‘Hacks’ Season 2 Recap: ‘There Will Be Blood’
Picture: HBO Max
Season two of hacks opens on the pale, sweaty face of Ava Daniels. His eyes widen. She frantically shakes her leg. Looks like she’s about to vomit on the cream-colored leather of Deborah Vance’s private jet.
To recap where the first season left off: Deborah (Jean Smart) loses her residency but is convinced by Ava (Hannah Einbinder) to ditch her crazy divorcee shtick and write a new act of raw, personal material. In turn, Deborah convinced Ava to ditch the mad rush to Los Angeles and go on tour with her. But their relationship is complicated, tinged with notes of mother-daughter, enemies-rivals, to which is added an almost erotic affair (everyone wants it!). In the finale, “I Think She Will”, Deborah and Ava had an explosive fight in which Deborah, who mistakenly believed Ava was abandoning her for a TV job (she turned it down), slapped her. She redeemed herself by flying out to care for Ava at her father’s funeral in Boston. But somewhere between the slap and the wake, Ava got lost and sent an email full of damaging stories about Deborah to a pair of writers who had previously tried to enlist her to write for their TV show on a crazy diva-boss character based on Deborah.
And so their truce is fragile at the start of season two. Let’s not forget, Deborah and Ava are both self-centered jerks (they grow up!) prone to responding to pain with cruelty and reckless acts of self-sabotage. And with that, “There Will Be Blood” picks up where Season 1 left off: Deborah and Ava return to Vegas to begin Deborah’s reimagining. Ava looks like she’s about to vomit because she thinks Deborah will find out about The Email as soon as they land. Luckily for her, she’s wrong: her crime doesn’t appear in this episode, but rather serves to keep you hooked from the opening shot of the season.
While Ava waits to be fired or murdered, Deborah has never looked better. She bombarded with new material during her last residency show, but felt more alive failing than receiving standing ovations for her sleepwalking sets. She’s awfully friendly with Ava and doesn’t blink when they pass her face replaced on the side of the Palmetto by that of a Swedish DJ named MC Ludwig or during the many logistical issues emerging with her hastily planned tour. She doesn’t take it out on Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) when he points out that many rooms will be booked. Or to Marcus (Carl Clemons-Hopkins) when he tells her that her favorite tour bus is used by Lil Uzi Vert or that her makeup artist quit to work with the Blue Man Group. She’s a whole new Deborah, who is usually a demanding bully of her employees, as if Miranda Priestly got up. (Come to think of it, Ava is reminiscent of the the devil wears Pradait is Andy, the two aspiring writers who do glamorous work they think is beneath them. Alright, watch this space.)
Ava is just happy that Deborah is distracted enough to try to clean up her mess, but an attempt to scare off the writers backfires. Ava ends up revealing The Slap. But it’s obvious that Ava isn’t just worried about covering her ass – now she really wants to see Deborah succeed and certainly doesn’t want to be the thing that gets in her way. Meanwhile, Jimmy attempts to reverse the crisis by going through the writers’ agent. But here’s Chekhov’s email: it’s only a matter of time before it kicks in.
And what about the rest of the beloved supporting cast? Well, Jimmy is in an HR situation with Kayla (the role that brought Meg Stalter into the world), the daughter of his assistant-boss, who is obsessed with him. Their intervention, facilitated by an HR manager (played by the gloriously dead-eyed, squeaky-eyed Martha Kelly), ends with Jimmy agreeing to fabricate anger management issues so Kayla can be reassigned. But it’s also only a matter of time before Kayla finds her Jimmy.
We also get the inside scoop on Marcus, who was dumped by Wilson at the end of season one when Marcus couldn’t commit to a work-life balance. Marcus stops by Wilson’s apartment on the pretense of returning a half-full bag of granola and a bottle of Flonase. He’s not there, but Marcus stays behind while Deborah is on tour, so there’s plenty of time to win Wilson back.
