Hannah Einbinder on Ava’s Power Play in the 'Hacks' Finale

Hannah Einbinder in the Season 3 finale of <i>Hacks</i> Credit - Jake Giles Netter—Max

Spoiler alert: This post discusses the Season 3 finale of Hacks.

Hacks, Max’s award-laden dramedy starring Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder, returned for its long-awaited third season earlier this month. The series follows stand-up stalwart Deborah Vance (Smart) as she vies for renewed cultural relevance alongside her plucky young writer, Ava Daniels (Einbinder). Though the power in the pair’s tumultuous relationship has historically belonged to Deborah—a woman who is no stranger to forcing hands for her career's sake—a seismic shift occurred this season.

Hosting a late-night show has always been Deborah’s white whale, especially after an earlier opportunity for her to do so fell through decades ago, but by the end of the penultimate episode she’s finally captured it. With Ava’s help, she’s reeled in a hosting gig. So in Thursday’s finale, after being unceremoniously denied the head writer position by Deborah, Ava forces herself into the role by threatening to blackmail the new Queen of Late Night—because it would be “really, really bad” if people found out that Deborah had slept with the chairman of the company right before landing her own show, wouldn’t it?

TIME spoke to Einbinder about Ava’s shocking power play, the importance of queerness on screen, and the Emmy-nominated actor and comedian’s upcoming stand-up special, Everything Must Go, premiering June 13 on Max.

TIME: Let’s get right into the final episode. Are we watching Ava turn into Deborah?

Einbinder: I think she’s backed into a corner and has no choice but to do as instructed. I think Deborah lays out exactly how she expects her world to go and Ava has no choice but to take her cue. Ava very clearly, through tears, expresses that she doesn't want to be a shark. She wants to collaborate. And Deborah says, “That's not how it works.” So she kind of had to go Ava-bad-girl-mode. She's Ava Scarface, she's Ava Montana. She's a scary, scary girl in the end. But I don't think it's becoming who she is.

When it comes to confronting Deborah, Ava’s tail is usually between her legs. What was different for her this time?

I think it’s the last straw. Ava has sacrificed more than ever to be there with Deborah. She left her relationship and the head writer position at her incredible, prestigious, cool job in LA. It's such a grave betrayal. It's so different from all the other times, it's so much worse. So I think she has no choice because Deborah's leaving her completely high and dry. I mean, yes, she's saying she can be the number two [writer], but it's so disrespectful.

Do you think Ava’s decision to blackmail her way into the role of head writer will come back to bite her—or Deborah’s late night show—in the future?

I think these girls are best when they're getting along, so it's definitely possible that that becomes a sticking point for the two of them.

You initially thought you were being written off the show after learning that Deborah fires Ava in the Season 2 finale. How did you react when you learned how this new season would end?

I was surprised. I didn't know she had it in her. And I was certainly saddened to see what pushed her to that place, but on some level I'm kind of proud of her for sticking up for herself and really advocating for what she needed to do here.

What kind of energy were you channeling when you shot that final scene?

I was trying to give like, mafia. I was trying to give mafioso. When they told me about this, I knew exactly what Ava was going to be like and I was happy to see that that instinct made the final cut. Because there is a flicker of fear when Deborah steps forward towards Ava and says, “You wouldn't,” but then she just stands in it. And I was frightened watching it [back]! I was like, “Oh my god, she's being so scary right now.”

There’s a mid-season episode where Ava and Deborah get lost in the woods. Tell me about your experience filming those scenes with Jean.

They were so vulnerable. So many of the topics explored on the show are very personal to all of us. When I'm talking about my experience as a queer person, and when Jean is talking about her experiences as a woman of a certain age, we're tapping into something real for us. It feels very, very visceral and it feels very important to talk about for us as individuals and for the writers who also make up so many of these incredible groups that we feature on the show.

In that same episode, Ava stops to identify some mushrooms she sees along the trail—chanterelles. These are known to sometimes be mistaken for other poisonous species.

Yes, every choice edible mushroom has an identical poisonous sister. Which is why you need to be very thorough, my friends, when you forage, and have a three-factor authentication for the ‘shrooms that you come across.

Why do you think that moment was included in the episode? Was it a hint at what was to come between Ava and Deborah?

That's such an interesting perspective. I genuinely think [the writers] were just like, “Here's this funny thing about Hannah, we'll just dump it in the show.” But I love the fungus as a metaphor for Ava's journey. I think that's brilliant. I had yet to consider it, and now that I am, it's so true.

