Deborah Vance embodies the difference between a punishing mentor and a flat-out terrible one. If you’re lucky, you may never experience either kind. But if you’re fortunate — and resilient enough to withstand a rageful outburst or 20 — you may learn priceless lessons from someone as unrelenting as Jean Smart’s force of nature.
In the second season of “Hacks,” Deborah is especially brutal toward her protégé Ava (Hannah Einbinder) without ever completely violating the accord the two of them have landed upon. Showrunners Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky and Lucia Aniello deserve much of the credit for steering the comedy right on that line between droll and devastating, but none of their efforts would land if Smart and Einbinder weren’t such a phenomenal team.
These new episodes reaffirm why Smart’s Emmy win for her first season performance was incontestable and make a strong case for a repeat.
Ava’s still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less impetuous.
But Statsky and Downs deepen the stalwart character profile Einbinder established, allowing her performance to expand upon her comedy writer’s vulnerability without losing the too-cool-for-this entitlement that keeps getting Ava in trouble. Ava’s still annoying, but her mistakes have also made her less impetuous and reflective enough to teach Deborah a few things about herself.
In a way, this ameliorates those perfections of generational righteousness that some people took issues with, especially in early episodes where the character exemplified some of the worst millennial clichés imaginable. Einbinder’s adroit development of Ava’s quirks and faults led us to understand that, to quote another famous 20-something character, she isn’t the voice of her generation but a voice, and one so annoyingly self-involved that even her contemporaries can’t stand her.
Ava still has a place within Deborah’s inner circle despite a vicious betrayal at the close of the first season, one that’s still floating in the ether as the premiere picks up right where last year’s finale ended: with the two women mid-flight on Deborah’s private jet, their shared future up in the air.
“Hacks” doubles down on its intergenerational strengths in these new episodes by leveling the playing field where Deborah and Ava simultaneously team up and square off. Deborah’s on a downward swing, having tried out the new confessional material Ava encouraged her to explore at her last show as the Queen of the Las Vegas Strip, only to bomb magnificently.
So as the two of them hit the road to workshop Deborah’s next show, spending most of their days on a tour bus (but a luxurious one — it’s still Deborah’s show, after all) they have no choice but to be painfully genuine with each other. This often translates into raw, bloody candor. Those moments also demand that Deborah and Ava take hard looks at themselves that aren’t necessarily fatal, but they do ask them to destroy every impression of themselves that they may be clinging to.
Elsewhere the script adds some tenderness to the fraught relationship between Ava and Deborah’s shared agent Jimmy (played with a wonderful sense of knowing by Downs) and Kayla, Meg Stalter’s riotously clueless assistant that Jimmy can never be rid of.
The beautiful magic act of “Hacks” is that there’s never any question as to why Ava stays with Deborah.
The beautiful magic act of “Hacks” is that there’s never any question as to why Ava stays with Deborah, especially after the writers answer Ava’s betrayal with a signature Deborah Vance twist designed to inflict maximum agony. (Even this wallop arrives wrapped in Smart’s velvet glove delivery: “It’ll be a good learning experience for you!” Deborah chirps as Ava deadlifts her jawbone out of her lap.)
They may hurt each other, but they also understand one another better than the rest of the world does. Only now, they understand that this mutual comprehension isn’t empowering — it’s a crutch at best, and more accurately, an insurmountable block.
The scenes establishing this section of their roadmap are equal parts acting masterclass and scripting lesson, with the stars’ performances superbly infusing tension into their storyline without sacrificing its comedic value. In a shattering moment, it occurs to Deborah that she wasn’t drawn to Ava’s writing because she understands her, but because she’s as selfish and cruel as she is.
Because the truth is, Deborah Vance is a bully, and the worst kind: one who thinks she’s the victim. Every person in her life is on her payroll and would never be around her if their livelihoods didn’t depend on it, Ava included. There should be quotation marks around those last two sentences since they’re a direct lift from an episode’s dialogue.
That’s also the thesis of a season that revolves around Deborah’s odyssey to secure a comeback. In Ava, Deborah sees an opportunity to up her game and teach someone else to be better at it. In Deborah, Ava sees a teacher and a career lifeline but also a means of penance. But it’s also clear that these women love and respect each other.
Smart has a cosmic shine in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple blotches on her spirit slip through her battle-ready façade.
Smart has a cosmic shine in the scenes where Deborah lets the purple blotches on her spirit slip through her battle-ready façade. And the actor plays these moments with a wrenching subtlety by allowing Deborah’s immaculate mask to fall, ever so slightly, as she’s confronted with the truth of who she is.
It’s in the way she cuts her eyes or drops the confident grin that’s always slightly shoring up her expression. When she follows these moments with returning fire with harder hits, either by way of the perfect punchline or an unpolished truth, it’s impossible to pay attention to anything else.
Maybe that comes off as hyperbole, but anyone who watches will see that is not the case.
Nor is it an overstatement to say that this new season explodes the energy “Hacks” builds over its first season by pressing harder on Deborah’s imperfections, accurately depicting the guts and labor it takes to start over as a woman in a field where one’s male peers are coasting on their laurels. For once, Deborah feels what it’s like to be upstaged, whether by her ego, her prejudices, or, at a clarifying low point, an animal’s afterbirth.
The new season also pushes Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), Deborah’s newly-minted but eternally exasperated CEO, into the unknown, enabling Clemons-Hopkins more opportunities to break free of their deadpan performance. They’re excellent as the no-nonsense executive but also wonderful at shedding their tightness. And when they and other guest stars cross paths with Deborah and Ava or join them and Mark Indelicato’s eternally energetic Damien on the tour bus, the second season finds an unexpected new gear to shift into.
Throughout, it asks whether a person can truly be their best selves in a profession that rewards self-preservation and Darwinist levels of meanness, and if so, what does it take to master that lesson? Answering those questions makes “Hacks” rise to greater heights as it brings Deborah and Ava tumbling down to Earth, demanding they figure out a new way to soar without wrecking each other on the ride.
The second season of “Hacks” debuts with two episodes Thursday, May 24 on HBO Max, which new episodes debuting weekly.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
More stories for Jean Smart fans: