What would you give up on?
When Tara Hernandez was fed up with “a lot of shitty dating,” she handed the reigns of her love life over to an unspecified dating app, happily “surrendering” to “these invisible numbers.”
“And I got something amazing. It worked. I met my husband,” she said. “It’s not always successful, but I feel like that’s a moment where we sort of recreate destiny, essentially. A moment that could happen in a bar, we put it in data and numbers and code and let it take care of us.
There are millions of stories like this one, where partners meet through a virtual assistant, resulting in untold happy memories. “Those kinds of moments, typically, you throw them to the universe or to friends,” Hernandez said. “(But) now we can turn to technology and say, ‘Find me my soul mate.’ And I really felt like I did.
However, as Gen X and Millennials make way for 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 that it’s worth remembering that there are questions worth asking before you entrust your fate to anything, anything, outside your own. check.
“What’s happening internally to you?” said Damon Lindelof. “I get that it’s like, ‘Wow, I really want to meet someone. I went to all these dates. It’s not working particularly well. It seems to me that we don’t have much in common. Oh, I’ll let this app decide who my perfect match is based on criteria that probably (include) what movies do we like’, but what if my ultimate match is someone who doesn’t like the same movies that I do and don’t it is? aren’t you interested in the same things that I am?”
Lindelof, of course, acknowledged that 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 that they marry the first person recommended by Bumble or Tinder. But while trust should be earned, it can also be learned: once the app gives you a decent date, it’s only natural to come back for another and another. Expand that rationale from dating apps to restaurant recommendations, what to watch on TV or what products to buy and where we place our trust may be dictated by convenience more than consideration.
“I have a feeling we’re all on the rabbit trail,” Lindelof said. “Nobody wants to ski the black diamond anymore because it’s dangerous. It is fraught with dangers. And if you give yourself to the algorithm, the algorithm will give you what it thinks you want. And then it becomes anything you want, pretty much, and you’re never out of your lane. And I don’t think that’s a particularly good thing.
Hernandez and Lindelof created “Mrs. Davis,” their eight-episode limited series now streaming on Peacock, to address those concerns. Amid ever-crazier stories like a nun searching for the holy grail, a man scraping cat droppings for rocket fuel, and commercials of the world’s most expensive sneaker ever made, the adventure tale also poses its audience an urgent question: what higher power, day after day and day out, right? Actually Trust?
Traditionally, the answer is often some form of “God.” Billions of people around the world place 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 trust in algorithms, often without a second thought.
To illustrate much, “Mrs. Davis” defines its key conflict as that between an all-powerful artificial intelligence algorithm… and God. Simone (played by Betty Gilpin) finds happiness in the service of her convent, their congregation and Jesus Christ, until she she is summoned by Ms. Davis – the aforementioned AI, beloved by users worldwide – to find the Holy Grail. She agrees, but on one condition: if Simone finds the sacred cup, Mrs. Davis must close it permanently.
Ridding the world of a terrifyingly omniscient machine should be an easy cause for TV fans to follow – decades of dystopian shows have created a habitual mistrust of the unstoppable AI – but “Mrs. Davis” isn’t interested in anything. so simple Hernandez and Lindelof recognize the pros and cons of dedicating themselves to anything, in the hope that the public will decide what is 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, conversely: Is Ms. Davis – and similar useful algorithms – a utility I really need?
“How can I balance faith and agency in my life? I think it’s inherent in all of us,” Hernandez said. “As someone who isn’t engaged on social media, I thought technology didn’t dominate my life. Well, it does. It dominates most of my life: (the my wedding).”
Not knowing what is real and what is staged becomes a persistent mystery in “Mrs. Davis.” During her search for her, Simone must deduce whether she is acting of her own free will or if something (or someone) is driving her along a predetermined path.
“How much do we want to feel guided – that the glass is half full – or that we are pulled by strings and the glass is half empty?” Lindelof said. “If you’re committing yourself to a project designed by someone else, as long as it’s purpose-driven and you feel like you’re part of something benevolent, then you’re okay enough with that thing that tells you what to do, and where to be, and what’s good and what’s bad. It’s when you think design is bad, then you have to resist and reject it.”
That framework, applied to an algorithm, can also be applied to religion. But where it is relatively easy to get people to take a skeptical stance towards technology, it can be difficult, even shocking, for people to question their faith in God.
“The biggest and most important thing Tara said to me was, ‘I don’t want to shoot religion.’ And I was like, ‘Why do you have to tell me?’ Lindelof said laughing. The self-aware showrunner of ‘Lost’ and ‘The Leftovers’ has already explored religious constructs, not always with the abject devotion that most denominations demand.
“I’m fascinated by religion,” Lindelof said, recalling what he told his co-creator. “I feel like religion is this thing that we’re all really hungry for, and it’s still the ultimate construct to go through almost all of life’s big moments — when people describe giving birth to a child or falling in love for the first time, they very often they use religious and spiritual language.It’s just the judgment part (of religion) that I have a problem with.
“It’s kind of, shall we say, subversive to center your show around a nun, because people have such strong current or past relationships with faith,” Hernandez said. “And we really wanted to make sure this wasn’t a show about the church. This was very much Simon’s journey of faith and his relationship of faith.”
To get rid of any unwanted association, “Mrs. Davis” describes Simone as someone in love. She grew up skeptical of anything that seemed unbelievable to her (thanks to her duplicitous wizard parents), but she literally fell in love with Jesus Christ, who is a real character (played by Andy McQueen). She visits him. They kiss. They are married. By most metrics, they’re a classic TV couple: one of them is simply the son of God.
“How did she go from always looking for the trap door, because she was brought up that way, to someone who is just giving herself completely to the divine?” Hernandez said. “We really worked out what could possess someone to do that, (but) I was like, ‘Love. It’s love.’ This is the basic human emotion. I understand that she fell in love with her and that brought her faith in her.
“Mrs. Davis” throws a lot at its audience. There are knights and exploding heads and a sword three stories high. But at its core, the series is about an ancient barrier between science and religion. But Hernandez and Lindelof don’t tell you they are asking you to choose sides, as 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 will always remain an optimist, and I think the show takes the view that people are generally good and smart, and if we have the right tools, (we) can make the right decisions. (…) The thing that’s going to get scary – and this is what Ms. Davis does – is when (AI) gives us a sense of choice and free will when there isn’t any.
“The dramatic stake of the season is – and I will say we don’t aim, we answer quite definitively in the finale – she will decide whether or not to destroy Ms. Davis at the end of her journey,” Lindelof said. “It’s kind of like, ‘OK, you’ve heard all the evidence. The prosecution is gone, the defense is gone, and so when she makes that decision, that’s my (decision) Tara’s—that’s the choice we made.
At the end, spectators can sit down and weigh both sides for themselves. They can wonder 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 somewhere in their soul.
Or they can just google it.
“Mrs. Davis” is now available on Peacock. Its series finale will be released on Thursday, May 18.