“The Click” starts with the girls in a bad mood. Deborah has stormed offstage after bombing for the umpteenth time. Or, as she later explains, not so much bombing as being painfully aware that the “audience isn’t fully with her” even when they’re technically laughing.
All season, Ava and Deborah have been searching for the through-line in her set, besides “a lot of bad things have happened to Deborah.” They know the jokes (“My sister stole my husband. I thought it was bad enough when she just stole my dolls”) are missing heat and cohesion. What’s their point? That being a woman in comedy is hard? That being Deborah Vance is hard? Both of them know that’s not a good answer. They’re so desperate that when DJ, who’s on an Ancestry.com kick while she tries to get pregnant, informs Deborah that they’re related to Betty Paris of the Salem witch trials, they jump on it. Could the theme be an unfairly persecuted woman blazing her own path in a male-dominated world, burned at the stake after being found guilty in the court of public opinion? Yikes. Marcus and Google save them from themselves by turning Deborah’s set into a feminist-lite take on The Crucible when it turns out that Betty Parris was an accuser, not a victim. The way this scene foreshadows revelations to come to later in the episode is chef’s kiss.
To break her writer’s block, Deborah flies Kiki (Poppy Liu), her enigmatic and enchanting blackjack dealer, to meet them in Memphis. Playing cards doesn’t help, but wheels start turning when something devastating happens after her first Memphis show. One of her stalkers, Axl, shows up but doesn’t bother try to see her afterward (you know the set isn’t working when even your stalker won’t even say “great show”). When Deborah confronts him, Axl gives her some harsh feedback: “There were some funny jokes, but it was just kind of a bummer … I miss the Deborah who takes everyone down.” This might sound like he doesn’t get it, but it gets her thinking that she needs to figure out the Deborah Vance version of confessional stand-up. Then he asks Deborah for Chelsea Handler’s address.
Ava’s mother, Nina, shows up out of the blue after the show, and to Ava’s dismay, all four women head out for a night on the town. Nina and Kiki trade parenting advice, but Ava rolls her eyes when Nina suggests that raising an only child was a success (Kiki’s daughter, Luna, wants a sister), but only because she worked hard to make sure Ava wasn’t lonely. “Actually, I was so lonely I used to draw faces on pillows and talk to them,” Ava retorts. Nina falters: “But it gave her a great sense of humor.” (This sets Kiki up for the best line of the episode: “Oh, yeah, I don’t think Luna’s gonna be funny, she’s really comfortable with herself”). Ava gets increasingly frustrated with her mom’s refusal to face reality, especially once it becomes clear that Nina started slinging vitamins for a multilevel-marketing scam.
Kiki and Deborah take a lap to avoid the family drama and end up sitting across the bar from a grizzled, hunky, Republican-looking guy in his 40s (Devon Sawa, who might look familiar from a certain iconic 2000s music video) who’s giving Deborah “fuck me eyes,” and not “I saw you on The View eyes,” Kiki declares when Deborah says it’s because she’s famous. Does he have a fetish for older women, Deborah asks him? He says if that’s what it means that he wants to sleep with her, he does. Frankly, it’s extremely hot. Hacks has been lauded for showing the complex inner life of an older woman who isn’t a horror movie villain, wretched divorcée, or sweetheart grandma. It’s to the show’s credit that they can delve into Deborah’s sex life without screaming “yas queen, older women are horny too” in your face.
Apparently, Deborah just needed to get railed by a guy with tattoos and a mini-fridge in his room (he does have a bed frame). In a post-coital haze, she realizes the issue with her my-sister-stole-my-husband joke. Out of her element and anonymous (he doesn’t know who she is), Deborah’s able to admit there’s more to the story: “Truth be told, it wasn’t entirely their fault. I think they both felt neglected because I cared more about my career than about them.”
This is the turning point. The next night onstage, when the joke comes up, she pivots. After she says the “betrayal is the worst feeling in the world” line we’ve heard so many times, she admits: “Actually, no, it wasn’t. Losing a late-night talk show was … I got over my husband. But I never got over that.” It feels so good to watch Deborah kill, at last. The jokes are truly funny — not just because she’s finally being honest, but she’s finally sharing the nuances and idiosyncrasies of her story. The narrative of her life that she was painting as a noble but downtrodden heroine wasn’t true, funny, or interesting.
