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Warning: This article contains spoilers about the season finale of Hacks.
When it comes to comedy, there's slapstick and there's now… the Slap. But there was nothing funny about the emotional eruption that took place in the season finale of Hacks.
The foes-turned-dare-we-say-friends at the heart of the HBO Max comedy had a meltdown of epic proportions after Deborah (Jean Smart) learned that Ava (Hannah Einbinder) had lied and snuck off to L.A. for a job interview while the legendary comic was preparing to put it all on the line with a brand new show and brand new direction eschewing the easy jokes for a deeper, more introspective look back at her life and career.
The insults were hurled back and forth, culminating in Ava repeating her early season put-down that Deborah was a hack, and Deborah responding with a smack across the face. (Ava's pitch-perfect response: "Who slaps people?!") But that shocking nadir ended up acting as the storm before the calm. After scrapping the new material for her final show, Deborah reconsidered, put on the high heels, and performed the new stuff after all. And while she later told Ava that she "bombed," she at the same time felt reinvigorated and traveled across the country to attend Ava's dad's funeral and ask the writer to come out on the road with her to work on the new material.
But just as the two seemed closer than ever as they boarded Deborah's private jet to begin their new adventure, Ava got a call from her agent Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) about the drunken, revenge-fueled email she sent to the Bitch PM writers filled with horror stories of her boss. Suffice it to say, it will not all be smooth skies ahead.
We spoke to creators and showrunners Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello, and Downs about what went down in the final two episodes, and what to expect for Deborah and Ava in season 2.
HBO Max Jean Smart on 'Hacks'
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: First of all, before we get to the Hacks stuff, how do we make Bitch PM happen as a show? I feel like this is something we need to see.
LUCIA ANIELLO: I fully agree.
PAUL W. DOWNS: That's a good show right? Bitch PM.
LUCIA ANIELLO: We don't have time to do both, so we got to find someone else to run it, but I think that's a great call.
DOWNS: If anybody out there has a take on Bitch PM, we're happy to EP so send it in.
JEN STATSKY: Yeah, send it in. We're happy to just, be non-writing EPs on that one.
DOWNS: It may be time for AI-generated shows. Maybe there's some AI that could write it.
I feel like in like season two, you just need it on like a TV in the casino somewhere. So just in the background, Bitch PM is happening.
DOWNS: I have a feeling that we're not done with the fallout from Bitch PM. So it's not going away anytime soon.
I feel like I'm a writer on Bitch PM now, because now I'm about to ask about the slap scene. But obviously, this is a pivotal scene. These two have had arguments before, from when they first met, in fact, but this was next level. Tell me how you all wanted to stage this both emotionally and physically.
STATSKY: Yeah, you're right. This is an extremely pivotal scene. And actually, this was in our initial conception where we pitched the show when we marked out the season, that it would all be sort of culminating in this very intense final finale fight scene between them.
And what you see happens is that Deborah is obviously so hurt by feeling betrayed by Ava and as she speaks to it in episode 9 and the episode before letting someone in the way she let Ava in is similar to the way she let her husband in and was betrayed years ago. And so this wound is so fresh to her now. And so their emotions are super heightened in that scene. and when Ava calls her a hack, obviously it's a callback to the pilot, it just hurts so much more than in the pilot where she dismisses her and she's like, "Get out of here."
But in this, after a season's long worth of emotional bonding and letting Ava in, it's so devastating to Deborah to be called a "hack" by Ava, someone she's let in and really trusts and loves to now dismiss her like that. So that is why she responds the way you see her respond with the slap. And it was a scene we always knew we were aiming towards, and as you can imagine was, Lucia did a beautiful job directing it. It was a very intense day on set.
ANIELLO: There were a few different parts of it that were challenging. One of which was actually the choreography of the slap itself. But you know, actually, if you look very carefully when Hannah turns back, you can actually see a red mark on her face and that's not makeup - that's a real slap. The thing I wanted to be very careful of was we didn't cross-shoot it. So we shot one side and then turned around and shot the other side.
