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'Hacks' 1.05 and 1.06 Review: Making a Change

Both Deborah and Ava get a new perspective "Falling" and "Eyes Open."

Deborah waxwork in Hacks Season 1
(Image: © HBO Max)

Our Verdict

Barriers are broken down further and this "Hacks" double-bill goes from strength to strength.

For

  • 🎭The myth-revealing conversation between Deborah and Ava.
  • 🎭Sharp observations about the entertainment industry.
  • 🎭The gallows humor (and emotional vulnerability).
  • 🎭The waxwork twist.
  • 🎭Strong callbacks to previous episodes.

Against

  • 🎭George is a plot device (which is the point) but might bristle with some.

This post contains detailed spoilers for Hacks "Falling" and "New Eyes."  
Check out our 
last review here.

Generational conflict is a cornerstone of Hacks, but even with the dynamite women leading this cast it would soon become tired if that is all the HBO Max comedy had to offer. The differences are obvious from the way both women approach joke-telling — Deborah needs a punchline — to the food they eat. “Falling” and “New Eyes” takes a different approach capturing bone-deep similarities that culminate in the best episode of the season to date. Airing these chapters as a pair highlights how Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) are prickly by nature and can’t help but push everyone within their orbit away. However, by the end of “New Eyes,” it is clear this partnership was a stroke of genius by Jimmy (Paul W. Downs), and sparring matches are not all they have going for them.

Up until this point, Ava’s unfiltered commentary is a shield that she uses to deflect and this droll demeanor is as much a mask as Deborah’s stacked arsenal of self-deprecating gags. The previous two episodes started chipping away at the LA comic’s hardened exterior from the feelings she still has for her ex to a difficult relationship with her parents. None of this breaks the wheel, but Ava’s whole persona is a potent mix of insecurity and superiority complex. When she makes a comment about appealing to “Panera People,” Deborah calls her out for this inherent snobbery and assesses that because she wasn’t cool in high school she is now attempting to make up for those shortcomings. Ava does not admit this pinpoint accuracy to her boss but it does come up later during a conversation with George (Jeff Ward) while doing coke in a fancy restaurant bathroom. This is the same cute guy who overheard Ava telling the front desk at the hotel that her TV wasn’t working — a requirement for a TV writer — and trying to get more complimentary toothpaste that she no longer qualifies for.

This meet-cute is the foundation for the rest of Ava’s Vegas firsts and during the entire time she has been staying at the Palmetto she hasn’t explored the nightlife beyond playing slot machines. Because Deborah is preoccupied with her blackmail plot to get Marty (Christopher McDonald) to give her dates back it gives Ava more free time to stew in her empty social life misery. At the front desk she also bumps into comedy writers she used to run with and the whole thing is desperately sad. They blow her off saying they are having an early night because they have a spa day, which immediately sounds like BS considering their location. Later, Ava sees them queuing up at the casino nightclub and Jules (Madeline Zima) explains that when she went to text her she realized what a career-obsessed opportunist Ava is. This has nothing to do with Ava’s “Scarlett T” and she is told, “you were an asshole before the tweet”. Again, this is somewhat supported by the previous four episodes of Hacks, and her brittle edges make her hard to cozy up to. 

Not everyone feels this way and George from the front desk toothpaste encounter is her champion throughout. He has money to burn, drugs to take, and positive affirmations to offer up including how Ava should make a change if she isn’t happy. He reiterates the latter after they bump into a very drunk Deborah (Jean Smart deserves an Emmy alone for her inebriated acting), and this is one of the more cordial sparring matches between the pair. There is something off about George that I couldn’t initially put my finger on and I thought it was maybe a commentary on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but just the guy version of that trope. The next morning Ava goes to pick up breakfast sandwiches but has to use an alternate entrance as someone has jumped from their hotel room. The security guard explains it is pretty common for someone to come to Vegas and blow all their money before dying by suicide. Ava’s pace quickens as she approaches George’s room and the gaping hole where the window once was, confirms her fear. When interviewed by the police she finds out George had been found guilty of defrauding elderly people and she has very little insight to offer (“He was a Pappa Geno’s guy”) as she spoke about herself all night “because I fucking suck.”

It has all the elements of a tragicomedy and George is ultimately a means to finding out more about Ava: he is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy way with a twist. She has sent Jimmy — Downs directed "Falling" and makes a brief appearance — a very bad franchise idea (“first girl band during Salem witch trials”) and remembers leaving a rather emphatic quitting her job message on Deborah’s phone. Luckily, Deborah was so drunk the night before she hasn’t heard it yet. Despite the many cocktails consumed, she still remembers Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) slighting her so she invites Ava to the “retreat” instead, and all under the guise of working — she is having “eyelid maintenance.”