“I’ve been doing this woe-is-me shit! I need to balance it by making fun of myself,” she explains to Deborah as she gets offstage. Ava is confused at first. Raised in the internet’s cult of victimhood and identity politics, Ava was sure that Deborah needed to focus on how she’s been mistreated, but Deborah figured out that it’s much more vulnerable and liberating for her to acknowledge her own bad choices and flaws too. “I have to admit what I did wrong, too,” she says. “You said it yourself … in your stupid email! I am a bully who’s been thinking of myself as the victim. People like me because I take everyone down. I need to take myself down too.”
Hacks’ Rocky training montage is here, and she’s perfect. Deborah and Ava stay up late clacking on their laptops, giggling with notepads in bed, discussing punchlines while power-walking, spliced with clips of Deborah killing, again and again. The jokes are good. Really good. They’re dark, crass, and original: She sent her drag impersonator to DJ’s parent-teacher conference; she once stole back-up dancers from Cher; the court-ordered therapist who tried to have sex with her; she doesn’t regret plastic surgery. There’s nothing new about a “bad mom” or “bad feminist” schtick (from Ally Wong to Phoebe Waller-Bridge, these aren’t new themes). But these jokes tell the story of Deborah’s complicated and incredible life and how she survived it, for better or worse. It has nothing to do with the “crazy woman” schtick, which erased all the story’s complexity. In the last clip of a montage, she gets her first standing ovation since Vegas.
Getting closer to the truth isn’t as fruitful with Ava and her mom. While Deborah was “getting her titties sucked by a 40-year-old,” Ava tried to open up to her mom, but Nina is staunchly allergic to reality. They’d made breakfast plans, but Nina turned off Ava’s alarm on the pretense she wanted to let her sleep in. When she claims that Ava was “addicted to sleeping in high school,” Ava reminds her that she was depressed. “No, that was an iron deficiency because you went vegetarian,” Nina says-shouts. Meanwhile, while demonstrating her sales pitch, she spills water all over Ava’s notebook full of Deborah’s set and discovers the lawsuit, which pushes her over the edge.
Nina is unconcerned with Ava’s needs or problems, except when worrying about how they will affect her. She’s also clearly breaking down. She confesses she hasn’t been sleeping (Mr. Creampie has the zoomies all night), that she started selling vitamins because she doesn’t know what to do with herself now that Ava’s father is gone, and that she hoped Ava would be proud. Ava goes into grown-up mode. She lies about having a pro bono lawyer and promises she is proud (sincere) and, mustering all her strength, tells Nina she’s a girlboss (less sincere). Not exactly an honest conversation, but they’re getting closer. They watch Pretty Woman and reminisce about Ava’s dad before Nina heads to the airport.
As it turns out, Ava doesn’t need the ruined notebook anyway. “If it’s good, we’ll remember it,” says Deborah after her first breakthrough set and tosses it in a trash can.
• Fun fact: The Salem witch trial dialogue was most likely inspired by Jean Smart’s real life. As anyone who’s visited Smart’s Wikipedia page recently will know, she is actually descended from a Salem witch trial victim: Dorcas Hoar (who, in real life, was convicted of witchcraft). Not only that, but she discovered this after Lisa Kudrow convinced her to go on the American genealogy documentary series Who Do You Think You Are?
• MVP of this episode goes to the angel of Las Vegas, Kiki, for encouraging Ava to open up to her mom and Deborah to “get her titties sucked by a 40-year-old.” This episode makes it very clear why Poppy Liu has also scored roles in Better Call Saul and forthcoming appearances in Tales of the Walking Dead, Wedding Season, The Afterparty, and American Born Chinese. Bonus points to Nina/Jane Adams for crushing her MLM pitch: “This is our best-selling collagen balm. It is five times the daily recommended intake of collagen, plus there’s turmeric and seaweed in it!”
• Clock Ava and Deborah wearing the perfect sunglasses that Deborah picked out for them at the rest stop in episode two while they jog-walk with weights during the joke-writing montage.