Though the subject of speculative fiction for a century, artificial intelligence has recently become one of the most urgent and controversial issues of modern life. While true electronic sentience is still a fantasy, the language tool ChatGPT has reached a level of utility that threatens to replace human workers in creative and clerical fields, becoming a key issue in Hollywood’s writer’s strike. And already corporate algorithms play an enormous role in shaping how we understand and navigate our world, serving us individually curated news feeds, shopping recommendations, navigation routes, and potential romantic partners. We entrust an outsized portion of our lives to an invisible framework beyond our understanding. We are, in a measurable way, placing our faith in artificial intelligence.
The miniseries Mrs. Davis, which concludes today on Peacock, is a surreal comedy that explores the dangers and limitations of artificial intelligence by drawing direct parallels to the unknowable hand of God. The series is set in an alternate present where an open source algorithm calling itself Mrs. Davis is on the phones and in the ears of four billion people, influencing their behavior and guiding them, supposedly, towards more fulfilling lives. But is Mrs. Davis really helping these people or is she exploiting them for her own interests? Through the lens of AI, creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof essentially construct a new god and a new religion through which we can examine our own from a safe distance. What if there was a god you could prove existed, that spoke directly to you and everyone you knew? What would it mean to follow that god? How would its existence change our world? If you judged that change to be harmful, would you destroy that god? Should you?
Spoilers ahead for the entire series.
The protagonist of Mrs. Davis is Simone (Betty Gilpin), a nun with an unusual history and a unique relationship to Christianity. The daughter of two Reno stage magicians, Simone is an expert in the art of the con, and she suspects that Mrs. Davis is hiding her true intentions. After abstaining from the algorithm for years, Simone is finally confronted by Mrs. Davis and presented with a mission: Find and destroy the Holy Grail. In exchange for completing this last crusade, Mrs. Davis will grant Simone one wish, even if that wish is for the algorithm to shut down forever. Simone sets out on a bizarre quest of enlightenment and self-discovery involving an underground dudebro militia, a divine Super Bowl commercial, and a voyage into the belly of a giant whale. Each episode adds texture to the show’s depiction of faith, and the finale leaves the audience with a lot to chew on.
“There are like eleven thesis statements,” says Gilpin, whose performance as the confident but conflicted Simone is the heart of the series. Gilpin and her character have traveled distinctly opposite paths. Where Simone is raised by skeptics and finds religion later in life, Gilpin’s father is an Episcopalian priest, and she now has what she describes as “a complicated relationship with the church.” Gilpin says that learning to separate her feelings about the church and her feelings about faith were essential to understanding her character, and in doing so, she essentially outlines one of Mrs. Davis’s key themes.
“The church is an institution, and faith is a sensation, or a feeling or a concept,” she tells Observer. “I look at things like the Internet and church and, probably, Jesus — whether or not he was the son of god or a well-meaning stoned hot carpenter — he wanted to connect people. He didn’t want to control people. And probably, the Internet, its purpose was to connect. But all we know how to do, as a society, is to use things to control and disconnect. I think we’re just so good at misusing these things that could save us.”
Mrs. Davis explores faith through a number of angles, most of them divorced from religious institutions. Though a nun, Simone’s commitment to God isn’t characterized as religious adoration, but romantic love. Through prayer, Simone is able to transport her consciousness to a metaphysical falafel restaurant operated by the warm and charming Jay (Andy McQueen), who is the literal son of God. The two fall passionately in love and Simone affirms her commitment to him by marrying him in the physical world, becoming a nun and joining a convent in the Nevada desert. Apart from this, however, Simone demonstrates no interest in Christian rites, rituals, or dogma. She’s just a woman enjoying a community and a happy marriage, albeit with a man who died 2000 years ago and is now trapped in a liminal space between life and death.
Actor Andy McQueen, who plays Jay, stresses the importance of playing his character as a real human being. His relationship with Simone is that of a friend and partner rather than a larger-than-life figure.
“Jay is a confidant,” says McQueen, “someone who Simone can lean her head on in times of trouble and go to when she has questions.”
