At its core, Hacks is a feel-good show. But you never know at the start of an episode if you’re in store for some brutal dysfunction and self-destruction or tender friendship and personal growth.
“Retired” is one of this season’s warmer and fuzzier episodes. Marcus has flown out to replace Weed as tour manager. He’s clearly delighted to feel needed by Deborah again as they bask in the glow of their codependent relationship while schooling Damien and Ava at “Celebrity.” Meanwhile, Ava and Deborah struggle to insert life into Deborah’s set. They spend the episode working out a joke about her business manager embezzling from her. Deborah worries it’s too “boo-hoo.” Ava insists the punch line is the problem. It’s the question of the moment: What’s the smart, funny way to do comedy about tragedy, going beyond just recounting grievances or trying to be relatable?
Ava and Deborah are in their mommy-daughter era in this episode. This has always been a part of their dynamic. As well as creative partners, they are, in some ways, the parent and child the other never had. Ava’s father died last season, and her mother, Nina (Jane Adams), is a scatter-brained neurotic who doesn’t believe in Ava’s writing. Deborah loves DJ but is painfully aware, especially in this episode, that she suffered from spending her childhood on the road.
The crew takes a detour to a mall on their way to the county fair when Damien discovers that Deborah’s signature perfume is being discontinued, so they need to head to Lord & Taylor’s to clean out the beauty counter. Since Deborah plans to live till at least 102 (she’s “been on the Mediterranean diet for 40 years” and “comes from pilgrim blood”), she calculates she’ll need 67 bottles before the end. These morbid supply-chain logistics are the first hint at where the episode is going, namely the question: How does she want to spend the last 25 years of her one wild and precious life?
At Lord & Taylor’s, Deborah runs into Susan, an old friend who she was in the trenches with in her early stand-up days. Now Deborah is a multimillionaire traveling on a luxury tour bus. Susan works off commission in the shoe department. Deborah’s happy to see her, but since she can’t imagine that someone in Susan’s position wouldn’t see her life as a failure, she’s uncomfortable and baffled by Susan’s charm and sunny demeanor. The fact that she’s still hilarious (“Can you believe if I had a kid the day I quit comedy, they’d be old enough to quit comedy by now?”) only makes Deborah feel worse.
Deborah has a secret. Later, she confesses to Ava that in their 20s, she and Susan competed in a prestigious showcase and made the final round, from which comics would be selected for a college tour. Assuming there was only a slot for one woman, Deborah erased her name off the list to ensure she’d get it. She did. Susan quit shortly after.
This reveal doesn’t feel especially shocking. We’ve watched Deborah play dirty when she’s felt threatened (publicly shaming Ava for taking nudes, blackmailing Marty to get back her Palmetto dates). But the guilt gets to her. She wakes up in the middle of the night and tries Googling Susan but discovers she has no results. You can see Deborah’s mind moving: Susan might as well not exist.
But the truth about Susan’s comedy career, which she discovers later, makes her feel even worse. Susan comes to the county fair with her grandkids, where Deborah can’t resist trying to win in a squirt-gun game, an unsubtle scene meant to show that she’s still incapable of putting people over her own success. “You haven’t changed a bit,” Susan remarks later.
Deborah comes clean over funnel cake, and Susan reveals that she quit comedy not because she lost the showcase but because she just found out she was pregnant right after seeing a 10-year-old DJ sneak a bottle of vodka and get a concussion unsupervised. She doesn’t even remember DJ getting a concussion, only the joke she closed with. “I had a vision of the kind of person I’d have to be in order to make it. You were completely devoted to your work … I couldn’t do it. Or I didn’t want to,” says Susan. Deborah realizes that while she was pitying Susan, Susan was pitying her.
Susan is a clever character. Her happiness with her simple, unremarkable life — a life that doesn’t warrant a Wikipedia page or YouTube results — undermines Deborah’s careerism. Deborah struggles to fathom that self-worth can flow from places besides a cheering audience, awards, or a luxurious mansion. Her superiority turns to shame. She wonders if she chose wrong, if she’s a terrible person, if she should’ve quit back then and raised DJ right. Was her fabulous career worth it, worth screwing up DJ, all just to end up here at this state fair? She can’t help but wonder this when a calf birth gets broadcast on the screen behind her (a raffle had been held on what time it’d be born), and half the audience files out of their seats mid-joke. “You hang in there,” Susan says sympathetically when she departs.
Marcus and Ava are on their own journey of realizing things at the fair. They have a couple of hours to kill until Deborah’s set, and Ava convinces Marcus to play instead of working on the bus. They get their caricature drawn, but when the artist attempts to draw out facts about their personal lives to illustrate, Ava and Marcus admit that they have no real hobbies outside writing and being the “CEO for an entertainment personality’s media and consumer products empire,” respectively. Afterward, they commiserate over having little going on in their lives outside Deborah. Marcus confesses that he and Wilson broke up, it’s been months, but he hadn’t told anyone. It’s a sweet “at least we have each other” scene.
After their big day, Ava and Deborah decamp to a hotel pool, where Deborah raises the idea that she should’ve retired after her Palmetto residency. The redemption, in this episode, as always, is that Deborah and Ava are damaged in many of the same ways: they’ve spent much of their lives very lonely and compensated with their careers. They see each other for who they are, and they not only accept each other, but they actually like each other. Ava laughs at the prospect of Deborah retiring because Ava herself would never. “I’m the same way; I can’t turn it off either. And nothing matters more, even if it should,” says Ava in one of her increasingly frequent pep talks. “Back in Vegas, you were on top, but I think that was just a hill. Now you’re climbing a mountain.”
Deborah is roused. It feels like she’s answered the question asked by the episode. What does she want to do with the last 25 years of her wild and precious life? Does she want to spend it on this tour bus, bombing at state fairs and debating joke structure with Ava? Yes, she does. Hacks never makes Deborah a cautionary tale. The point of the episode is not to show that she’s evil and selfish. It’s that life is complicated, finite, and full of painful trade-offs. As Deborah learns, you can have regrets without self-pity and know other people would do it differently, even if you’d make the same choices over. Deborah is doing some things differently this time. She insists on teaching Ava, who can’t swim, how to float, holding her tenderly in the pool as they brainstorm punch lines.
• I’m unconvinced that Deborah and Ava have fixed the joke by the end of the episode. They settled on “My business manager embezzled $3 million from me. Do you know how much that is when you adjust for inflation? Neither do I; it’s why I had a business manager.” It still feels like they haven’t figured out what Deborah’s set is about on a more profound level. And since Ava and Deborah are ambitious comedians with high standards, it feels like they know that too.
• The MVP of this episode is definitely Susan for being an anti–girl boss, work-life balance legend.
• An honorable mention goes to both Jimmy and Kayla for bravely opening up to each about their shared trauma of being the children of wealthy, successful Hollywood agents (their dads founded the company). I’ve never quite gotten why Kayla is so weird and dysfunctional, except to give Meg Stalter a vehicle for her chaotic brilliance. But it’s starting to make sense that she’s just a weird rich girl that no one ever said no to. (“I always fuck everything up … maybe I should just quit and go fun Fox Searchlight or whatever,” Kayla laments.”) Jimmy leaves her with kind words and some scripts to cover. Look out, Hollywood, Kayla’s coming!
• In Lord & Taylor, Deborah encourages Ava to pursue her own writing project, a “Home Alone meets late-stage capitalism” movie about a kid stuck in a mall while they thumb through the clearance rack. Going into this season, one of my questions was when and if Ava would ever get back to writing for herself. I hope this isn’t the last we hear of it.