One of the joys of Hacks is watching Ava and Deborah rip each other to shreds like funny, self-esteem sniffing dogs. Although they seemed to patch up their friendship at the end of last season, Ava’s email is a ticking time bomb bound to blow up at any moment. As such, it’s just a matter of how long the peace would last before assholes started getting ripped anew. With “Quid Pro Quo,” we have our answer: one and a half episodes.
At last, the girls are on the road, but they’re on different trips in the same car. Deborah is flying high singing Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” buying rest-stop snacks, and snapping pics with “fans” (“You’re the funny lady!”). She won’t stop being heartbreakingly kind to Ava (she helps her pick out admittedly perfect sunglasses for her “Jordan almond-shaped” face), who wants to throw herself under the wheels of Deborah’s Rolls Royce for what she’s done.
We get our first look at Deborah’s new material at a podunk theater in Flagstaff, Arizona. I’ve been curious what Deborah’s reinvention would look like after Ava pushed her to stop leaning into the cruel and sexist rumors of her divorce for laughs and finally tell the truth about her singular life as a groundbreaking female comic. And Hacks suggests that Ava’s absurdist, internet-y style might help Deborah loosen up her traditional joke–punch line formats. I’m not saying Deborah needs to go all Nanette or start impersonating vases like Julio Torres, but she needs something because the joke we see doesn’t point in an inspiring direction. “Your own sister, sleeping with your husband … betrayal is the worst feeling in the world,” she says solemnly. The punch line: “And I’ve woken up during a colonoscopy.”
Of course, Deborah and Ava are on the road to improve the material, and Deborah will have to do better if she wants a new residency. The colonoscopy joke isn’t different from her old stuff; it’s just sadder. Deborah is at risk of falling into one of comedy’s biggest traps: purist confessionalism, which assumes that something being true makes it funny. As Kathryn VanArendonk wrote of the new wave of documentary-style stand-up specials, there’s a desire in comedy right now to “see comedians as truth-tellers and authentic personalities and feed into the idea that good comedy stems from a performer’s authentic self.”
Anyhow, Deborah has many more shows to work that out for herself. In the meantime, the theme of betrayal in Deborah’s new routine tortures Ava and hammers home her guilt, which is already made very clear during their visit to Deborah’s leathery, turquoise-adorned psychic in Sedona, where Deborah pulls “‘the tower” in tarot, predicting that “a truth is about to be revealed.” Ava burns with shame as the psychic tells her that “honesty” is the defining trait of her “pure-blue” aura. Deborah seconds this, underscoring Ava’s hypocrisy: “That’s true; this girl’s honest to a fault. She’s always trying to get me to be more honest.”
Ava is desperate to come clean, but Jimmy instructs her to sit tight until he meets with high-powered agent Janet Stone (Ming-Na Wen), who represents the screenwriters in possession of “the email.” However, his damage-control lunch over little caesar salads backfires when Stone realizes that Jimmy was the prospective buyer who dropped out of buying her black-mold-infested house. He grovels, offering to buy her moldy house for the original asking price, but no luck; Janet is determined to expedite Hannah’s shitstorm by leaking the email to TMZ.
Jimmy’s next tactic works, but at a great cost when he meets with his CEO Michael (Brent Sexton), who also happens to be Kayla’s father. Michael agrees to make Jimmy’s problem go away, but only if Jimmy rehires Kayla before Micahel and his wife (Kayla’s mom) go on vacation (he’s worried his wife will be too worried about Kayla to be in the mood to have sex). Jimmy’s enamored with his charming, overachieving assistant Silas but agrees for the clients he loves. Alas, poor Jimmy’s sacrifice is for naught.
During a visit to a crystal shop to get geodes appraised, Ava is so moved by a decorative garden stone engraved with “love = trust” that she confesses everything to Deborah. Bad move! Deborah goes frighteningly blank as Ava babbles that “it might not even go to series,” to which Deborah softly asks, “Who’s starring?” Ava gulps, “Helen Mirren.” What comes next is a masterfully hilarious nail-biter, even though the whole episode has led up to this moment. The pause flirts with the idea that Deborah’s wrath might not come at all. Could Deborah be flattered enough by this casting choice to forgive Ava? Perhaps all press is good press, right? Wrong.
