Hacks season 2 episode 5 review: Deborah’s blast from the past

It is impossible to strike a work-life balance on tour.

Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder in a pool in Hacks season 2
(Image: © Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

What to Watch Verdict

The combination of Deborah's reckoning with her past and working closely with Ava delivers some poignant moments (with multiple laughs).


  • +

    Guest star Harriet Sansom Harris is wonderful

  • +

    The conversation in the pool at the end

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    Marcus on the tour bus is a great addition

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    Paul W. Downs's direction and that final shot


  • -

    Has the lawsuit been forgotten?

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Hacks season 2 episode 5, "Retired.” Read our recap of Hacks season 2 episode 4 right here.

One thing that Hacks' Deborah (Jean Smart), Ava (Hannah Einbinder) Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) and Damien (Mark Indelicato) share are they are all workaholics who can struggle to switch off. In the episode 5 of season 2, "Retired," a figure from Deborah’s past and a trip to the Springfield State Fair highlights the difficulty of achieving a work-life balance in this industry.

Okay, so it isn’t all work. "Retired" opens with a game of Celebrity that Ava and Damien don’t stand a chance of winning. After the stress of the lawsuit, Marcus spiraling at home and the tossed ashes, the tour bus has a relaxed family atmosphere. Ava does convince her boss they should work as a joke about her business manager stealing millions isn’t landing with a punch. 

Seeing them in creative mode gives us a break from lawsuit sniping, although it also feels like this rift has been forgotten. It's not necessarily bad to focus on their collaboration; however, I wonder how the litigation will factor. Workshopping jokes are interrupted by news that Debra’s signature scent of 25 years, "Black Pashmina," has been discontinued, which requires a detour to the nearest Lord & Taylor to snap up their remaining stock. An unscheduled stop is not contentious now that Weed (Laurie Metcalf) is no longer in charge of the itinerary.

Harriet Sansom Harris in Hacks

Harriet Sansom Harris in Hacks (Image credit: HBO Max)

At the department store, the mother-daughter dynamic is in full force when Deborah buys clothes Ava has no interest in ever wearing — there is a hilarious gag involving a pair of $800 loafers. Deborah runs into Susan (Harriet Sansom Harris), who retired from comedy back in the 70s and now works for commission in this store. The meeting dredges up something awful the veteran star did to her friend.

Deborah immediately regrets inviting Susan to the state fair and tells Ava the truth behind her guilty frame of mind. While performing a standup showcase in Reno, Deborah erased Susan’s name off the board that listed the event's finalists. She explains there was only room for one woman to go on the next part of the tour and Deborah saw her as stiff competition. Susan retired from comedy afterward; Deborah always blamed herself. 

At the state fair, Susan shows up with her two young grandsons and Deborah thinks the way to compensate is to treat them to whatever rides, games and food they desire. Unfortunately, Deborah’s competitive streak rears its ugly head and ruins the friendly atmosphere. "You haven’t changed one bit," Susan later observers, which leaves an opening for Deborah to reveal the truth. 

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Hannah Einbinder sit for a caricature in Hacks

Carl Clemons-Hopkins and Hannah Einbinder in Hacks (Image credit: Karen Ballard/HBO Max)

Instead of getting mad, Susan explains Deborah had nothing to do with her quitting. Or rather, she did, but not for the reason she thinks. On that particular tour, a 10-year-old DJ stole a bottle of vodka and got a concussion after hitting her head. Deborah can remember a joke she told in her set but not her daughter’s injury and a pregnant Susan saw this as a cautionary tale. "I couldn’t do it. Or I didn’t want to," she says about making the same sacrifices. It's a beautifully handled scene with Smart and guest star Harris nailing the complicated dynamic. 

Meanwhile, Marcus and Ava's relationship improves with bonding time at the fair. Marcus doesn’t know how to unwind either and when Ava convinces him to sit for a caricature artist, they both struggle to name hobbies unrelated to work. Marcus tells Ava about his recent miserable time involving his breakup and the near-tragedy with his dog (he swears her to secrecy). Marcus finally agrees to go on one ride with her. Even workaholics can have fun.  

Later, after Deborah’s set is upstaged by the live stream of a cow giving birth to twin calves, Susan sincerely tells her, "You hang in there." This hits Deborah hard as she felt pity that her friend works in retail, but Susan is content, whereas Deborah is still grinding it out. 

"After all this competitive s***, for what?" she reflects later to Ava while dangling their legs in the hotel pool. Deborah wonders whether she should’ve retired and gone out on top. "Who are you kidding? You could never retire," Ava responds, recognizing a fellow workaholic. Vegas was the top of a hill, but now Deborah has a mountain to climb. 

Jean Smart in Hacks

Jean Smart as Deborah Vance performing in Hacks (Image credit: HBO Max )

In the previous episode, Ava noted that she doesn’t know how to swim, so Deborah takes this opportunity to teach her protege how to float. They continue to workshop the business manager gag and Ava hits on a punchline that makes Deborah laugh. Beneath the surface, there are still problems between the pair, but it's a distant memory — for now. Director Paul W. Downs ends on a stunning final shot of Ava floating in the pool.

Downs also shows up on-screen as Jimmy, who has an enlightening conversation with his assistant. Jimmy has to cancel his weekend plans to work and he is surprised to find Kayla (Meg Stalter) has also come in, even though it's a Saturday. Kayla is angling for some time off to go to the dentist (aka vacation); she isn’t simply a caricature of an assistant coasting by on her dad’s funds. 

Stalter is probably the funniest person on the show, but it would get boring if Kayla were nothing more than a caricature. Thankfully, after she cuts her finger while making Jimmy a virgin Pina Colada, the pair have a moment that doesn’t leave Jimmy pulling his hair out. Kayla wants to prove herself, which earns some respect from her boss. He gives her some scripts to do some coverage on, which she gladly accepts before Googling this task. Baby steps, but it's a start.

Deborah is still finding her feet on the road, but the harmonious atmosphere and this reckoning with a face from the past could be the push she needs to connect the dots and figure out what she wants to say.

New episodes of Hacks debut on HBO Max on Thursdays.

Emma Fraser

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.