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Hacks season 2 episode 4 review: unchartered waters

Deborah has no cruise control.

Jean Smart in Hacks
(Image: © Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

Our Verdict

It is hit and miss for Deborah on a lesbian cruise, but a big win for viewers with another strong episode.

For

  • Ava and Deborah's bonding manicure
  • The rousing tipsy performance by Deborah (and her fall from grace)
  • Ava getting a brief win
  • The use of the ship's horn for comedy
  • Carl Clemons-Hopkins delivery of Marcus'breaking point

Against

  • How will the other supporting characters factor this season?

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Hacks season 2 episode 4, "The Captain’s Wife ” Read our recap of Hacks season 2 episode 3 right here.

Hacks switches the road for the ocean when Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) embarks on a gay cruise and the "money" gig offers a chance to bask in the comfort of her classic material. Unfortunately, a distracted Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) did not read the specifics when signing the lesbian cruise contract. Deborah discovers this error when she bumps into Margaret Cho (playing herself). The use of the ship’s horn timed to Deborah’s shocked look is comedy perfection as this season continues to hit the high notes. 

Giddiness quickly replaces reluctance when Ava (Hannah Einbinder) steps aboard the ship — not a boat, as the running gag hilariously points out. Deborah feels differently about this predicament: "It’s terrible. Gay men get me. They always have. Lesbians aren’t my crowd." Ava’s suggestion that years of telling jokes at the expense of lesbians is the cause is ignored. Instead, Deborah believes "they feel threatened," which is a big clue why things fall apart later. 

Ava continues her quest to refrain from alcohol, but once again, she finds a reason to switch out her non-alcoholic beverage for booze. The rules of the land don’t apply on the open sea and Ava embraces this philosophy to forgo the boundaries she set. After the stress of losing her father and the email rift, it's good seeing Ava take a break from self-flagellation. She flirts with the cruise "it couple" and bats away Deborah’s disparaging remarks and observations. 

A manicure offers a chance for the Ava and Deborah to bond after the recent conflict. It also allows Ava to ask some personal questions about Deborah’s sexuality, such as, "Have you ever considered being with a woman?" 

First, Deborah makes a joke, followed by sincerity. Ava’s bisexuality is still a puzzle to Deborah, but she seems open to having a conversation about attraction. "Your sexuality isn’t a choice. But whether or not you examine it, I think, is," Ava summarizes before throwing in a dash of signature condescension about the Kinsey scale.  

It's a lovely moment preceded by a "butt dial" from Marty (Christopher McDonald), which is all motivation enough for Deborah to leave her cabin. Unfortunately for Ava’s hands, Deborah has no desire to finish the manicure, but it does give the perfect opening line with the couple Ava likes — Deborah asks them to pick which hand looks better.

Deborah is several cocktails deep and happy to converse with fans as the evening progresses. When she hears the first few bars of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," she needs zero encouragement to go up on stage and belt out the lyrics. It is a pretty special moment and the entire bar sings along. For some reason, Deborah thinks the audience wants to see her reveal a bit of her shoulder. Another example of Deborah failing to read the room that will come back to haunt her. Yes, this performance brings the house down, yet it makes the veteran comic feel too confident. 

The following morning Deborah is the toast at breakfast and Ava is happy to see her open to both the buffet Deborah swore she wouldn’t touch and her new fans. "I should’ve embraced lesbians years ago," she says before proudly noting she is a "high femme." It has been a while since Deborah felt this good, but it all comes crashing down later. The standup routine starts well, even if she walks onto stage mimicking Ellen DeGeneres' dance moves and does the cringe-worthy shoulder revealing shimmy. 

"I’ve had the best time here," she tells the enthusiastic crowd. However, Deborah goes off-book when someone doesn’t laugh at one of her gags. "Oh, she’s not into me. This lesbian must be broken," is Deborah’s out-of-touch response when told, "you’re not my type."

The booing immediately starts and instead of going back to the material Ava wrote, she digs deeper into insults and insinuations. She gets into it with a woman who then tells her she is married to the captain and matters get worse when Deborah thinks the (not present) captain is a man. A shoe is tossed in Deborah’s direction and when she throws it back it hits someone. Suffice to say, the victory of the night before is now a distant memory.

Deborah’s big mistake is she didn’t take on anything Ava said about the jokes she has made at the expense of lesbians. They are voted off the ship before the end of the cruise. 

It is terrible timing for Ava as she has taken Molly and was in the middle of a dream with the hot couple. Deborah’s punishment is she has to watch Ava dance through her drug-induced high. Seeing Deborah fail so spectacularly because of her narrow-minded view of the world does feel satisfying. It will be interesting to see how this shifts the writer-performer dynamic.   

Molly also factors with Marcus, left unmoored by his breakup and Deborah’s absence. His mother and her BFF, Miss Loretta (Luenell), have been a regular presence in his house, but he keeps pushing them away and won’t even let them have cuddle time with his precious new puppy, Joe. A puppy he got to try and fill the vacant hole. 

Marcus is addressing his heartbreak with unhealthy distractions, such as clubbing all night and then going straight to work. He teeters on the edge of a significant spiral throughout the episode and it isn’t long before he falls.

That moment comes after Marcus bumps into Winston (Johnny Sibilly) in the club and professes his drug-fueled love for his ex. Rejected, he arrives home to discover his dog had swallowed some Adderall, but luckily he gets to the vet on time. Because he is clearly on drugs, the vet refuses to release the puppy to him and he needs to call his mother. 

An awful night ends with Deborah calling to chew him out about the lesbian cruise booking. However, Deborah immediately recognizes he is in crisis when she hears his voice breaking and invites him to join them on tour. It's a lifeline and one that plays into the nuances of this character and series.

New episodes of Hacks premiere 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.