Hacks paused production last year due to the WGA strike and you were often on the SAG-AFTRA picket line during negotiations. How did it feel when you were finally able to return to set?

It felt good in one regard because I was glad that we were all together, but there's a lot of work still to be done. IATSE still has such an unfair contract. Our crews are an instrumental part of this industry and they still are not getting what they deserve. So there's a huge part of me that had mixed emotions about it because while the writers got a good deal and the actors got a good deal, our crews, the Teamsters, are the people who make it happen, they are paid the least and treated the worst and that's just f-cked. So it's bittersweet.

What was it like working with all of the new guest stars this season?

Helen Hunt is obviously so legendary. The character she's playing is so terrifying and then she's just the chillest person in real life, like such a calm and awesome energy. And J. Smith Cameron is so sweet and wonderful. Seeing her as Kathy makes so much sense. I only got to see Christopher Lloyd in the makeup trailer but he's obviously such a king, legend, icon, star. And Christina [Hendricks], she's one of the best actresses. So it's always a fun day at work.

How were you able to maintain your composure while filming the intimate-but-insane final scene you shared with Hendricks? 

When we're in the rehearsal, we're laughing and we're f-cking around, but then when it's time to go, you’re locked in and it feels real for you. So when you get into the reality of hooking up with someone and then finding out that they're a Republican who fracks, it becomes so real and less absurd. Like, in the moment, it's horrifying.

Hacks is a very gay show. What do you think the series offers its queer viewers that we haven’t historically seen a lot of in the media?

It’s by the queers for the queers. We're in charge of the stories and we write them and we also perform them, so they feel authentic and true to life because they just are. No one's guessing here at Hacks. We're speaking from experience.

You have some things in common with Ava, namely your bisexuality and your career in comedy. Do you ever worry that people conflate the two of you?

We do have some pretty on-paper similarities. But I know her intimately and I feel like the character was so fully formed by the time I auditioned that I just see her as so separate. I definitely feel OK if people feel like she's real. That makes me feel like I'm doing my job.

Do those similarities make it easier for you to lock into the character?

For sure. I think [the same] for a lot of the actors on our show. We have queer actors playing queer characters in every instance. So it's nice for all of us to be telling our own stories. And as a comedian, it's so nice to lock into that frequency that we share.

What more would you like to see when it comes to queer storytelling onscreen?

I hope that there is more faith in trans representation and the ability for trans people to play themselves. Monica, starring Trace Lysette, is a great example of a film that was so incredible. Trace got to lead that film and she killed it and did such gut-wrenching, dramatic work. It's just such a gorgeous, gorgeous piece of cinema that was indie and didn't have a lot of money behind it. So I would love to see more money behind these incredible queer stories and, of course, more queer people put in a position to author those stories.

Deborah’s age plays a pretty big role in the show. Has working on Hacks changed the way you think about aging?

I feel lucky to be a comedy girl and to be doing something that you can do at any age, in any way. I understand that we are in a very vain business. It was not something that I considered as much as I do now, but I feel good that as a stand-up comedian you don't have to really look a certain way for the job.

Have any of your own experiences as a stand-up informed any of Deborah’s storylines?

So many of our writers on Hacks are stand-ups. And so much of the show touches on various reference points in Paula Poundstone and Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and all of these women who are iconic and have [lived] public lives. For myself far less so than the women who came before me, but whenever I see the scripts, I'm like, “Yup.” It's always pretty true to life.

Deborah is the face of a QVC empire. If you had to sell one thing on the network, what would it be?

It would be a bamboo matcha whisk because bamboo is really sustainable. QVC is the pipeline to the landfill with all of these horrifying textiles that are purely waste. Plastic, polyester, etc. So I would choose a textile that was sustainable. A little tiny thing that you could put in your tea and then it would be a useful tool. Sorry, [that’s an] Ava answer.

Your first comedy special, Everything Must Go, is coming out next month. What do you hope people will take away from the hour?

I hope they feel touched and like they learned something. Like I took them on a little adventure. My stand-up is theatrical and it is mixed media. I explore a variety of performance styles within my hour so I just hope that it feels different for people and that it feels like an escape, just for a little while.

Has Deborah taught you anything about comedy?

Never miss an opportunity for self promotion. Folks, my special is on Max this June. M-A-X, like that guy from high school who played lacrosse. That's where you can see it. That's where it'll be. I'm there. Well, you know I’m there. I'm kind of the princess of that place. So yeah, June. We ride.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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