What to Watch Verdict
Nothing brings a family together quite like birthdays, weddings and funerals, which the Hacks creative team understands as we head into the final run of episodes.
The continued evolution of Deborah and Ava's relationship
The surprising (and emotional) turns the narrative takes
The very funny supporting cast
Deborah's takedown of Drew
Marcus and Wilson's blossoming romance
Airing two episodes a week gives us less time to savor
NOTE: This post contains detailed spoilers for Hacks "Tunnel of Love" and "1.69 Million." Check out our last review here.
Nothing brings a family together quite like birthdays, weddings and funerals, which the Hacks creative team understands as we head into the final run of episodes. So there isn’t actually a funeral in either "Tunnel of Love" or "1.69 Million," but the latter includes a wake of sorts for the many women who have put up with misogynistic comments (and much worse) whenever they perform in a comedy club. It's a revelatory moment for Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and this lightning in a bottle sequence is caught on multiple audience member’s phones.
The opening of last week’s double bill depicted the veteran comic telling variations of the same jokes on repeat and Ava’s call for more honest material is finally having an impact. Slowly shifting from oppositional points of view to a shared but still combative relationship has done wonders for both women and each episode surpasses the one before it.
Sad confessional stories are something Deborah is willing to sprinkle in during midweek routines, however, her perspective quickly shifts when Marty (Christopher McDonald) tells her the record-breaking 2,500 show will be her last. Hiring Ava to freshen her set and even blackmail is not enough to save her casino residency and Marty willing to take the financial hit. During "Tunnel of Love, it seemed Marty was planning to one-up Deborah, rather he was simply trying to find the right moment to tell her the painful news. In reality, there is no malice, but he is a coward and blames the mood of the evening for waiting until after he hooked up with her to drop this bombshell. This is another pair of episodes that follow on directly from each other and this continuation justifies why HBO Max is airing Hacks this way — although it would be preferable to spread it over 10 weeks to savor each moment.
The generation gap is felt in every aspect of the series and this takes on a more pointed turn in "1.69 million." First of all, they clarified that Ava is Gen Z via a snarky comeback to being called an "entitled Millennial" by Deborah. They are having a drink with Deborah’s old comedy friend Francine (Anna Marie Horsford) and catching up on their long history. This includes the news that the old proprietor Ira has died and neither woman is sad the man who was nicknamed "Old Saint Dick" has passed. Ava is horrified when she finds out that this man was a sexual predator — Deborah jokes that she thinks he had the same pharmacist as Bill Cosby — and later brings it up when they are in the green room prepping.
"Eh, what you gonna do?" is Deborah’s seemingly flippant response to Ava’s ongoing distress at the experience she and countless women experience. Ava says she can’t stop thinking about the women who gave up comedy because men like Ira went unchallenged. Similar to other forms of entertainment, stand-up has faced a reckoning since the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light and survivors spoke out about famous men in comedy.
"I was affected. It pissed me off that I had to deal with that and then he gets to take credit for me, put my photo up on his fucking wall," Deborah comments before getting back to the set at hand. But Ava can’t let it go and while she doesn’t want to victim blame she still can’t understand why her boss didn’t do something. Her answer is a familiar story of a man with power who controlled so much of the comedy club landscape and if you spoke out there would be no career to speak of.
However, Ava questions why she didn’t do something when she became rich and famous. This doesn’t sit well with Deborah and the suggestion that she was only looking out for herself causes her to kick Ava out — not only is she offended but it is clear she is nervous about the set.
Rather than pitting two stubborn women who won't back down, this disagreement leads to another utterly surprising sequence that highlights the partnership’s impact. The first major turning point was Ava seeing the unaired late-night pilot, followed by last week’s myth blasting revelation. Now, rather than sit back and maintain her brand, Deborah fights back against the Iras of the world with a pointed takedown of emcee and usual headliner Drew (Adam Ray).
Drew’s initial introduction tells us all we need to know about him, but it's when Deborah sees how he talks to a fellow female comedian that her workshopped material goes out the window. In an industry dominated by men, there are certain aspects that have become part of the fabric, and even though there has been a shift, plenty of sleazy men still walk the comedy club halls. Introducing the stand-up icon he leans into lazy and sexist jokes that only cements his funeral:
"He’s pretending to flirt with me, so I have two options. I can shoot him down and not play along but then I’m a bad sport and not funny and a cold bitch etc etc etc. And if I do that it’s awkward and it’s going to be harder to win you back. Or, I do play along, which let’s face it is easier and I’m sexualizing myself on his terms."
The whole act is thrilling, pointed, full of fury and also very funny. "Death, taxes, and this f***ing guy," Deborah observes when explaining how there is nothing new about anything Drew has said or will ever say on stage. Breaking the cycle (or at least getting rid of one Drew) will cost $1.69 million, a figure Deborah throws out after she asks what it will take for men like him to stop (he answers $69 million). Egged on by the crowd he agrees to the terms ensuring he never sets foot in a comedy club again — no Drew, you can’t have a podcast — and while we don’t see the fallout or the online reaction yet, it is clear this has given Deborah a new lease of life.
