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Hacks season 2 episode 1 review: keeping secrets

Some emails cannot be unsent.

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder exit a plan in Hacks
(Image: © Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

Our Verdict

Hacks, one of the best shows of 2021, starts its second season strong.

For

  • - Deborah's swing between confidence and insecurity
  • - The Christmas room scene
  • - Jimmy's permanent exasperation
  • - The continued uneasy dynamic between Deborah and her daughter DJ

Against

  • - Not enough of the supporting cast
  • - The email tension works for now but hopefully it won't drag on

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Hacks season 2 episode 1.

Betrayal is not only baked into Deborah Vance’s (Jean Smart) standup material, but her entire brand embraces the scorned woman archetype. The award-winning Hacks season 1 showed the veteran comic leaning into the tabloid story that she set her husband’s house on fire after he cheated with Deborah’s sister. No one believed it was a dryer fire when it happened, so why shouldn’t she make money based on this rumor. 

Now she will set the record straight via an entirely new set away from Las Vegas with her Gen Z writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder). Ava’s honesty and unfiltered observations have opened Deborah’s eyes; however, Ava is now harboring a huge secret that threatens the newfound harmony with her boss.

"There Will Be Blood" begins where we left the duo with Deborah and Ava aboard the private jet returning from Ava’s father’s funeral. Deborah is still exuding a positive response to bombing on stage for the first time in years, but it also sounds like she is trying to convince herself. Meanwhile, Ava is preoccupied with the ticking timebomb email that she wrote while drunk and their manager Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) is desperate to talk to her alone. 

Getting a minute away from the tour planning whirlwind means hiding in Deborah’s Christmas room, full of elaborate decorations that create a hilarious and disquieting image as Ava plunges further into a worked-up state. The email sent by Ava to the creators of a new British comedy (described as a "well-observed character study of a s****y woman") was fueled by rage after a massive argument with Deborah. Now she wants nothing more than to take every terrible word she said about her boss back. 

Hannah Einbinder in a Christmas store in Hacks

Hannah Einbinder in Hacks (Image credit: Courtesy of HBO Max)

Ava calls Daisy (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) to plead with the showrunner to ignore the email, but she has already forwarded it to the studio. Daisy also notes Ava explicitly wrote they had her permission to use the contents. Ava makes matters worse by revealing the email was retaliation for Deborah slapping her and Daisy lets her go before she sheds any more material for the show. 

"I’m on a razor’s edge," Jimmy tells Ava when they confer about this big problem. The nightmare he is in the middle of is down to his assistant Kayla’s (Megan Stalter) inappropriate behavior in the finale and his comments about contacting HR were not mere threats. Martha Kelly recently stole every scene she was in as terrifying Euphoria drug boss Laurie, now she puts her measured cadence to hilarious use as Barbara from HR. Because Kayla is the boss’ daughter, the only way for Jimmy to get Kayla off his desk is to pretend he has anger issues that require mandatory classes. He gladly snatches at this opportunity and his Kayla problem is solved (for now).  

The situation with Ava is harder to resolve. Jimmy’s advice to do nothing is immediately rendered useless. He is aghast when she tells him about the call to Daisy. Jimmy warns her that Deborah will not respond lightly ("She will kill you!"). Ava semi laughs this comment off until she witnesses the depths of Deborah’s rage later in the episode.

Rather than brush Ava's grief about her dad's recent death to one side, Hacks dials up the sorrow with a dollop of the absurd. Her mother has sent half his ashes in a tennis ball tube, highlighting her prickly relationship with her mom. Ray (Joe Mande) from the front desk at the Palmetto is a surprising source of comfort and this small scene speaks to the range of this series.  

Paul W. Downs looks at Megan Stalter in Hacks

Paul W. Downs and Megan Stalter in Hacks (Image credit: Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

Given how upbeat Deborah was at the start of the episode, it doesn’t take long before this high wears off. An MMA fight at the Palmetto Casino — that until recently was home to Deborah’s stage — provides the setting for a confidence wobble. 

Daughter DJ (Kaitlin Olson) begs her to come to see her new husband, Aidan (Paul Felder), take on a formidable opponent, but Deborah is reluctant. This complex mother/daughter dynamic is littered with passive-aggressive and judgmental comments, but she agrees to this simple request after some coaxing. 

Deborah claims she is worried she will steal Aidan’s spotlight, but she is more fearful of discovering she is irrelevant. Several moments lead Deborah to sink into self-pity, beginning with not being able to use the backstage entrance to the casino as she is no longer an employee. Then running into Marty (Christopher McDonald) leaves Deborah speechless when introduced to his new girlfriend. Instead of the string of young women he dates, she meets someone age-appropriate and she cannot get a single quip out. 

Kaitlin Olson and Jean Smart in Hacks

Kaitlin Olson and Jean Smart in Hacks (Image credit: Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

Instead, the fight she didn’t even want to attend gives Deborah a new lease on life. With her son-in-law expected to lose (his opponent’s nickname is the Maim Train), she recognizes a fellow underdog. When it looks like Aidan is getting pulverized, Deborah goes down to the ring to give a well-timed pep talk. She might shudder at him calling her mom, but she will gladly remind him, "You are a Vance now." It does the trick and Deborah's face splattered in blood, screaming wildly, sends a shiver down Ava’s spine. 

Einbinder spends most of the episode looking like she will vomit as she contemplates her options. How long the Hacks team will keep this secret will impact the season as this storyline could get old fast. For now, it dials up the tension and this is a solid return for the HBO Max comedy. 

New episodes of Hacks release on Thursdays on HBO Max.

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.