‘Hacks’: Jean Smart on How Deborah May Handle Her Explosive Finale Fight With Ava in Season 4: ‘I Don’t Think She’ll Apologize’

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for “Bulletproof,” the Season 3 finale of “Hacks.”

The hacks of “Hacks” are moving up in the world, but not without a cost.

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After tireless work alongside Ava (Hannah Einbinder), Jimmy (Paul W. Downs) and Kayla (Megan Stalter), the penultimate episode of “Hacks” Season 3 saw Deborah finally land the late-night hosting gig she’d been dreaming of since having her first chance taken away decades ago. In the finale, titled “Bulletproof,” her celebration gets cut short as she starts to prepare for the onslaught of pressure to come.

It hasn’t been long since Deborah reinvited her sister Kathy (J. Smith-Cameron) into her life after cutting her off years ago for having an affair with her husband, but she then distractedly whittles down a weekend they’d planned together to a single day, during which she reveals that she secretly had their parents’ remains removed from their original gravesite while she and Kathy were still fighting. Kathy, at this point, is tired of apologizing for the affair when it’s clear that Deborah has been horrible to her, too — and resolves to walk away from the relationship.

Deborah then goes to visit Biff Cliff (Hal Linden), the retired network executive who canceled her original late night show, to sheepishly ask why her first one failed. He’s surprised that she doesn’t understand it was simply a PR nightmare — after Deborah discovered her husband and Kathy together, her husband spread a false rumor that she burned down Kathy’s house — to which she responds that she’d always things would have worked out if she was more talented, as other comics have had big scandals. Biff points out that those comics were men. He wishes her good luck, saying, “All you gotta do is pray that something doesn’t happen that gives them an excuse to say no.”

Deborah takes that advice to heart. Though she’s already offered Ava the head writer position on her show, she decides to lie that the network is forcing her to keep the show’s previous head writer — who is a man, of course. Ava is heartbroken, until she runs into network exec Winnie Landell (Helen Hunt), who tells her Deborah can hire whoever she wants. Ava confronts Deborah, leading to their biggest fight yet — in Deborah tells her that the show has to be “bulletproof,” and she’s willing to lose Ava to make it so.

When Ava later turns up at a meeting about the show, Deborah thinks she’s convinced her to accept a lower position on the writing staff; instead, a grinning Ava tells Deborah that if she can’t be head writer, she’s going to leak the information that Deborah slept with network exec Bob Lipka (Tony Goldwyn) before getting the host gig. Incensed, Deborah agrees to give Ava the job.

Smart spoke to Variety about the pain behind Deborah’s final conversation with Kathy, what she needed from Biff — and the lessons she’s trying to teach Ava.

“Hacks” has been building up Deborah’s traumatic history with her sister, Kathy, for years now. With J. Smith-Cameron joining the cast, how did it feel to finally have a person to look and direct all of Deborah’s rage and sadness at?

It was probably good that they waited ’till Season 3 to do that, when the audience is really invested in the characters, because it is a little heavier than some of the other stuff we do. I’ve always been a fan of J.; she’s a fantastic theater actress, and I was addicted to “Succession.” Also, I think she looks like she could be my little sister!

Family relationships, when they’re not smooth, are one of the most painful things in the world. It’s like no other kind of heartbreak, not even with a friend or boyfriend. Discord between family members is just particularly painful.

Do you think it’s genuine that Deborah wants to rebuild this relationship? Or does she just like the ego boost of Kathy desperately wanting to be back in her life?

No, I really think that she’s she’s starting to grow weary of hanging on to that bitterness and anger. She starts to realize that it just hasn’t gotten her anywhere; it’s not doing her any good. Her life is changing: She’s dealing with her own mortality, and she’s about to become a grandmother — though I’d be surprised if she allows anyone to call her “Grandma” — so I do think, as much as she’s capable of, it’s something that she hoped would work out. But she’s really honest: “I’m just not ready. I want to be, but I’m not. I’m still so angry.” Kathy really did take everything from her, because her sister was the only family she had. So she lost her family and her husband in one moment.

