Photo: Karen Ballard/HBO Max
In episode four, Hacks gives Deborah a beautiful test that she fails spectacularly: a weekend aboard a lesbian cruise.
Deborah and Ava end up here because Marcus dropped the ball (more on this later) and forgot that lesbians exist while booking Deborah on a “gay cruise” — a clever jab at lesbians’ precarious position within the cultural imagination, not to mention queer culture. Gay as in lesbian, Margaret Cho informs Deborah with a smirk (in a sadly brief cameo) as she disembarks after entertaining the shipful of queer women.
After bombing all over the Southwest, Deborah was eager to perform for a boatful of adoring gay men, as she calls them: “her people.” Deborah’s horrified. “Gay men get me. Lesbians aren’t my crowd,” she complains to Ava, who suggests it might relate to Deborah’s “hundreds of thousands of jokes made at their expense” over the years. (At their first meeting, Deborah asked Ava if she was a lesbian because she was “dressed like Rachel Maddow’s mechanic.”)
In Vegas, Ava was the fish out of water; Deborah was the queen of the desert. On the cruise, Ava is the superstar. She immediately gets complimented on her Chacos and hit on by a mulleted woman named Linda who compliments her “strawberry mane.” Ava reconsiders her sobriety out of necessity after clocking a couple Linda tells her are the “lavender travel” circuit’s “It” couple. Ava was hung up on her ex-girlfriend Ruby in season one, but they ended the season on good terms as friends. This season, she’s single, horny, and has completely forgotten how to interact with queer women and people her own age.
Luckily, Deborah agrees to play wingman. They share a fun sleepover-y scene getting ready to go out. Deborah paints Ava’s nails; Ava coaches Deborah as she takes a FaceTime from her crush Marty (she wilts after it turns out to be a butt-dial). Although Deborah lies to Ava about Jimmy’s bad news (he’s struggling to find her a reputable new residency), the pair are on better terms than they’ve been all season.
The intimate, feminine ritual emboldens Ava to ask Deborah about how she writes about sex in her sets, typically in terms of unfulfilling sex with no-good men. Deborah insists it’s just a part of her shtick but admits she’s never really considered being with a woman before and that it wouldn’t have been easy to be queer when she was growing up. I love this moment because it suggests that the same baggage (Deborah’s refusal to be vulnerable, honest, and open about her desires) is holding back both her life and her comedy. This scene could so easily be a cheesy game of millennial versus boomer, where Ava lectures Deborah on the nuance and fluidity of sexuality (they do this bit, but briefly, when Ava asks Deborah if she “even knows where she is on the Kinsey scale”). But Ava reflects in real time, articulating her anxieties about her bisexuality. She feels confused about whether her attraction to men is “real” or just a factor of the premium male attention holds in society. Her one lesson to Deborah: “Your sexuality isn’t a choice, but whether or not you examine it is.”
Hacks is a show about queer characters, performed by queer actors, and written, in this case, by queer writers. But it doesn’t often explicitly “tackle queer issues,” like many queer-marketed shows, instead opting to depict queer characters living out their complicated personal lives and professional ambitions. It ends up being refreshing for the show to make use of the smart, nuanced characters it created to depict what conversations about dating, sex, and homophobia between a young queer woman and an older (ostensibly) straight woman might really look like.
However, Hacks fakes us out with the notion that Deborah might be happily eating pussy (or at least become more enlightened about queerness) by the end of the episode. Hacks is loyal to the flaws of its characters and doesn’t traffic in episode-long growth arcs. At first, it’s not clear if Deborah’s acting in entirely bad faith when, after her and Ava’s powwow, she starts flirting with a woman and takes the stage to lead the lesbians in an impromptu karaoke singalong of “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).” The next morning, she tells Ava in the buffet line that she thinks she’s a “high femme” and compliments a woman’s Chacos.
At her set, it becomes clear that Deborah has not truly warmed to lesbian culture nor reflected meaningfully on her sexuality. She’s just realized she can sell tickets to gay women too. Her set is shamelessly pandering, sexist, and homophobic. She does the Ellen dance, flirts emptily, and jokes she’s out of a dyke’s league and that the ship’s female captain can’t “parallel park.” The set ends when a Chaco is thrown at her head; soon after, she’s voted off the boat by a quorum of lesbians.
Being booed off a cruise ship in a dingy might be as rock-bottom as we’ve seen Deborah. What does it mean that she fails this test so spectacularly? This episode could have been a one-liner: Old people! Out of touch! Problematic! Instead, it asks what it takes for someone to open themselves to new ideas and experiences, especially late in their life, and especially an artist, for whom understanding and showing empathy to other people is crucial to their work. And it shows the stakes of doing so. At this point, Deborah has yet to learn how to extend the generosity, self-reflection, and empathy she shows (at least occasionally) to Ava to other people. But maybe it will take hitting rock bottom for Deborah to face her arrogance.
Deborah’s not the only character at rock bottom in this episode. Marcus has been drowning his sorrows with molly, Adderall, and a pack of club gays. It’s clear that he’s there to feel superior to a pack of messy, juvenile guys, even though he’s doing the same drugs and making the same bad choices. Sorry, but what high horse is he on when he snaps, “No offense, but I’m not a waiter, I’m a CEO,” while changing for a breakfast meeting in the club bathroom. But he’s been spending too much time partying and neglecting his career (i.e. accidentally signing Deborah up for this shitshow), the one thing that usually makes him feel good about himself. He can’t do girl boss or a slacker correctly.
The show doesn’t pull punches in depicting his spiral. Marcus returns home to discover he left Adderall within reach of his new puppy. He finds the dog whimpering on the floor. He’s humiliated when the vet won’t return the dog to him, given he’s clearly on drugs.
But the episode shows the duality of Deborah. When Marcus breaks down on the phone, explaining how badly he’s doing, she immediately softens and tells him to come to meet them on tour and take over as tour manager (sadly, this is the end of Weed’s road). Next episode, the whole gang will be back together. Ava, Deborah, and Marcus have their work cut out for them.
• There are so many ways a TV episode about a lesbian cruise could be cheap and ham-fisted, resting on easy situational humor and lesbian fashion jokes (personally, I thought there was the perfect number of Chacos bits). Kudos to Pat Regan and Ariel Karlin, who expertly wrangle an outrageous scenario to portray nuanced conversation and move each character’s arc forward. “The Captain’s Wife” is a dark horse contestant for the season’s funniest and most brutal episode yet.
• If you’re interested in the “gay diva worship” dynamic at play in Hacks with regards to Deborah’s queer staff and fans, here’s an essay breaking down 50 years’ worth of discourse on the idea “that gay men appreciate divas because the women’s struggles resonate with their own experiences in a homophobic society.”
• Ava is the MVP of this episode. She’s just trying to chill, have a threesome, and help Deborah’s sex life! It’s hard to outshine Jean Smart, but Hannah Einbinder is utterly charming, playing up her acerbic character’s dorky and earnest side as she stumbles and stutters around the boat full of beautiful women. She’s behind most of the episode’s funniest moments (like the precise way she screams “No!” like an 8-year-old being dragged from a sleepover when Deborah ruins her steamy would-have-been threesome), which are the glue between the episode’s serious, painful, and cringey scenes.
• The karaoke scene is a perfect example of how Smart pulls off the character of Deborah. She portrays Deborah as such a natural and charismatic entertainer that you never question how she got to where she is. Meryl Streep should watch herself: Smart has the cheeks and the voice.