In a Delicious ‘Hacks’ Season Three Finale Twist, Ava Tops Deborah

Welcome to my weekly coverage of Hacks, where I break down my favorite moments from the week’s episodes. Today, we’re chatting about the Hacks season three finale, “Bulletproof”, which was written by the iconic trio of Lucia Aniello, Jen Statsky, and Paul W. Downs.


How dare season three of Hacks be this good?

To have this strong of a third season after two also very strong seasons?! With such a simple premise that basically boils down to a dysfunctional duo of unlikeable characters clawing their way through the comedy industry?! How dare Hacks be this good! This consistently funny! And this earning of its title by being, well, anything but hack.

For the season three finale, we pick up where last week’s episodes ended, most importantly with the fresh news that Deborah got late night, the goal she has been working toward her entire career. She tells Marty first, a detail I love, because I’ve always been charmed by their whole dynamic — not a healthy one by any means, but not toxic either. There’s real love and intimacy there.

Next, Deborah calls Kathy, newly reintroduced to her life and someone who, like Marty, knows well how much this means to Deborah. But Deborah’s calling specifically to cancel their sisters weekend, reducing it to just a day trip. Kathy is visibly disappointed. Later, she’s upset when Deborah takes a work call when they’re at the mausoleum visiting their parents. Her anger grows when Deborah reveals their parents aren’t even here; they’re in Vegas, in the same plot Deborah has selected for herself. Kathy blows up, saying she did one bad thing a long time ago but that Deborah is a monster who does bad things over and over and over.

“You of all people should know how important this show is to me,” Deborah says. And Kathy is happy for her, she really is. But late night doesn’t make anything easier between them. It doesn’t erase the last many, many years of Deborah punishing her and freezing her out. Earlier in the episode, when Deborah revisits the old clip of test-hosting late night early in her career, her past self is grateful for sharing this opportunity with her family. It’s a striking contrast to the Deborah of now, who has tenuous connections at best with any of her family members.

“I don’t think I want this in my life. I can’t do it,” Kathy confesses. I’m glad Hacks is choosing the more realistic course here by not letting the sisters reconcile quickly or even at all really. There’s too much bad history there, and even if both of them try a bit, it’s not even close to enough.

Rather than seek answers and spiritual counseling from a therapist or a confidante, Deborah decides to go to the man who fucked her over all those years before by canceling her late night gig, a man named Biff Cliff. She wants to know why it happened, and he puts it in plain words: The network didn’t want to take on the bad press associated with her burning down her ex-husband’s house and flying off the handle after finding out about him and Kathy. It’s about luck, Biff Cliff explains. Not just talent or hard work. It’s about luck. It’s also about systemic barriers, which Biff Cliff as a crusty old white guy of course doesn’t put into words, but as Deborah points out, the network was perfectly content to keep supporting the careers of bad men despite bad press.

Deborah wants to be told that she wasn’t good enough for late night the first time around, because in a lot of ways that’s easier to swallow than the truth: that she was good enough but it still didn’t happen. Hollywood is a fucking mess. Biff Cliff is right; there are an absurd amount of obstacles to getting a show on the air and keeping it there. I’ve seen friends make it to so many different parts of the process only to be burned and end up back at square one. It’s hell. Even for people at the top like Deborah.

Before we return to Deborah and Ava’s final act of season three, let’s quickly recap what’s going on with the other characters on the show. Hoping to make up for her double booking snafu, Kayla lands a meeting between her, Jimmy, and an on-the-rise starlet named Bella (played by Kathryn Newton). But it quickly becomes clear Bella was Kayla’s childhood bully, so Jimmy shuts things down. He also finally concedes Kayla is maybe the worst assistant in the history of assistants but that she does have good qualities for an agent, so he proposes to her that they be actual business partners (and makes a bunch of people on a plane think he’s actually proposing to her). Marcus, meanwhile, is prepping to leave his post at House of Vance, which promptly sends Damien into an anxiety spiral because he doesn’t want to be the new Marcus. Deborah, however, remains in the dark about Marcus leaving even by episode’s end.

