Hacks is back, baby! I’m thrilled! This Hacks season two review covers the first two episodes of the new season, which are both available on HBO Max. As such, there are some spoilers for those first two episodes.
Hacks returns for season two this week, opening with a pair of episodes, “There Will Be Blood” (which makes good on its title promise in the most unexpected and hilarious of ways) and “Quid Pro Quo.” In case you missed it, I wrote a very belated review of Hacks’s first season, which delighted and amazed me in just how unlikable it made its two protagonists — Hannah Einbinder’s Ava and Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance — while simultaneously smashing them together into something strange, beautiful, and scary. Ava and Deborah are the ultimate dysfunctional couple, bound together by their working relationship but also by the fact that looking at each other is like looking in a mirror, letting them see the worst parts of themselves reflected back.
Season one ended with Ava getting drunk and high and sending off an email to the makers of the new show Bitch PM (about a Prime Minister, who is a bitch) saying a bunch of horrible shit about Deborah that they could use for material. This was after Deborah slapped her and before they repaired some of their relationship in the wake of Ava’s dad’s death. These two might know how to time a joke’s delivery, but they have bad timing in basically every other facet of their lives, especially when it comes to each other.
Ava’s walking on eggshells as season two begins, the weight of that email pressing on her, exacerbated by Deborah’s sudden kindness. While Jimmy’s in the background trying to patch things up, Ava attempts to act normal around Deborah, which she’s decidedly not good at. But luckily she’s dealing with someone as self-obsessed with Deborah, who doesn’t really take notice, who seems distracted by the new tour, which she wants to accelerate in the wake of bombing a set.
In “There Will Be Blood,” there’s some great Deborah and DJ stuff, Kaitlin Olson nearly stealing the show. DJ is the kind of character who says things that you just simply could never see coming, and Olson delivers those unexpected and bonkers lines so casually and effortlessly that it just makes them even funnier. Deborah begrudgingly attends DJ’s husband’s UFC fight and projects her own feelings about failure onto him, encouraging him to beat the shit out of his opponent to prove himself. Deborah’s ruthless. Bombing a set means she’s just going to hit the road harder. It’s a terrifying level of dedication. And it makes Ava realize Deborah’s probably gonna kill her when she finds out about the email.
Hacks spends just the right amount of time lingering on this tension between Ava and Deborah, on the dramatic irony of us knowing about the email and Deborah being clueless. The first two episodes are so steeped in this conflict that it touches every interaction they have, Ava’s guilt so thick you can feel it pressing against her like Vegas heat. There’s enough time spent in this tension so as to make it feel deeply uncomfortable, urgent, and untenable. Ava knows Jimmy is working to make it go away, but she has no way of knowing if it’ll work. She can’t avoid Deborah, who decides to start the tour early with just the two of them, trapped in a car, the desert vast and empty around them. There’s no escape.
The pressure cooker intensifies when she and Deborah see Deborah’s psychic, who does a tarot reading for them as well as an aura picture of Ava. She pulls the Tower card for Deborah, who is unfazed by the threat of destruction and seismic change. She thinks it’s just about blowing up her material and building a new show. She doesn’t know Ava’s about to blow up their relationship.
When the psychic tells Ava her aura indicates that she’s a wildly honest person, it’s finally too much. Between Deborah being actually nice to her for once, their super close proximity to one another, and a million signs from the universe screaming at Ava to do the right thing, she tells her. She doesn’t know that many miles away Jimmy has already figured out a way to make the email go away. Bad timing as always.
That double whammy of Ava revealing the truth and the reveal that she didn’t even have to hurts so good. Ava and Deborah might not have good timing, but Hacks does. Again, just enough time is spent on the suspense of the email; it doesn’t drag out too long. By the end of “Quid Pro Quo,” it’s out there. Deborah’s reaction? Violence, of course. She hurls items from a crystal shop at Ava while screaming at her. Hacks never pulls any punches when it comes to portraying these characters at their worst and most volatile.
Case in point: the scene that follows. Deborah takes Ava to dinner and is icy silent. Then she asks her to read the email. Every word of it. As viewers, we hear these words for the first time as Deborah hears them, Ava wincing through this delivery of her own words, ones that are even harsher than she remembers. She calls Deborah a bad mom. She calls her a horrible person. She says she has no one in her life who actually loves her. It’s brutal.
Especially because most pieces of it are true. They don’t paint a complete picture of Deborah’s life and self; they’re cherry-picked pieces a very fucked-up Ava used in an act of vengeance and, well, selfishness. Ava says Deborah blames all of her problems on other people, but Ava does just that, too. And in fact after that chillingly uncomfortable dinner, Deborah drives Ava back and says:
“You know, you’re good at writing for me. And I thought it was because you understood me. But it’s because you’re just like me. You’re as selfish and cruel as I am.”
Earlier in the episode, before everything blows up, Deborah buys Ava a pair of gas station sunglasses. She knows how to pick the right glasses for a person’s face shape. Life is always like this for Deborah, a careful calculation, a performance, an emphasis on surface-level beauty and order to cover up any mess. Ava looks at herself in the sunglasses in a mirror and then Deborah steps in front of her, her reflection replacing Ava’s. This is what makes them such a thrillingly compelling duo. Constantly at odds with each other and yet reflecting back parts of each other.
Ava vows to be better, but the solutions she puts forth are just surface-level fixes. She says she’ll drink less. She says she’ll get a dumb phone that doesn’t have email or social media. As if those were the things that led to her sending that email. As if that’s all it takes to fix a fractured relationship.
Deborah, as always, hits back. She’s suing Ava. And now they’re about to be on an active comedy tour while in active litigation against one another. It’s absurd and exhilarating. I love my dysfunctional chaos work wives.
- Get it? Like a hotel? Where Ava lived for season one? The Vegas Strip? You get it.
- Speaking of hotels, I’m pleased to see Joe Mande as a fed up lobby worker return.
- So I’m not doing full-on episodic recaps of the season, but I will be dropping in basically any time anything gay happens (I call this the Christina Tucker The Morning Show Method) and also again at the very end of the season. HBO Max is doing that weird two-episodes-at-a-time rollout thing. So bear with me while I figure out the shape this journey is going to take.
- Meg Stalter — recently nominated for TWO MTV Movie & TV Awards, which is very important to me personally — returns as Kayla, the worst assistant in the world. Paul Downs’ Jimmy tries to get her off his desk in a roundabout chase that circles right on back to her being…back on his desk. I’m not entirely sure what we’re…doing here? But every physical mannerism of Stalter’s is a gift.
- Ming-Na Wen guest stars as a new adversary for Jimmy, and I have one word: hot.