NOTE: This post contains spoilers for Hacks season 2 episode 6, “The Click.” Read our recap of Hacks season 2, episode 5 right here.
Embracing the past has always been part of Deborah’s (Jean Smart) routine, but she is now reexamining and recontextualizing the painful events that proceeded her standup career. We have seen snippets of the new material getting a tepid response throughout Hacks season 2’s first five episodes and Deborah’s latest act is a work in progress.
“Going backwards” is the direction Deborah thinks the most recent gig has gone in and Ava’s (Hannah Einbinder) theory is they are working too hard. A riff on Deborah’s Salem Witch Trials descendant Betty Parris immediately falls through when they discover she was an accuser rather than a persecuted figure. “How quickly can you get to Memphis?” Deborah asks an unseen figure after another idea goes south. Not one but two familiar faces join the tour in Memphis, which helps push the story forward.
First up is Kiki (Poppy Liu), who after answering Deborah’s call arrives in fabulous style on the back of a motorcycle. A blackjack game was her pre-show routine for years and this immediately soothes the star. While she doesn’t need to make the same jokes, it might help to tap back into the confidence of the past. This doesn’t work. Neither does the presence of one of Deborah’s 11 stalkers (it used to be 12, but one of them died).
It’s a sign things have got bad when Deborah yells out to her stalker to get his attention rather than the other way around. At first, Axel (Kyle Gass) pretends he hasn’t seen her, then describes her new work as “kind of a bummer.” Trying to get validation from a man who used to send her a Ziploc bag of his pubic hair is a brand new low. A trip to a crowded bar is required to get over this hump.
The second visitor is unexpected. “Woo! Girls’ night out!” Ava’s mother, Nina (Jane Adams), yells in delight mere seconds after Deborah’s stalker convo; her energy is not exactly meshing with Deborah’s mood. Deborah explains over drinks in a crowded bar that it’s “not about laughs, it’s a feeling” in regards to what’s missing from her set. Perhaps getting laid will help and Kiki offers to take a lap of the venue with her.
A guy in his 40s (played by Devon Sawa) seems interested in Deborah at the bar, even if Deborah’s confidence is initially bruised when he doesn’t recognize her. “Why are you talking to me? Do you have a fetish for older women?” Deborah asks. It’s bewildering to her that he is attracted to her without the bells and whistles of fame. He invites her back to his place and she experiences her first kiss with him in her first Uber.
Deborah shares a story about a scar in the post hookup glow, which leads to her one-night-stand asking whether she is close to her sister. “We were. Then she ran off with my husband.” It’s a story she has told many times, but she brings up her part in the breakdown of her relationships on this occasion. This conversation plants a seed that gives Deborah the feeling she has been waiting for on stage.
“Pop off, slut!” is Ava’s excited reaction to finding out about Deborah’s hook-up as she walks onto the Memphis Comedy Club stage. Midway through the joke about her sister stealing her husband, she stops dead and pivots to the story about losing the late-night show as the worst thing that ever happened to her — “I got over my husband, but I never got over that.” It’s the first time she tells this story to an audience and the bit kills.
The look on her face as she realizes she is getting that feeling is incredibly satisfying and Smart keeps Deborah in the moment while conveying the bigger story. Ava worries it’s still self-deprecating, but Deborah (rightly) argues that she needs to make fun of herself by admitting when she is wrong. “You had the answer months ago,” she tells her writer about the “stupid email” that held the key.
It has been a couple of episodes since the email litigation was last referenced in detail and Ava doesn’t want her mother to know about this legal issue. Unfortunately, a spilled fizzy water in Ava’s hotel room leads to this secret coming to light. “Ava, what did you do?” is her mother’s first reaction before worrying if Deborah will also come after what little assets she has. This quickly spirals into an argument and Ava finds it impossible to talk to her mom about serious matters.
Long before the water spills over Ava’s things, a lack of communication existed between mother and daughter. When Ava mentions being clinically depressed as a teen, her mother blames it on the fact she had an iron deficiency. Nina would rather avoid discussing the uncomfortable truths but this avoidance is damaging.
Ava is worried as her mom is involved in a multi-level marketing (MLM) business, which is an updated version of a Ponzi scheme created to take advantage of women like Nina. “I was hoping you would be proud of me for doing something,” Nina tells her daughter, as the loss of her husband has hit her hard. It’s the closest they get to a serious conversation, but there are no quick fixes. It’s a small step though and they even manage to watch the end of Pretty Women before her mom has to leave.
Nina’s spillage ruins the notebook containing everything Ava and Deborah have been working on but it doesn’t matter after Deborah’s onstage epiphany because they have a whole new perspective to play with. The montage that follows succinctly (and hilariously) showcases the evolution of this set into a success and this is Hacks at its most potent. Next stop, Los Angeles and a comedy special!
New episodes of Hacks debut on HBO Max on Thursdays.