‘Mrs. Davis’ Asks an Urgent Question You May Not Want to Answer
To what would you give yourself over?
When Tara Hernandez was fed up with “a lot of crap dates,” she handed the reigns of her love life to an unspecified dating app — happily “surrendering” herself to “these unseen numbers.”
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“And I got something great. It worked out. I met my husband,” she said. “It’s not always successful, but I feel like that is a moment where we sort of recreate fate, essentially. A moment that could happen in a bar, we put that into data and numbers and code, and let it provide for us.”
There are millions of stories like this one, where partners find each other via a virtual assistant, resulting in incalculable happy memories. “These sort of moments, typically, you throw to the universe or friends,” Hernandez said. “[But] we now can throw to technology and say, ‘Find me my soulmate.’ And I really felt like I did.”
Still, as Gen X and Millennials give way to Gen Z and Gen Alpha, there are fewer people who remember a time before the internet was there to support them. Turning to Google for answers or apps for guidance has become common practice — so common it’s worth remembering there are questions worth asking before tossing your fate to something, anything, outside your control.
“What is happening for you internally?” Damon Lindelof said. “I get it’s like, ‘Wow, I really want to meet someone. I’ve gone on all these dates. It’s not working out particularly well. I feel like we don’t have a lot in common. Oh, I’ll just let this app decide who my perfect match is based on criteria that probably [includes] what movies we like’ — but what if my ultimate partner is someone who doesn’t like the same movies that I do and isn’t interested in the same things that I am?”
Lindelof, of course, acknowledged it takes more than a few things in common (or not in common) to sustain a relationship; hopefully no one is so devoted to their tech overlords they’ll marry the first person Bumble or Tinder recommends. But while trust should be earned, it can also be learned — once the app provides one decent date, it’s natural to go back to it for another and another. Expand that logic out from dating apps to restaurant recommendations, what to watch on TV, or what products to buy, and where we put our trust can be dictated by convenience more than consideration.
“I do have this feeling that we’re all on the bunny slope,” Lindelof said. “Nobody wants to ski the black diamond anymore because it’s dangerous. It’s fraught with peril. And if you give yourself over to the algorithm, the algorithm’s just going to give you what it thinks you want. And then that becomes all you want, pretty much, and you’re never outside of your lane. And I don’t think that’s particularly a good thing.”
Hernandez and Lindelof created “Mrs. Davis,” their eight-episode limited series now streaming on Peacock, to engage with these concerns. Amid increasingly bonkers stories like a nun searching for the Holy Grail, a man scraping cat turds for rocket fuel, and the world’s most expensive, unaired sneaker ad, the adventure tale also asks its audience an urgent question: What higher power, day in and day out, do you actually trust?
Traditionally, the response is often some form of “God.” Billions of people the world over put their faith in the almighty, relying on their religious principles to help them lead a good life. But in 2023, believers and atheists alike put their faith in algorithms — often, without a second thought.
To illustrate as much, “Mrs. Davis” sets its key conflict as one between an all-powerful artificial intelligence algorithm… and God. Simone (played by Betty Gilpin) finds bliss serving her convent, their congregation, and Jesus Christ, until she’s summoned by Mrs. Davis — the aforementioned AI, beloved by users around the world — to find the Holy Grail. She agrees, but on one condition: If Simone finds the sacred cup, Mrs. Davis has to shut down for good.
Ridding the world of a spookily omniscient machine should be an easy cause for TV fans to get behind — decades of dystopian shows have built up a habitual wariness of unstoppable A.I. — but “Mrs. Davis” isn’t interested in anything so simple. Hernandez and Lindelof acknowledge the pros and cons of giving yourself over to anything, in the hopes that the audience will decide what’s best for themselves.
“This is the paradox. And I love telling stories about paradoxes,” Lindelof said. “It’s the idea of, ‘What do I want?’ Do I want someone else to turn this stuff off for me because I don’t have the strength to do it?”
Or, to the contrary: Is Mrs. Davis — and helpful algorithms like it — a utility I really need?
