Betty Gilpin & Co. on Deciphering Mrs. Davis

The show's stars and co-creators talk religion, technology, love, and the epic battle for control. "All an algorithm can do is tell you what it thinks you want to hear," Damon Lindelof says.

by | April 17, 2023 | Comments

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In the dark comedy Mrs. Davis, from creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, Betty Gilpin plays Sister Simone, a motorcycle-riding, take-no-prisoners nun on a quest: to find the holy grail.

Her reasoning has nothing to do with a religious pilgrimage. It’s about something decidedly more modern, in fact: She just wants the show’s titular, ubiquitous artificial intelligence — something seemingly everyone else in the world adores — to leave her alone.

MRS. DAVIS -- "TBD" Episode 104 --Pictured: Betty Gilpin as Simone -- (Photo by: Sophie Kohler/Peacock)

(Photo by Sophie Kohler/Peacock)

Sister Simone gets some unlikely allies in her ex-boyfriend, the destructive cowboy Wiley (Jake McDorman), and his merry band of meatheads that come with obscure (probably code) names like “JQ” (that one’s played by Chris Diamantopoulos).

What results is a story of a fight among religion, information, and love — three things that have historically had great pull over humanity (sometimes overlapping like a Venn diagram to do so) — for the attention of one woman who really just wants to make jam, ride her horse, and maybe eat her fill of Swedish meatballs from a buffet restaurant.

“When I think about religion, or the church, and the internet, it’s almost like these two institutions were created for the same initial why of people wanting to ask big questions and connect to each other,” Gilpin told Rotten Tomatoes. “And then, we make these institutions that are just answers and ended up disconnecting people. It sort of does the opposite of the why.”

MRS. DAVIS -- Episode 106 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jake McDorman as Wiley, Betty Gilpin as Simone -- (Photo by: Greg Gayne/Peacock)

(Photo by Greg Gayne/Peacock)

While she has “had an aversion to the church and aversion to the internet because of the negative repercussions that both have had,” Gilpin said, her show is meant to suggest that religious faith “can be very pure and beautiful and inexplicable” versus something like an AI that “is giving you all the answers and everything you want to hear — you’re in a feedback loop of validation.”

“I think that cuts you off from your ability to access the former, which is maybe the reason for being alive,” she says of technology. “So we’re playing with fire.”

That the word “love” has also been used in conjunction with these terms, be it a reference to a messiah or a smartphone, is significant to the story. Technology, especially, feeds on nostalgia and longing. Its very existence means you can keep tabs on former paramours or others who once meant a great deal to you. Co-creator Hernandez even named the AI-in-question after an actual Mrs. Davis, her first- and second-grade teacher, because she said the writers wanted a female-identifying presence who was “benevolent and gave us a structure and care but also was there to drop the hammer if we were stepping out of line.”

MRS. DAVIS -- Episode 104 -- Pictured: Andy McQueen as Jay -- (Photo by: Elizabeth Morris/Peacock)

(Photo by Elizabeth Morris/Peacock)

McDorman’s Wiley represents the more traditional definition of love. His and Gilpin’s character were childhood sweethearts, and McDorman said Wiley is not letting go of what he believes is the “power of how much they love each other.” Further complicating Wiley’s mission is Andy McQueen’s Jay, who has his own relationship with Simone that is perhaps more nuanced than his ability to make really good falafel.

Nevertheless, McDorman said, “Wiley’s desperately — desperately as a core conviction — in love with [her] and that’s the way it’s got to be. Then, what’s revealed is that maybe it isn’t; maybe the connection has more of an explanation.”

That religion, technology, and relationships all grow from worlds of magic and trust is significant to the writers. David Arquette even appears later in the series as Simone’s father, a hacky Reno magician named Monty (names do a lot of heavy lifting in Mrs. Davis). Actual magician Teller was a consultant on the show.

Mrs. Davis season 1 key art

(Photo by Peacock)

Lindelof said that his and Hernandez’s show wasn’t interested so much in the world of stage magic and the childhood innocence and suspension of belief that it can evoke as it was “this realm of religious magic; the idea of God and Jesus Christ and that nuns — they’re not just living this lifestyle because the outfits are cool. They’re doing it because they believe in these things, quite literally.

“That’s the magic that tech is on a direct collision course to dispel,” he continued, “because the more data that we have, the more possible it may be for some piece of technology to begin to start to disprove these tenets of other people’s faiths.”

Themes like the Queen of Hearts routinely appear in the show, which Hernandez said the writers and Teller rationalized as being “probably a card that was that was picked by Monty as his idea, as a member of the patriarchy, as being the most romantic card in the deck.” (Neither Hernandez nor Lindelof knew that the Queen of Hearts is also used in rival Showtime’s trippy prestige drama Yellowjackets and couldn’t speak to whether the card has some more universal, overarching theme for magicians.)

MRS. DAVIS -- Episode 101 -- Pictured: (l-r) Betty Gilpin as Simone, Kim Hawthorne as Teacher -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

(Photo by Colleen Hayes/Peacock)

But the writers do dive deep into the meta for this show. The first episode features both a hatch and someone with the same last name of a famous physicist who is stuck on an island (Ben Chaplin’s Arthur Schrodinger — yes, a cat is involved). That this show will inevitably be marketed as coming from one of the co-creators of ABC’s Lost is a handy wink to fans of that show and reminds that AI is still pretty primitive, Lindelof said.

“We were delighted by the idea of algorithms as both incredibly sophisticated — if you build an algorithm to to win Jeopardy!, it can. If you build an algorithm to pass the bar exam, it can — but that’s all they’re good at,” he continued. “They haven’t had the one thing that we all have had, which is that we’ve existed on this planet … All an algorithm can do is tell you what it thinks you want to hear.”

If all of this sounds as confusing as one of the mid-season episodes of Lost, Gilpin understands.

“There were 37 arcs in the show, and then they all braid together and get unbraided,” she said. “But to me, that’s more like life than anything.”

92% Mrs. Davis: Season 1 (2023) premieres its first four episodes on Thursday, April 20 on Peacock. Subsequent episodes debut each Thursday.

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