The unsung scene stealer of hacks is Kaitlin Olson, who plays DJ, Deborah’s adorably moronic failed daughter. Smart and Olson’s dynamic is a masterpiece: DJ is equally irritated with Deborah and desperate for her approval. Deborah feels perpetually guilty for being absent when DJ needed her most, but she’s exasperated by his wacky choices. DJ brings out the tender and vulnerable side of Deborah. One of the most heartbreaking moments of the first season was when Ava realized that Deborah was allowing DJ to make money from tabloid photos so DJ could feel empowered.
This season, DJ is undergoing IVF and considers herself “essentially a military wife” as she supports her husband Aidan’s MMA career. Aidan is a doofus, but he’s a nice doofus who wants to have a relationship with his stepmother. So Deborah agrees to support Aidan’s UFC fight, which happens to be at the Palmetto. When Deborah is turned away from the staff entrance and sees that Marty’s new girlfriend is awfully age-appropriate and French (as opposed to her standard 20-something models), the underdog fight d ‘Aidan becomes an indicator of Deborah’s rebound from her fall. In the bathroom, Deborah confesses to Ava that the bad reviews for her last residency show hurt because they came from her hometown newspaper. “They never laughed at me in Los Angeles or New York,” admits Deborah. “At least they wanted me here. Now the Review-Journal says it’s not my town anymore. It’s the episode’s emotional climax and the first hint of what Deborah expects from her reimagining tour. Yes, she was on top in Vegas, but did being on top feel like a part of her was settling in? Did she aspire to do more ambitious work and be celebrated in the wider comedy industry? Now that Vegas has dumped her, she’ll be forced to answer those questions.
In a closer sequence, Deborah acts as a ringside coach for Aidan, giving him a pep talk of fire and brimstone (the fact that Smart can give me chills in this comedic scenario: See the smartness). After her victory, she decides that she and Ava will go on the road together, just the two of them, that night. But first, she and Ava borrow Aidan’s paintball gun and use it to shoot ugly red splatters all over MC Ludwig’s new Palmetto poster. There’s old Deborah.
• The MMA fight scene is a perfect example of how hacks operates the casinos and malls of Vegas in search of perfect and improbable characters and moments: confessions in a hotel luggage room, a confrontation in an antique store, a street sign dedication ceremony , the one-night stand of Ava who came to Vegas to blow her money before jumping out the window. Plus, the Vegas jokes were on fire in this episode, like Deborah comforting DJ about her IVF setback: “Last time you did that, you were ghosted by Carrot Top.” I’m sad to see Deborah and Ava walk away from this whole mess, but thrilled to see the havoc they’ll wreak on dives, dinners, and drives on a comedy tour.
• The Kayla-Jimmy scenes don’t always strike me. Stalter is always funny, but Kayla’s eccentricity seems confusing at times. I hope hacks will take a few minutes this season to explain why she is so attached to Jimmy. That said, there’s a hilarious back-and-forth in which Kayla insists she remembers Jimmy changing his diaper when she was a baby: “Kayla, don’t you remember being a baby !”
• Gotta scream the show’s perfect opening scene: a laughing Lucia Aniello joint that highlights hacks‘ ability to go from silliness to scary drama in no time. Just as Deborah and Ava land, and their phones buzz, Deborah roars, “Oh my God, WHAT DID YOU DO.” Ava moans that she can explain herself. But Deborah yells at her corgi, Barry, who ate a grape (“BARRY, LEAVE IT – YOU KNOW GRAPES CAN KILL YOU”) and orders Ava to retrieve the grape from his mouth.
• Ava and Deborah are in a weird place right now. They are neither at each other’s throats nor at the level of intimate closeness they achieved last season. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Ava looks horrified as she watches Deborah disfigure the Palmetto – when she would normally be cheering her on. Instead, all she can think about is how scared she is of what Deborah is capable of doing to her. I’m very excited for The Email to surface, both for the bloody outburst and the reconciliation.