“How do I balance faith and free will in my life? I think that is inherent to all of us,” Hernandez said. “As someone who isn’t engaged on social media, I thought tech doesn’t dominate my life. Well, it does. It dominates the biggest part of my life: [my marriage].”
Not knowing what’s real and what’s arranged becomes a persistent mystery in “Mrs. Davis.” Throughout her quest, Simone has to deduce if she’s acting on her own accord or if something (or someone) is guiding her down a predetermined path.
“How much do we want to feel like we’re being guided — that the glass is half full — or we’re being tugged by strings, and the glass is half empty?” Lindelof said. “If you’re giving yourself over to a design that’s designed by someone else, as long as it’s purpose-driven and you feel like you’re a part of something benevolent, then you’re pretty OK with that thing telling you what to do, and where to be, and what is good, and what is bad. It’s when you think that design is negative, then you have to resist and push back against it.”
That framework, applied to an algorithm, can also be applied to religion. But where it’s relatively easy to get people to take a skeptical position toward technology, it can be difficult, even upsetting, for people to cast doubts on their faith in God.
“The biggest and most important thing that Tara said to me is, ‘I don’t want to take any shots at religion.’ And I was like, ‘Why do you have to say that to me?’ Lindelof said, laughing. The self-aware showrunner behind “Lost” and “The Leftovers” has explored religious constructs before, not always with the abject devotion that most denominations demand.
“I’m fascinated by religion,” Lindelof said, remembering what he told his co-creator. “I feel like religion is this thing that we all actually hunger for, and it’s still the ultimate construct to deal with almost all the big moments in life — when people describe the birth of a child or falling in love for the first time, they very often use religious and spiritual language. It’s just the judgment part [of religion] that I have an issue with.”
“It is a little bit, we’ll say, subversive to center your show on a nun, because people have such strong current or past relationships with faith,” Hernandez said. “And we really wanted to make sure that this wasn’t a show about the church. This was very much Simone’s faith journey and her faith relationship.”
To cut through any unwanted associations, “Mrs. Davis” depicts Simone as a person in love. She grew up skeptical of anything that appeared unbelievable (thanks to her duplicitous magician parents), but she literally fell in love with Jesus Christ, who’s a real character (played by Andy McQueen). She visits him. They kiss. They’re married. By most metrics, they’re a classic TV couple — one of them just happens to be the son of God.
“How did she go from always looking for the trap door, because she was raised that way, to someone who just is completely giving herself to the divine?” Hernandez said. “We really labored over what could possess someone to do that, [but] I was like, ‘Love. It’s love.’ That’s the basic human emotion. I understand that she fell in love and it brought her into her faith.”
“Mrs. Davis” throws a lot at its audience. There’s knights and exploding heads and a three-story tall sword. But at its core, the series is about an age-old barrier between science and religion. But Hernandez and Lindelof aren’t asking you to pick a side, so much as they want you to really think about where you put your faith, your trust, and why.
“People ask, ‘What does the show want to say?'” Hernandez said. “I’m always going to remain an optimist, and I think the show takes the point of view that people are generally good and smart, and if given the right tools, [we] can make the right decisions. […] The thing that will become scary — and this is what Mrs. Davis does — is when [A.I.] gives us the sense of choice and free will when there is none.”
“The dramatic stakes of the season are — and I will say we don’t punt, we answer quite definitively in the finale — she’s going to decide whether or not to destroy Mrs. Davis at the completion of her journey,” Lindelof said. “It’s sort of like, ‘OK, you’ve heard all the evidence. The prosecution went, the defense went, and so when she makes that decision, that’s Tara’s and my [decision] — that’s the choice that we made.”
In the end, viewers can sit and weigh both sides themselves. They can ask themselves if they would do what Simone did and come to a better understanding of their own behavior in the process. They can find the answer that works for them from somewhere inside their soul.
Or they can just Google it.
“Mrs. Davis” is available now on Peacock. Its series finale will be released Thursday, May 18.
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