Hacks Episode 6

(Image credit: HBO Max)

“Eyes Open” follows on directly after the events of “Falling” and Ava’s adventures in figuring out Deborah’s passcode begin with trying her date of birth (but 10 years earlier than on Wikipedia), followed by using face ID while Deborah is sleeping off her surgery. She accidentally drops the phone on Deborah’s forehead and I winced just typing that — Deborah does question why this part of her face hurts later on. Ava has to cancel previous plans with Kiki (Poppy Liu) but she does get a wacky suggestion to her problem during this call and a waxwork holds the key. It is a triumph and results in a cartwheel split reaction from the young comic. When she deletes the voicemail she notices the other name that dominates this page on Deborah’s phone is her estranged sister who she still refuses to acknowledge (with one from Jimmy to break up the sad image).

If “Falling” is dark and messy in its conclusion, there is a ripple of gallows humor throughout “Eyes Open” when the pair bond after consuming a weed gummy each. Deborah wants to play a prank on the nurse Perla (Iris Bahr) by pretending she has stopped breathing, and suffice to say, Perla is pretty distraught by this cruel trick and Ava can’t help but cry either — and this leads to a confessional. The conversation that follows digs deep into both women and maybe being high is what they needed to break down their barriers (earlier Deborah’s “grass” aversion leads to a revelation that she used that joke in an attempt to get Graham Nash’s attention). Ava confides in her about George, which leaves her wide open for Debroah’s response, “Look on the bright side, at least you don’t have to wonder now whether he’s going to call.” Another dark joke (remember there is no line) and one that hits the spot for Ava before she reflects on how she feels so bad, which is worse because it is not about her. This moment of self-awareness is followed by her suggesting that terrible things keep happening to her because she’s a “self-centered asshole” and it must be karma.

Hacks Episode 6

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Deborah quashes this notion by remarking about the charmed life her ex lived and reveals the truth about the house-burning legend. It turns out that the whole thing was because of the dryer but Frank blamed her and everyone believed the crazy ex narrative — “If a man says to you that a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him, 'What bad thing did you do to her?” Natalie Portman said at a Variety event in 2018 and these words have stuck with me. Ava is aghast that he “defamed your ass” and after weeks of digitizing Deborah’s entire back catalog she knows every joke (including the arson ones) inside out. She could barely reference Deborah’s work in the first episode of Hacks and now she is the expert, but she had no idea this defining moment was a fabrication. The truth is her husband was jealous of her late-night offer so he blew up their life together leaving Deborah broke because everything was in his name. The amount she works is because she had to start from scratch after their sitcom was canceled. Standup was a means to an end but when an offhand joke about setting his house on fire was a crowd-pleaser and she leaned into it to make money from the lie. 

Who’s Making Dinner? gave Ava the impression he was a good partner and Deborah notes that “he was a good husband for a little while.” They made each other funnier and she explains “it was amazing until it wasn’t.” She remarks that she tried therapy before telling the most awful story and this gives Ava the ammunition to suggest she uses this in her act. It is all too sad for Deborah and she doesn’t see the value in using this pitiful personal history for material, but this conversation proves it is both hilarious and bleak. “You can make it funny. You can make anything funny,” Ava sincerely observes and through the stoned haze, it is the best work they have done together — and the best scene of Hacks so far. If Smart’s drunk acting is Emmy nomination-worthy then the look she gives as she turns away to hide her tears from Ava is enough to win. That this vulnerability occurs while Deborah is indulging in McDonald’s French fries (though she won’t dip it in ice cream) makes it even more beautiful before Ava suddenly doubles over in pain and kills the mood with her cramps. Deborah blames it on her diet but quickly realizes they need to call Perla — who has a hard time believing them after the earlier stunt.

In the hospital, Deborah has to tell the doctor she is “very litigious” when he suggests Ava is merely dehydrated based on the drugs in her system. It turns out she had an ovarian cyst that burst and she wasn’t overblowing the whole thing. When Deborah steps out to call Marcus she stands in front of a magazine stand with a National Enquirer she is on the cover of — likely the work of DJ’s tipoff — he is tepid with her but she makes a pastry peace offering. Little does she know that he spent his rare weekend off at her mansion mixing cocktails and hooking up with the water guy.

Rather than leaving her, Deborah stays so Ava isn’t alone and while she isn’t going to redo her act, she is considering sprinkling some of the sad stories in her routine. As with the end of the fourth episode, there is a sense of partnership but instead of being in separate bedrooms, they are together. This doesn’t mean there won’t be battle lines drawn in the remaining episodes, however, the truth has definitely set them free.