The scene where Deborah visits the network executive who took away Deborah’s late night show all those years ago, is particularly painful. She’s usually pretty jaded, but she seems almost naive while admitting to Biff that she thought the scandal wouldn’t have mattered if she was talented enough. How did that feel to play?

Hal Linden — I’ve always been a fan. He’s just adorable, and what an inspiration, my God! I hope I’m still doing what he’s doing when I’m 91. Yeah, it was a very different light that we saw Deborah in. He was probably one of the few human beings on the planet that she would ever choke out that question in front of, because he was always the big boss, like He was like [former CBS boss] Les Moonves, or whoever you want to think of as the head of a network. She really did think, “Maybe I wasn’t funny enough, or I wasn’t good enough,” and he told her, “It’s because you were a woman.” They only need one excuse to cancel you, and being a woman gives them one more. That’s probably still true in a lot of situations. And that was a bitter pill to swallow. She really needed to hear it from someone she knew would not sugarcoat it.

In their previous fights, like when Deborah sues Ava, it has felt like Deborah is trying to teach Ava a lesson. But when Ava finds out Ava lied about the head writer job, she slams Deborah for beginning to make decisions out of fear. How did this fight feel different to you?

It was very different. I didn’t love being that awful to her, oh God. When she looks at me and says, “Would it be worth it to you to lose me?” And Deborah says, “Yeah,” basically — I think she means it. I don’t know. She thinks she means it.

There’s a part of her that feels justified in thinking, “This little girl! Come on, now. You still haven’t learned the lessons I’ve been trying to teach you. This is a brutal business, and you’re young and you don’t get it. I’m giving you the No. 2 writing position on a late night talk show. You should be head-over-heels thrilled, and the fact that you’re pushing me and demanding is really pissing me off. Just be grateful and shut up, and you’ll eventually get that job. Why can’t you be happy with that?”

There’s a part of that feels really justified in being that hard with her. But she did just offer it and take it away, and that’s horrible.

Ava says during the fight that Deborah will never put her or anyone else first. Do you think that’s true?

I don’t know. I hate to think that. I think she used to be capable of that. She put her husband first when she was young. But there’s just so much bitterness, and she was always able to justify anything she did because of that. She passed up on the chance to find happiness with Marty — we find out that Marty had proposed to her years ago and she brushed it off saying, “That wasn’t real, we were on vacation.” I think she’s always loved him, but after what her husband did, she feels that’s justification enough not to trust him.

When Ava blackmails Deborah the next day, Deborah says, “You wouldn’t,” to which Ava replies, “Wouldn’t you?” It’s a good point. Do you think Deborah’s proud of her at all for understanding how brutal the business is and becoming brutal herself?

It was so surprising when we first read that ending. Absolute shock and anger, and yeah, a little, teensy bit of admiration. She learned the lessons I’ve been trying to teach her a little bit, but it’s so unexpected, and it never crossed her mind that that was why Ava had come back. She just thought, “She’s seen the light! She listened to me.” So where this is gonna go from, I can’t imagine. And there’s a part of her, I think, that’s like, “OK. Let’s go. This will be fun.”

Can you see Deborah apologizing to Ava in Season 4? How can this relationship move forward?

No, I don’t think she’ll apologize. I’m not sure, because you do see that Ava has gotten stronger and stronger. She’s not at all the person we met the pilot. I’m not sure how that’s going to manifest with her the head of a writers’ room. I don’t like to ask. I like to be surprised.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Also, listen to the latest Awards Circuit Podcast episode, in which Smart and Hannah Einbinder discuss the huge twist at the end of the Max series’ Season 3 finale, and how that sets up a new dynamic between their characters heading into Season 4. Plus on this episode, the Awards Circuit Roundtable looks at the contenders in this year’s drama acting categories.

Variety’s “Awards Circuit” podcast, produced by Michael Schneider, is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post weekly.

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