Inspired by some great dick and an encounter with her stalker in Memphis, Deborah made a breakthrough last episode. She and Ava figured out that the set can’t just recount trauma but must also interrogate Deborah’s mistakes and flaws. At the end of the last episode, Deborah decided the self-deprecating set was too good for just another Vegas residency or a tour. Now, she and Ava must sell a special to the comedy gatekeepers of Hollywood.
This episode begins with the gang moving off the tour bus into Deborah’s Los Angeles mansion. The house has fallen into disrepair because Deborah hasn’t been there since 2007. It’s a nod to how little she has had to do with Hollywood these days. This whole season has been fleshing out the chip on Deborah’s shoulder about being a “Vegas comic.” Supposedly, Deborah’s been trying to sell her the house for years but can’t because her hippie neighbors built a tree house in front of the skyline view that tanked the property value. Over a gossipy team dinner, Marcus points out that she could easily sell the place if she dropped the price. He suspects she deliberately prices it too high because “she’s always secretly hoped she’d have a reason to come back here.”
In the season premiere, she admitted to Ava that she was devastated by reviews of her final Palmetto show and that part of why she moved to Vegas was because she never felt taken seriously by L.A. or New York’s comedy elite. She was too lowbrow, too campy, too fluffy, too girly, the way Joan Rivers, Lucille Ball, and Phyllis Diller all were at points in their careers. It’s clear that after losing her late-night show she dealt with rejection by removing herself from the big league of specials, TV, and late-night. She holed up in Vegas and made herself a big fish in a small pond.
Deborah’s quest to conquer L.A. could feel hypocritical or like a concession. She and Ava have fought viciously about Ava’s coastal elitism, high-brow taste, and disdain for Deborah’s digestible punch lines and “Panera people” audience. Until episode two, Deborah has insisted she’s happier performing for “regular people” and doesn’t care what the critics say. But it actually feels vulnerable and courageous for Deborah to put herself back at the mercy of the industry that rejected her, not out of ego or pride, but because she has a project that she truly thinks is great and wants people to see.
Deborah is a small fish in a big pond now. She has a successful meeting with a former collaborator, Elaine Carter, a grizzled and eccentric old TV veteran (“It was her idea for Mary Tyler Moore to throw the hat. And she was just an intern”) who agreed to direct the special. But after a disheartening series of pitch meetings, Deborah, Ava, and Jimmy realize that producers are not especially interested in the confessions of a septuagenarian comic in flowing pants and an updo directed by a veteran of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Instead, they are looking for sexy shows written by guys wearing hoodies, like the crew Jimmy and Deborah watched walk out the door celebrating selling their series as they came in. One studio’s interest is piqued, but they instead want to attach the director who “did the BLM Super Bowl ad for Duracell.” “He’s amazing,” Deborah is informed by a condescending blonde executive.
Despite Jimmy and Deborah’s best schmoozing, the only offer they walk away with is a 30-minute special that would run as one episode of a series about women in stand-up that the production company has been “mandated” to put out, directed by the Duracell guy. It’s a moment that hits with a sickly crunch, capturing the discombobulating shift that women and other marginalized groups have faced in Hollywood. When Deborah was young she had to scrap and fight or be shut out. Now, in an industry desperate to prove its wokeness, she’s more pigeonholed than ever, valued for her identity, not her ideas.
Deborah knows the offer is trash and storms off. Later, while wafting moodily around her mansion, martini in hand, she gazes out at where downtown Los Angeles should be and has an idea about what might make her feel better. She slams down her drink, grabs a chainsaw, and heads out to massacre the neighbors’ tree house while Cher’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” blasts. Unfortunately, the whole sequence feels a bit empty and on the nose. “God, sometimes this town can just instantly remind you that you’re worthless,” she says just after the meeting. It’s a line so heavy-handed even Jean Smart can’t make it sound natural. They didn’t need to lay it on so thick in these scenes to show that Deborah is wounded and when she’s wounded, she lashes out.
Her tree-house rampage does inspire her to take matters into her own hands with the special. Afterward, she calls an emergency meeting to announce that she wants to pass on the half-hour offer and self-fund and release the special. Everyone’s into it: Ava’s excited about controlling the edit; Marcus points out they’ll make a bigger cut of the profits if they sell it directly from our website “just like Louis … just in that one specific way.”