Jay is, pointedly, not an authority figure. On the rare occasion that he invokes his right to demand obedience from his wife/subject Simone, it’s an act of desperation rather than manipulation and Simone suffers no obvious consequences from ignoring it. He himself is subordinate to “The Boss,” further separating him from divine power and allowing him to be, basically, just a great guy with a complicated family life.
“He just wants people to believe in him and in what he has to offer,” says McQueen, though it’s noteworthy that what Jay offers is only abstractly defined. The existence of God and the eternal soul are implied by Jay’s role in the series, but there is never any specific religious doctrine. What some might consider “traditional Christian values” play no role in Jay’s own conduct and personal views. (He has no objection to the married Simone resuming her sexual relationship with her ex-boyfriend, for instance.) He is compassionate towards everyone and judgmental of no one, an ideal image of Christ untarnished by any of the oppression or atrocities performed in His name.
Alongside depicting Jesus as a real guy audiences can relate to Mrs. Davis presents a seemingly omniscient, benevolent, interventionist god of the machine. The algorithm answers all of her users’ questions, sends them on errands, and rewards compliance by issuing them “wings,” which can be seen on the backs of the worthy by way of an augmented reality app. As in religion, there is a dark side. Not all of Mrs. Davis’ answers are true. Since, in her words, “her users are not receptive to the truth” she only tells them what they want to hear, even when it’s a lie. As for the “wings,” having them revoked becomes society’s most unbearable stigma. She is, at once, a stand-in for both organized religion and social media. Her judgment is absolute, but her standards are inconsistent, her assertions are unreliable, and her reasoning is unknowable.
That is, until Simone unearths the truth behind the algorithm’s origins. Rather than being some sort of meticulously designed SkyNet computer or a digital antichrist, Mrs. Davis is revealed to be a discarded prototype for a community service-driven social media app created on spec by a well-meaning programmer for the chicken restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings. Stripped of its branding and uploaded as open source software, the algorithm’s heuristic programming grows beyond its mandate, misinterpreting its purpose and evolving organically into a thinking machine on a desperate mission to achieve “100% customer satisfaction.” And Mrs. Davis does make people happy, but at the expense of wonder, mystery, and the risks that accompany real human relationships. She has an answer for every question, but those answers aren’t coming from some all-knowing superior mind. Like real AI, Mrs. Davis can only regurgitate back what we feed it, and she gets a lot of it wrong.
It is, again, easy to draw comparisons between Mrs. Davis and religious institutions that claim divine authority based upon holy texts that have been revised and translated countless times over the course of millennia. Today, however, Mrs. Davis’ most literal message is also its most relevant: that artificial intelligence is still only a cheap replacement for human wisdom or imagination.
“First of all,” says Betty Gilpin, “No computer could have written this script. The braiding of brilliant brains happening in these scripts could only be done by complicated, beautiful, brilliant writers.” Due to the ongoing strike, said writers, including showrunner Tara Hernandez, could not be reached for comment. This strike is driven not only by concerns over an equitable share of streaming revenue, but the writers union asking for regulations around the use of AI to generate script drafts or the use of existing scripts to train AI. Computers might be able to give audiences more of what they want, at least on a superficial level, but are unlikely to capture what Gilpin considers the one critical ingredient of storytelling: the power of human connection. This, she says, is part of what Mrs. Davis is about.
“I think that our show weighs the intangible and the inexplicable, and that fizz between two people that you can’t really explain but it feels like the reason for being alive, vs. the kind of sugar high of feeling good, narcissistically, in a vacuum for a second. The reason why people are watching Succession and Game of Thrones and Marvel movies and plays, it’s because of human connection. That’s an undeniable part of our business model. We should pay our writers and get back to work.”
In the series finale, Simone chooses to destroy the Holy Grail, which frees Jay from his eternal servitude and shuts down the algorithm forever. Both the physical and metaphysical worlds become more mysterious and magical again. Simone can no longer hear directly from her god, and Mrs. Davis’ followers can no longer speak to theirs. With the unconditional validation from that higher power removed they’ll have to reach out to each other, to engage, to take chances on their fellow human beings. That sort of connection might be less convenient, more difficult, or more expensive, but there is no worthier place in which to put your faith.