Season two of Hacks opens onto Ava Daniels’s pale, sweating face. Her eyes bug out. She jiggles her leg frantically. She looks like she is about to puke all over the cream-colored leather of Deborah Vance’s private jet.
To recap where season one left off: Deborah (Jean Smart) loses her residency but is convinced by Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to ditch her crazy-divorcée shtick and write a new act of raw, personal material. In turn, Deborah has convinced Ava to abandon the Los Angeles rat race and go on tour with her. But their relationship is complicated, tinged with notes of mother-daughter, frenemy-rivals, plus an almost erotic connection (everyone wishes!). In the finale, “I Think She Will,” Deborah and Ava had a blow-out fight in which Deborah, who mistakenly believed Ava was ditching her for a TV job (she turned it down), slapped her. She redeemed herself by flying out to care for Ava at her father’s funeral in Boston. But somewhere between the slap and the wake, Ava got wasted and sent an email full of damaging stories about Deborah to a pair of screenwriters who previously tried to enlist her to write for their TV show about a crazy diva-boss character based on Deborah.
And so their truce is fragile going into season two. Lest we forget, Deborah and Ava are both self-absorbed jerks (they’re growing!) prone to responding to pain with cruelty and reckless acts of self-sabotage. And with that, “There Will Be Blood” begins right where season one left off: Deborah and Ava are flying back to Vegas to start Deborah’s reinvention. Ava looks as if she’s going to vom because she thinks Deborah will discover The Email as soon as they land. Luckily for her, she’s wrong: Her crime doesn’t surface in this episode but instead serves to keep you on edge from the season’s first opening shot onward.
While Ava waits to get fired or murdered, Deborah has never been better. She bombed with new material at her final residency show but felt more alive failing than getting standing ovations for her sleepwalked sets. She is being scarily friendly to Ava and doesn’t blink as they drive past her face being replaced on the side of the Palmetto with that of a Swedish DJ named MC Ludwig or at the many logistical snafus emerging with her hastily planned tour. She doesn’t snap at Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) when he points out many venues will be booked. Or at Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) when he tells her that her preferred tour bus is in use by Lil Uzi Vert or that her makeup artist quit to work with the Blue Man Group. It’s a whole new Deborah, who is typically a demanding bully to her employees, like if Miranda Priestly did stand-up. (Come to think of it, Ava is not unlike The Devil Wears Prada’s Andy, both wannabe big-shot writers doing glamorous work they think is beneath them. Okay, watch this space.)
Ava is just happy Deborah is distracted enough that she can try to clean up her mess, but an attempt to scare off the screenwriters backfires. Ava ends up revealing The Slap. But it’s palpable that Ava isn’t just worried about covering her ass — now she genuinely wants to see Deborah succeed and certainly doesn’t want to be the thing that gets in her way. Meanwhile, Jimmy is trying to subvert the crisis by going through the screenwriters’ agent. But this is Chekhov’s email: It’s only a matter of time before it comes into play.
And what about the rest of the beloved supporting cast? Well, Jimmy is in an HR situation with Kayla (the role that brought Meg Stalter to the world), his assistant–boss’s daughter, who is obsessed with him. Their intervention, facilitated by an HR manager (played by the gloriously dead-eyed, squeaky Martha Kelly), ends with Jimmy agreeing to fabricate anger-management issues so Kayla can be reassigned. But it’s also only a matter of time until Kayla finds a way back to her Jimmy.
We also get the scoop on Marcus, who was dumped by Wilson at the end of season one when Marcus couldn’t commit to a work-life balance. Marcus stops by Wilson’s apartment under the pretense of returning a half-full bag of granola and a bottle of Flonase. He’s not there, but Marcus is staying behind while Deborah is on tour, so there’s lots of time to win Wilson back.
