistry in undeniable. It’s not that writing partners should aspire to their level of cruelty and codependency but rather that there’s a level of raw authenticity and sincerity to their relationship.

They are, for better or worse, the most important people in each other’s lives, especially because their other built-in relationships that are supposed to be meaningful (Deborah’s relationship with her daughter and her sister, Ava’s relationship with her mother) are so fucked up. Deborah and Ava have grappled with those other fractured relationships by obsessing over their work, their writing, and now those things are tied up in each other.

As such, the first two episodes unfold with the exact same beats as if two exes were reconnecting and then having emotional affairs with each other. In the premiere, Deborah and Ava end up in an elevator together, and it’s every bit as awkward as two ex-wives running into each other. Ava plays up her recent work in an attempt to prove to Deborah she’s doing great without her. She brags about getting back with her hot girlfriend Ruby who’s in a Marvel series now. Deborah doesn’t really take the bait. Ava accepts an invitation to a drink in Deborah’s hotel room, and at first it’s alright. They’re falling back into their groove.

And then they’re falling back into old habits. They’re reminded of the exact things that drove them apart in the first place. They do the thing divorced couples do: rehash old fights, slip into past versions of themselves, undoing any potential progress they’ve made. Ava informs Deborah she actually had to go to couples therapy with Ruby because of Deborah firing her and then never answering her texts. Ava tells Deborah she hurt her feelings by going No Contact, and you really feel her words…even if Deborah with her extreme intimacy issues cannot. Hacks is never cloying, but it often injects these more tender moments amid all its acidity.

They go their separate ways at episode’s end, but they find themselves still thinking about each other. Because yes, they hurt each other a lot in the past, but they learned a lot from each other, too, and those lessons end up having renewed resonance at episode’s end.

So, two exes reconnected and what happens next? A full-on, all new honeymoon phase. Episode two opens with a montage of Ava and Deborah obsessively texting each other jokes, punchups, observations, pithy remarks, updates, just about everything. Again, this sequence could easily be lifted and mapped onto a story about two exes thrown back into each other’s lives having a bit of an emotional affair. After all, Ava doesn’t tell Ruby who she’s talking to so much.

And Deborah is stepping out to talk to Ava in her own way, too. After first being asked to be a guest in the late night slot that she vied so hard to get earlier in the career before losing to a man, she finds herself suddenly tapped as fill-in host when the host gets sick. She’s thrown into an emergency writer’s room, but she ignores all their bad pitches as well as the mid pitches from her Ava replacements (played by Dylan Gelula and Jordan Gavaris, who frankly deserve more screentime than they get) to text and talk with Ava. The other writers are visibly annoyed about her choosing to creatively “cheat” on them with someone who isn’t even in the room. Just as Deborah is about to ask Ava to come by, Ava magically shows up, and the two get to work. It goes so well, Deborah asks Ava to come write for her again because the late night slot is opening up and she wants to fight for it. Ava has a hiatus from the show she’s working on coming up, so the timing is perfect.

Well, not quite so. Ava is supposed to spend that hiatus traveling abroad with Ruby, who will be shooting. In a classic sitcom-y snafu throughout the episode, Ava erroneously thinks Ruby is going to propose and spends the whole episode anticipating it. When Ruby at first balks at Ava saying she doesn’t want to come with her anymore, Ava tries to propose. The ring she found earlier in the episode though isn’t an engagement ring at all but rather a prop for the superhero series. It’s how Ruby’s character Wolfgirl gets her powers.

Ava and Ruby in Hacks season three

The failed proposal gag is funny, but then it’s deepened into something real when Ava reveals she’s going back to work with Deborah. Ava is shocked. The woman they were in couples therapy about? It’s a betrayal. Plus, she points out Ava and Deborah’s dynamic was toxic, borderline abusive. She slapped her. She was going to sue her. Deborah wasn’t just a difficult boss, and their working relationship wasn’t just tense. It was destructive. And while Ava is far from a perfect person — or even a good person most of the time — Ruby isn’t wrong about her characterization of their dynamic as being particularly harmful for Ava, with Deborah in a clear position of power over her. And now she’s sliding right back into that.

It speaks to the quality of writing on Hacks that I simultaneously agree with every single thing Ruby says and also root for Ava to go back to Deborah. It’s easy to be charmed by Ava and Deborah at their best, and throughout the episode they’re clicking in the exact way their creative partnership thrives on. Artistic collaboration often entails deep intimacy. Deborah and Ava are two people who don’t know how to go halfspeed on anything, so they dive right back into each other and start neglecting the other people in their lives. Ruby asks Ava for space, Ava’s reconnection with Deborah basically ending her relationship. She chooses Deborah, as she too often does.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 844 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. I adore this show and am continually amazed by how much the excellent writing and performances make me want what I shouldn’t want (like Ava going back to Deborah!). The entire cast of characters is just so good. I also love that it feels like each season leans more into its queerness (Ava’s in particular, but in myriad ways). Looking forward to reading along with your write-ups, Kayla!

  2. I knew I’d like this show and finally caught up before the premiere. The writing and acting on display are absolutely top notch! Could not agree with you more that Ava and Deborah are being presented as exes reconnecting

  3. Oh i am so ready! I was worried when I heard it was coming back because the ending of s2 was so perfect, but this is fantastic. Very excited for your further deep dives!

  4. This has by FAR been my favourite show of the pandemic era, and I am SO GLAD it’s back!

    Absolutely agree that presenting them as exes was intentional, and it works perfectly because that’s what they basically are? I feel a little bad for Ruby, but girl is hot, and on a Marvel show. She’ll be fine.

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