“OF COURSE IT’S GOING TO SERIES,” Deborah shrieks and pelts Ava with crystals.
It’s a funny and upsetting scene. After the slap that split them last season, Deborah promised Ava she’d never hit someone again. This breaks that promise and, surely, any trust Ava had in her. It’s not exactly unrealistic that Deborah would react this way. She is, after all, a sensitive and volatile person who’s just been betrayed by the one person she trusts perhaps more than anyone.
When Deborah shows up at Ava’s motel room door to take her to dinner, it becomes clear she’s not going to fire Ava, but she will punish her. At a diner, Deborah forces Ava to read the email aloud, revealing the Deborah-inspired show-within-a-show titled Bitch PM is about a prime minister. At first, it’s funny. Deborah smiles as Ava lists jabs at her clothes, disregard for her health, and how she once refused an employee maternity leave because the baby was ugly. But then it turns nasty. Ava refers to DJ as Deborah’s “junkie daughter,” claiming, “Deborah won’t tell her she’s proud of her, even though she’s clearly the reason she’s so fucked up.” It concludes by calling Deborah a bully who sees herself as a victim, who no one truly loves, which is why she’s dependent on the love of her fans. Deborah walks out, leaving Ava with the check.
The email is excruciating, but mostly for Ava. Everything Ava said is true. Deborah is a cruel boss and a messed up person, but everyone is messed up! And since she’s met Ava, Deborah has been dealing with her shit in good faith. She’s processing her life in her comedy, healing her relationship with DJ, treating her employees better, and apologizing when she messes up. It’s not hard to fathom why a drunk, grieving Ava at the end of season one wanted to hurt Deborah by poking her many wounds, but at this moment, the email reveals how Ava needs to grow more than Deborah does.
Deborah tells her just this when they get back to Ava’s motel — Ava isn’t good at writing for Deborah because Ava understands her; it’s because she’s just as selfish and cruel as Deborah is. Ava knows it’s true. In the first season, Ava’s former co-workers reveal that she wasn’t really fired for her tweet but because she was an asshole and sucked to work with. This moment between Deborah and Ava feeds into the intoxicating mythology that these two are fated to be in each other’s lives in order to realize their ambitions and face their own flaws. It’s why their relationship and their fighting are so compelling. They hate so much about one another because they’re reminded of what they loathe about themselves, but they also spark each other’s creativity and desire for personal redemption. If they left each other, that spark would go out.
This is really why Deborah doesn’t fire Ava: She needs her to be great. Still, it’s a big growth moment. A few years ago, Deborah would’ve cut Ava out, had her blacklisted in comedy, and possibly put a bloody horse head in her bed. But Ava’s not off the hook. The next morning, Deborah picks her up and says she’s decided to forgive her. Ava cries with relief, promising to become a model employee when Jimmy calls her with terrible news: Deborah is suing her for violating her NDA. “Haven’t you ever been in litigation before?” Deborah grins. “It’s a good learning experience — expensive, too.” The mere fact that Deborah doesn’t leave Ava in the desert is pretty heartwarming, but things are bound to get ugly now that they’re in this for the long haul.
• The Hacks season-two premiere was all killer, no filler. This episode has some great scenes and bits, but they are surrounded by scenes that feel heavy-handed and drag on after they’ve gotten to the point.
• Take note of Deborah’s ’70s and ’80s pop playlist, which is heavily laden with symbolism. In episode one, Deborah asks her driver to turn up Diana Ross’s “That’s How You Start Over.” The choice of Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” feels loaded in retrospect. And the episode drops the lawsuit reveal over Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” On the nose, but I respect it.
• Jimmy is the MVP of this episode. If you think Ava takes a beating, Jimmy gets called a “little mold bitch,” sits through his boss asking for help “getting his balls drained,” loses his beloved new assistant, and learns he’ll still have to complete the 52-week anger management he signed up for to get rid of Kayla only to end the episode with Kayla’s club-buns bobbing outside his door and Deborah’s lawsuit against Ava on his desk. Justice for Jimmy.
• Kayla’s obsession with Jimmy remains a mystery to me! More Kayla backstory, please.