Even Jimmy is on board, even though he’s under serious pressure to sell the special from his agency’s CEO Michael (Kayla’s dad). Michael already wants to take him off Deborah and punt her to a 98-year-old agent who “works” from his memory-care facility so that Jimmy can focus on younger, hipper clients. Jimmy tells Ava that Latitude is trending “bro asshole,” which we see in full swing at an all-staff meeting, a sea of suited guys. Jimmy is mocked and told he’s “wasting time on a lost cause” when he announces Deborah’s plans to self-fund.
For the first time, Jimmy, an all-star corporate people pleaser, tells Michael to fuck off and quits, saying he’ll help Deborah release her special on his own. The show has been begging for a Jimmy-Kayla alliance to form, and it’s finally here. At first, Jimmy is horrified when Kayla stands up and announces she’s quitting too. But he’s forced to admit she has a point when she suggests that the boss’s daughter leaving to join his company sends a powerful message — and offers her trust fund to “keep them afloat for a year.”
Ava’s having a better episode than Deborah. She encounters a series of lucky run-ins, first with her hot subletter, whom she meets when she goes to her condo to pick up tax returns for the lawsuit. They hook up after the subletter calls her on pretenses of being locked out, though Ava overstays her welcome the next morning, having forgotten one-night-stand etiquette during her time on the road. She also runs into an old TV friend, Taylor, who she’d pissed off back in her L.A. days, makes amends, and even gets invited to her birthday party, where she has a pleasant and flirty run-in with her ex, Ruby, now a full-fledged movie star. Ava seems to make peace with L.A. (which cast her out in season one) and decides she doesn’t miss her old life.
Still, Ava’s story line feels lost and scattered at this point in the season. Or perhaps Ava herself has gotten lost in helping Deborah, who she has centered her growth around this season. She tells Jimmy she doesn’t even want writing credits on Deborah’s special (“they’re her stories”) and that she has no side projects going (no word on the late-capitalist mall satire she told Deborah about a couple of episodes ago). She doesn’t seem even to consider it when he asks. She’s too busy fuming over the shitty offer. She likes her spot in Deborah Inc., and it’s becoming clear that she’s gotten too comfortable there.
Well, Ava doesn’t have nothing going on. She’s still being sued. Ava meets with a lawyer (with her teenage and aspiring comedian son in tow), who informs her that Deborah is not likely to drop the suit and that her lawyers are going “scorched earth.” The lawsuit plotline has started to feel like a confused attempt to keep Deborah-slash-Ava’s beloved, snippy conflict dynamic alive despite their relationship becoming an obviously very loving one. Would Deborah really flip-flop from cradling Ava in her arms in a pool, teaching her how to swim, and trying to bankrupt her? Whether or not Deborah goes through with the lawsuit, sooner or later, Ava’s going to have to figure out who she is without Deborah
The episode ends in a bleak spot. Elaine agrees to direct the special, even with the self-funding. But Marcus is no longer feeling optimistic: Louis C.K. had a significant online following before self-releasing a special online, which Deborah notably does not have. Jimmy arrives, announcing he’s left Latitude and no longer has the company’s weight nor their connection to the Nokia Theatre. Deborah is furious. “Okay, we’ll just make it work,” she concludes with false cheer. It’s an unsatisfying close to a somewhat awkward episode with a lot of jokes that didn’t land and overlong bits. It’s a bummer of an episode by design, and it’s clearly building up to a big turnaround in the finale. There are a lot of clichés that pop up whenever a show is building up to the big game or the big concert or the big show. Hopefully Hacks figures out how to surprise us.
• Hacks really let Meg Stalter go off in this episode, and it pays off. Her deranged rant as she storms out of the meeting behind Jimmy (“There goes a good man! He saved my life! Taught me everything I know!”) and in the elevator on the way out of their office is one of the few laugh-out-loud moments of the episode for me.
• The other MVPs of the episodes are the girl-boss executive who offers Deborah the women-in-comedy deal, Ava’s hot subletter, and Ava’s lawyer and her son (“Should he join the National Lampoon?” “Are you going to Harvard?” “I can”). Frankly, supporting characters stole this whole episode.
• It’s nice to see Jimmy’s plotline really begin to truly mesh with Deborah and Ava’s. In the past, it’s felt like you’re watching a completely different show when the episodes cut over to him or Marcus. The team’s all together going into the finale.