And they're both such giving actors and such professionals that, of course, they really go for it 10 out of 10 on either side, whether they're on camera or not, but I didn't also want them to feel so emotionally depleted. The thing is, I think Deborah and Ava have this antagonistic relationship with love underneath, but in real life, Jean and Hannah are just so full of love for each other completely that every time after you yell "Cut!" Jean would run to her and be like, "I'm so sorry if that one hurt!
DOWNS: While Hannah was like, "Please hit me harder."
ANIELLO: They're both Tom Cruises. They both love doing their own stunts. They both love getting in there and going crazy.
DOWNS: They're going to be strapping themselves to a plane next season.
DOWNS: Can I brag for you for a second? One moment that I love because I don't know if Lucia is going to talk about shots she did, but there's a moment when Ava is saying to Deborah, "You can't let people in, you push them away." And Deborah is shot from her mirror. So it's only in her reflection and she can't even look up, she can't look at her own reflection. She can't look back at Ava. And I love that moment because it says so much to me about not only this woman's inner world, but also their dynamic together.
ANIELLO: And also she does that again after the slap. After Ava leaves, she also turns back towards the mirror, but can't meet her own gaze. It was an emotional scene and it was really intense, but it also it's where the characters were at and I think you can see after the slap moment the little bit of welling in Ava's eyes is not because she got slapped. It's because it's over. And I think that's really the thing she's mourning very quickly in that morning moment.
DOWNS: The hardest part for me was carrying that bouquet because it was 65 pounds. The next day I was like weirdly sore in my back 'cause it was so heavy.
ANIELLO: You had to carry it for like two hours.
DOWNS: And I did many takes. So every single take I had to be in whether it was my coverage or not.
ANIELLO: It was the craziest flower bouquet I've ever seen in my life. We made it exceptionally large on purpose.
HBO Max Jean Smart on 'Hacks'
Following all that, we see Deborah debating the low heel or the high heel before her last show. Why does she ultimately pick the high heel and decide the pain is worth it?
STATSKY: When she opens that gift from Ava, which is that Time magazine cover from episode 3, this is really a woman at a crossroads of like, "Am I going to keep doing the same thing, which is been so financially successful? And you know, career-wise successful in many ways, but not emotionally fulfilling, or am I going to choose a path that is so much scarier, but perhaps will feed my soul in a way."
And so she's really like looking at that cover and I think she's reminded of this crossroads of in her life from the years prior. And she's thinking about what Ava has brought out in her just speaking more truth to her past. Like you see in episode 8 when she gets on stage and she is really honest perhaps for the first time in a very long time.
And so she makes the choice because Ava has stirred that in her. We always talked about this show is two women coming together who don't want to meet each other, but do need each other. And she needed Ava to awaken that in her. And when she steps out on that stage, we the audience see that she really did awaken that and she is going to choose that harder path.
DOWNS: And I'll just add that I think it's really telling when Marcus, who chooses not to do the painful thing, says to Deborah, "The pain's not worth it," but because she sees that last minute of encouragement from Ava, she decides the pain is worth it.
So let's take the flip side of the slap scene in Ava's bedroom later, which is the other scene that really, really struck me emotionally. Why does Ava break down and cry when Deborah tells her she can't quit because she's too good? Why is that the thing that gets her? Obviously, they just buried Ava's dad and there's a lot of emotion swirling for a lot of reasons, and maybe her relationship with her mother plays into this, but why does that line hit home?
DOWNS: Obviously she is at a funeral and so I think you never know what's going to trigger an outpouring of emotion, but we set this up in episode 2, that Deborah says, "Oh, I get it. You're a psychologist. You're certainly not a writer." She's never actually said, "You're good." She's even said, "You're not a writer. You don't know how to work hard. You don't know how to really do it." And then when she gets home, Ava hears that refrain from her mother. "Oh, you think you're a better writer than God." Nobody wants to hear from Ava.
So when in that moment, she's finally seen by Deborah and she's finally validated in her art, in the thing that she's done, as she says in a response to maybe not the best childhood and to feel connected with other people - it's so emotional because she's actually connecting, she's found a kindred spirit who sees her and sees her worth. It's making me emo just talking about it, you know?