So, back to Deborah and Ava. Ava quits her other writing job to stay on with Deborah, revealing early in the finale that every time she tried to work on her own projects it didn’t go anywhere but every time she worked on material for Deborah’s hosting gig, things clicked. She wants to stay on. And Deborah wants to keep her on…but not as the head writer. At first she tells Ava this is the network’s decision. But when Ava runs into Winnie, she finds out the network actually gave Deborah full hiring power, prompting a fight scene even better than the kitchen island fight scene from earlier this season.

Ava’s appalled. Not only did Deborah lie to her, but she also made a completely unfair decision behind her back. Ava knows she’s the best person for the job. And even if she wasn’t — BUT SHE IS — then Deborah should have chosen her because of their relationship. The comedy they make together is good because of their relationship. I think back to what I wrote about the first couple episodes of the season, how the creative partnership between Deborah and Ava really is the same in so many ways as an actual marriage. Here, we see that play out again.

The meeting with Biff Cliff didn’t free Deborah; it made her scared again. She tells Ava she doesn’t think the network will like her taking any risks. She’s keeping the old head writer on in order not to rock the boat. But as Ava points out, that just means the same shitty show will keep getting made, and Deborah won’t actually change anything. There’s probably some truth to the fact that if season one of the show doesn’t go well then the first person cut will be the head writer, but that is a risk Deborah and Ava should both be willing to take. Ava is! Because she knows she and Deborah will make something good.

Like Kathy, Ava accuses Deborah of being selfish. “Yes I am. You have to be selfish,” Deborah says.

“Well I don’t want to be,” Deborah replies. “I don’t want to be a shark or whatever the fuck. I wanted to do it with you.”

Ava’s anger mixes with sadness. Through tears, she says she’s not asking for the industry or the world to be fair, just for Deborah to treat her fairly. She asks her if she’s willing to lose her, and Deborah says she is. It all plays out like one of the greatest breakup scenes. Hannah Einbinder is so good here, Ava’s pain palpable. Having been through creative breakups, I know they can sometimes be even more devastating than romantic ones, as there often isn’t accessible language to talk about them. There isn’t couples therapy for creative partners. But that’s exactly what people like Deborah and Ava need. Because at the end of the day, Deborah is so wrong here. She can’t be her best without Ava. And she shouldn’t play it safe; she should play her best game. She should also, you know, be kinder to Ava. But even that aside, she’s making a bad decision for her own work.

Ava tells Deborah she isn’t only lonely when opening a bottle of champagne, a pithy sentiment Deborah shared when they were lost in the woods. She’s lonely all the time, and she’s gonna die that way. Ava’s words cut especially deep given what we’ve seen earlier in the finale with Kathy deciding she doesn’t want Deborah in her life after all.

And then after their breakup, Ava shows up in the writers room. But it isn’t to take the consolation prize of a staff writing job. It’s to play her card for head writer. If Deborah isn’t going to give it to her, she’s going to take it. She leverages the fact that she knows Deborah slept with the chairman of the company right before landing the gig, blackmails Deborah with this information which would surely undermine the integrity of the show.

“You wouldn’t,” Deborah says.

“I would. Wouldn’t you?”

It’s a scintillating note to end on, Ava indeed taking a page out of Deborah’s book. This mentorship relationship between them has always been about more than comedy and has always been a two-way street, Deborah and Ava learning from each other beyond the page of their jokes. This is exactly what Deborah would do if the roles were reversed, and they both know it. They take their seats at opposite heads of the table, and it’s as thrilling as a match point in tennis. Ava might not literally be topping Deborah, but metaphorically? Oh yes. And their dynamic has always been almost more erotic than sex itself.

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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 861 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. This season is devastatingly good – funny, smart, painful, incisive. I’ve loved reading your reflections on it too, Kayla!

    The confrontation scene between Deborah and Ava is so precisely calibrated and so, so painful. The look on Einbinder’s face after she asks “Are you willing to lose me?” and Deborah replies “If I have to” is devastating.

    I love where they leave these characters this season. I wasn’t sure how it was going to resolve in a way that opened up a path forward for a season 4 (please!!) and the pivot in the final scene is so perfect––to set them up as adversaries rather than purely collaborators.

    Some of Biff Cliff’s comments about the exigencies of TV and what gets dropped or renewed also seemed to me like maybe a bit of commentary on this show itself. Like, how has another season not yet been announced? This show gets better every season.

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