The unsung scene-stealer of Hacks is Kaitlin Olson, who plays DJ, Deborah’s lovably moronic faildaughter. Smart and Olson’s dynamic is a masterpiece: DJ is equally resentful toward Deborah and desperate for her approval. Deborah feels perpetually guilty for being absent when DJ needed her most but is exasperated by her harebrained choices. DJ brings out the tender, vulnerable side of Deborah. One of the most heartbreaking moments from season one was when Ava realized Deborah lets DJ make money off tabloid photos so DJ can feel self-sufficient.
This season, DJ is undergoing IVF and fancies herself as “basically a military wife” as she supports her husband Aidan’s MMA career. Aidan is a doofus, but he’s a sweet doofus who wants to have a relationship with his mother-in-law. So Deborah agrees to support Aidan’s UFC fight, which happens to be at the Palmetto. When Deborah is turned away from the staff entrance and sees that Marty’s new girlfriend is devastatingly age appropriate and French (as opposed to his standard 20-something models), Aidan’s underdog fight becomes a proxy for Deborah’s rebound from her downfall. In the bathroom, Deborah confesses to Ava that the bad reviews of her last residency show hurt because they’re from her hometown paper. “They never gave a shit about me in L.A. or New York,” Deborah admits. “At least they wanted me here. Now the Review-Journal says that it’s not my town anymore.” It’s the episode’s emotional climax and the first hint at what Deborah wants out of her reinvention tour. Yes, she was on top in Vegas, but did being on top feel like a part of her was settling? Did she aspire to do more ambitious work and be celebrated in the larger comedy industry? Now that Vegas has thrown her away, she’ll be forced to answer those questions.
In a whirlwind closer sequence, Deborah plays ringside coach to Aidan, giving him a fire-and-brimstone pep talk (the fact that Smart can give me chills in this comical scenario: See the Smartissance). After he wins, she decides she and Ava will head out on the road together, just the two of them, that night. But first, she and Ava borrow Aidan’s paintball gun and use it to shoot red ugly, zitlike splatters all over the Palmetto’s new poster of MC Ludwig. There’s the old Deborah.
• The MMA fight scene is a perfect example of how Hacks mines Vegas’s casinos and strip malls for perfect, unlikely characters and moments: confessions in a hotel luggage room, a face-off in an antique shop, a street-sign ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ava’s one-night stand who came to Vegas to blow his money before jumping out a window. Plus, the Vegas jokes were on fire in this episode, like Deborah comforting DJ over her IVF setback: “The last time you did this, you were ghosted by Carrot Top.” I’m sad to see Deborah and Ava drive away from all that mess but thrilled to see what havoc they’ll wreak on the dives, diners, and drive-throughs of a comedy tour.
• Kayla-Jimmy scenes do not always hit for me. Stalter is always funny, but Kayla’s eccentricity sometimes feels confused. I hope Hacks will take a few minutes this season to explain why she is so attached to Jimmy. That said, there is a hilarious back-and-forth in which Kayla insists she remembers Jimmy changing her diaper as a baby: “Kayla, you don’t remember being a baby!”
• I have to shout out the show’s perfect opening scene: a laugh-out-loud Lucia Aniello joint that highlights Hacks’ ability to flip from silliness to fearsome drama on a dime. Right as Deborah and Ava land, and their phones buzz on, Deborah roars, “Oh my God, WHAT DID YOU DO.” Ava whimpers that she can explain. But Deborah is shouting at her corgi, Barry, that has eaten a grape (“BARRY, DROP IT — YOU KNOW GRAPES CAN KILL YOU”) and orders Ava to retrieve the grape from his mouth.
• Ava and Deborah are in a weird place right now. They’re neither at each other’s throats nor at the level of intimate closeness they reached last season. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Ava looks horrified as she watches Deborah deface the Palmetto — while normally she’d be cheering her on. Instead, all she can think about is how she’s scared of what Deborah is capable of doing to her. I’m trepidatiously excited for The Email to surface, both for the bloody blow-out and the reconciliation.