By the way, I couldn't help but notice there are Entertainment Weekly covers all over Ava's bedroom wall. So, what does that say about Ava that she grew up a loyal EW reader?
ANIELLO: That's exactly right! She's always loved entertainment. She's loved cool shows. She's loves knowing what's hot and what's cool. And what does that more than Entertainment Weekly covers? Speaking of which, why don't we get Jean and Hannah on a cover? I mean, Deborah, giving Ava a noogie? I like it. I think it's fresh. You never see women doing that.
Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max Hannah Einbinder and Jean Smart on 'Hacks'
We'll have to focus group the noogie and see how that tests. So if the first season of this show was about two people each at a career crossroads needing each other to get their mojo back, what is it moving forward into season 2 in terms of their relationship? Especially since they generally, outside of that email message out there, seem to be in a pretty good place?
ANIELLO: I think you're exactly right. They're in a really good place right now, but there's trouble afoot. Ava, in an immature impulsive moment sent an email to those British writers, giving all the dirt on Deborah and concerning how far they've come, the idea that there's something floating out there that fully will disrupt that equilibrium of peacefulness and happiness is something that Ava's going to have to deal with in a major way.
And you know, I think that it's especially heartbreaking too, for Deborah to go to the funeral, to put herself out there to say, "You're too good." And I want her to come out on the road. For her to do all of that - somebody who says "I'll never go to a funeral," - for her to say, "Never forgive, never forget" and yet still go to those lengths for Ava in the finale to learn ultimately at some point that she sold her out? I can only imagine that will feel very devastating.
We saw Deborah make Marcus CEO. She says she wants to take all these business meetings, even after Ava's been trying to pull her back from the KFC of it all. And then on the flip side, Deborah kept telling Ava, "Oh, you just like to be the cool hip kid that makes fun of everything. You're afraid of the mainstream." How much are we going to see them sort of coming together to a happy medium, and how much is sort of still is Ava self-sabotaging and Deborah still pursuing these other corporate elements?
DOWNS: We want this to feel really true to life. And I think the truth is, is that in relationships you have moments where you backslide. You take one step forward and two steps back. And I think the long game is that they do seep into each other's consciousness and they do make each other better and they do help each other become better people. But along the way, there's going to be fun because there's also going to be some tensions just 'cause I think that's true to life.
ANIELLO: And it's easy for them to backslide. It's easy for both of them. It's what they've done for years without the other person there. So it comes naturally to both of them. So they certainly haven't gotten to a place where they're not going to do that. And I don't know if any human does. Does any human evolve so beautifully that they're incapable of reverting to their old ways? Not me.
I'm always struck by how Ava's mom is always so anxious about her daughter's livelihood as a TV writer. So does this come from personal experience from one of you, or all of you?
STATSKY: I think all three of us, not that it's necessarily a one-to-one of anyone's parents, but none of us came up in the industry or had parents who did anything anywhere near it. So certainly it's just such a weird job for parents to understand. And I get why it seems scary going from gig to gig. It doesn't make sense to people like my dad used to always be like, "Oh, you got laid off again?"
And I was like, "No, I didn't get laid off. It's just seasons. We're just on a break in between seasons." I think it's very true to people outside of the industry sometimes not really totally getting how it works.
ANIELLO: Especially with, and you're young and you haven't really figured it out or like Jen is saying you're in-between or you're trying to get staff. And everyone's like, "This just seems so unstable," which is something Jane Adams says, as Nina says. Like, who would choose to do this? You know, maybe people who can't do anything else, I guess? But I think we also understand a little bit.
DOWNS: I have a little bit of a different experience because my parents are more like, "Oh, I read that Scorsese's doing this movie. You should be in it!" My parents are so supportive. But, also, they're outside of the industry and they're like, "You know what you need? I saw this show, you've got to do a guest spot on the show." And I'm like, tell you what, from your mouth to the showrunners ears!