Not even her sister’s surprise appearance outside the club can do anything to dampen the evening. Deborah is terrifyingly close to hitting Kathy with her car (she claims she knew she would move in time), remarking “never forgive, never forget,” which feels like something you would find stitched on a cushion on Etsy.
Family is a contentious point for Deborah and Ava, with the latter dealing with her father’s desire to visit. While there have been some hints that he is sick, this week we find out that he had a stroke two months previous and he is still on oxygen. Ava’s mother is furious that her daughter would encourage this trip, even though Ava tried to dissuade her dad from coming. When Ava sees home is calling she visibly clenches before relaxing when she hears the warm voice on the line. The difference between her relationship with her mother and father is stark and this helps explain why she is invested in Deborah and DJ’s (Kaitlin Olson) happiness.
DJ’s birthday-turned-engagement party provides the backdrop for the hilarious and heartbreaking events in "Tunnel of Love" that smartly turns another mother/daughter communication breakdown into a beautiful scene of acceptance. The years of animosity between the pair means they are incapable of expressing themselves, but Deborah delivers a heartfelt toast ("For me, it was always better" she says about bringing a young DJ on tour).
An offhand comment at the end about paying for her prenup is an accidental grenade because DJ doesn’t want to go down this route. Sex tapes and a stint with Scientology are less egregious to Deborah and soon they are flinging painful missives at one another. Considering the financial disaster her mother faced after her divorce it is hardly surprising she wants to protect her only child, however, the caustic (and very public) spat is ill-advised
Getting caught in the middle of this fight is also best avoided, but Ava is now one of DJ’s designated girlfriends and therefore is called upon to help talk her down from the expensive beauty products massacre she is creating in her mom’s bedroom. This conversation is revelatory for both women as Ava tells DJ to stop waiting for her mother to be proud of her and do something that makes her happy. She also realizes that the sex(ish) dream she had about Deborah is probably because this is her closest relationship with someone she hasn’t hooked up with (the fact she watched Carol the night before likely contributed).
The unfortunate part is DJ takes this advice to heart. When she asks Ava for a ride home with Aidan (Paul Felder), she directs her to a drive-thru chapel. Instead of berating her daughter’s impulsiveness, Deborah silently watches the quickie ceremony via FaceTime after Ava calls to give her the news. The narrative zigs when you expect it to zag, and the choice to shut up and be happy for her daughter turns what could’ve been a scene full of anger into one brimming with love. The surprise events of the evening put her in an emotionally vulnerable position and then into Marty’s welcoming arms.
Love is also in the air for Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) as he not only brings Wilson (Johnny Sibilly) to DJ’s party much to Deborah’s chagrin — she fires off a joke about him not being able to have any more water — but commits to a weekend in the wilderness. The latter causes him to temporarily panic in "1.69 Million" and flee the restaurant before he turns back around and embraces this new romance. Marcus has spent so long thinking about Deborah that he hasn’t ever really considered his personal life. In "Tunnel of Love" we find out his Deborah Vance origin story and getting deeper insight into this character combined with the tentative steps he is taking with Wilson is wonderful.
"1.69 Million" ends with a potential spanner being thrown into the blossoming Ava and Deborah team-up as a very high Kayla (Megan Stalter) FaceTimes to tell Ava she has set a meeting up with the British creative team behind a critically beloved series. She has just hit her stride with Deborah and this timing couldn’t be worse.
- One of the funniest moments in "Tunnel of Love" is DJ’s piano recital (all while wearing teetering perspex pleaser heels) of the Jurassic Park theme and Ava’s stunned reaction. Deborah is less effusive, noting this is all she has to show for $100,000 on piano lessons.
- Costume designer Kathleen Felix-Hager delivers several standout garments including Ava’s party frock (paired with her "chimney sweep" boots, of course) and more sparkling performance attire for Deborah — though this jacket is on the more casual end of the spectrum.
- Kiki (Poppy Liu) is also suffering from a disagreement with her daughter, but the words causing her pain are from a 3-year-old. They have forgiven each other by the end of episode 7 and this very funny preoccupation of Kiki's captures how personal things can feel even when the person saying them has no idea.
- The montage of Ava and Deborah working on new material while Ava temporarily lives at her mansion is set to "Nothing From Nothing" by Billy Preston and is delightful from start to finish.
- The attention to detail on Hacks remains unchallenged from the excellent photoshop on the first photo of Marcus with Deborah (his double pukka shell necklace) to Ava’s text conversation with her father that includes previous messages that have nothing to do with the plot.
- Ava took the photo of Deborah from the comedy club and frees her from Ira’s claim to her fame. It is a beautiful gesture.
Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.