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Television Series Review
Created by Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof
White Rabbit Productions and Warner Bros. Television
Streaming on Peacock
(Rated TV-MA, 2023—)
**Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Mrs. Davis.**
“Let’s get this out of the way upfront,” writes Kimberly Ricci for Uproxx, “Mrs. Davis — co-created and co-written by Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez — is a genre-spanning joyride.”1 Such are the copious reviews of this quirky science-fiction comedy drama, all of them more or less praising the visuals, the direction, the acting, and the way the story jumps in herky-jerky fashion into different genres at any given point in time. The consensus among mainstream critics seems to be that Mrs. Davis is different, and Mrs. Davis is good.
Yet many of these reviews are not reviews but protracted plot summaries. For example, Rachel Syme’s take published by The New Yorker is riddled with such descriptors as “cuckoo,” “convoluted,” “berserk,” and “wild,” yet never seems to put a fine bead on what, specifically, the show is trying to communicate to audiences.2 Liz Shannon Miller tries to make sense of the proceedings, arguing that “at the end of the day, it comes down to Simone diving deep into the difference between fact and fiction, religion and belief, and right and wrong — with her own faith in God at the center of it.”3 While the series certainly contains traces of these ideas, at no point in Miller’s review is there a demonstration of how the series effectively pulls the narrative threads together to validate that these ideas are what the show is actually about.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let us get a general framework: the plot of Mrs. Davis follows Betty Gilpin as Sister Simone, a nun who goes to war against a peace-keeping artificial intelligence called Mrs. Davis that has quietly taken over the minds of the world. A fascinating and “of the moment” premise, to be sure. Yet, rather than develop into any kind of meaningful thought experiment that evolves that age-old debate about “faith versus reason” into something more specific to our times — “faith versus technology” — the series sputters and convulses, dedicating more time to bizarre and violent set pieces and mildly amusing sights (such as a Mother Superior climbing into a helicopter while barking orders like a top brass military official) than excavating its own genius premise.
In essence, the show is weird for the sake of being weird — a sure sign of pretentious filmmaking. Any sort of meaning is lost in the whirlwind of random characters, tangential plot threads and vagaries, and leaps from genre to genre. The show makes copious use of a writing device known as “lampshading,” which involves the writers actively pointing out the tried-and-true trope being used, usually to comedic effect, lending the show a sense of self-awareness. It is a way for a writer to acknowledge to their audience that they are fully aware of the genre conventions in which they are writing — horror films have made use of this in recent years, with characters in the film remarking something like, “Have you guys never seen a horror movie? Don’t split up.”
It is ironic because the characters are themselves in a horror movie, and the audience feels “let in” on the joke, so to speak. But lampshading is a double-edged sword, as it can work to both amuse the audience and let them know that the writer is fully aware they are treading down a well-beaten path, but it can also come across as incredibly insincere and lazy storytelling, more interested in making the writer seem intelligent than in telling a story with heart and conviction — yet another indicator of pretentious storytelling.
In Mrs. Davis, the lampshades are hung all around, as Simone’s quest to stop the artificial intelligence takes the form of a literal quest for the Holy Grail, for reasons that are not very clear, at least up front. But the characters discuss how cliché this setup is even in the context of the series. And the same applies to every genre the series attempts to tackle, from Simone’s introduction in which she rides a white horse on her way to the scene of a terribly gruesome car accident (westerns), to Simone escaping Germans with names like “Klaus” and over-the-top accents (action-adventure flicks), to sappy romance scenes between Simone and her “husband,” a ridiculously attractive man named “Jay” (romantic comedies) — recall, by the way, that Simone is a nun, and you can do the math to figure out who “Jay” really is.
Pretentious and Blasphemous. I was able to stick with Mrs. Davis for three of its eight episodes before throwing in the towel. I can count on one hand the number of films or television series I have seen that I genuinely regret watching — Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) leads the pack. I became skittish with Mrs. Davis when the scenes between Simone and “Jay” got a little too syrupy sweet. I pulled the plug when a character at the end of the third episode began blaspheming Jesus Christ directly.
Now, let me be very clear on this point — I am a Christian who depends every day upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ for my right standing with the Father. On the “evangelical” scale, my convictions are going to weigh far more on the side of fundamentalism. But I am not the kind of fundamentalist who plugs his ears and pretends the world does not exist. I am a fiction writer and screenwriter whose works have been published and whose films have been made and who publishes articles with my sometimes-divisive thoughts in them — you must have thick skin to do this, especially in this cultural climate where everyone seems to have an opinion about everything. My point is that I am not easily offended and, as a creative person myself, I tend to try and give the creatives the benefit of the doubt when sitting down to watch a film or read a book because creators should have the final say in what something means; after all, they are the ones who put it together with intent. Things are often misunderstood by audiences, and points are often missed, I understand that.
Mrs. Davis offended me — and I do not think I missed the point. And this has nothing to do with the fact that Simone’s childhood friend and ex-boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) delivers an R-rated expletive-filled rant directed squarely at Jesus at the end of the third episode (I have had some pretty aggressive prayers in my own life), but the tone of this particular sequence. I absolutely think there is room for characters to honestly struggle with ideas of faith; in fact, this is the very thing that elevates The X-Files (1993–2002; 2016–2018) to must-see viewing. But this should be done in a way that is earnest and honest with the experience, in which a character struggles with the potential ramifications of a reality that Jesus might actually exist in a way that is not “stupid,” per say.
When discussing the episode in question, here is what co-creator and writer Damon Lindelof had to say when asked about the character of Wylie: “I’ll just say that Peacock would never go for this, but I would love epic and stupid to be one of our posters, because I think that’s exactly right.”4 Perhaps Peacock, the distribution platform, would shut such marketing down because it would lead potential viewers to think, “Well then why am I wasting my time watching this?” Which, as I slogged through three hours’ worth of content, was the thought that kept gnawing at me, and came to a head during the aforementioned scene of unrestrained blasphemy.
If the tone of the scene had been different and not one of parody, perhaps I would have felt differently. If the show up to that point had come across as earnest, even an earnest comedy, and not pretentious, perhaps I would have thought the show was worth finishing. But there is no direction to the story, no interest in exploring or trying to say something definitively (or even profound) about these sorts of honest struggles with faith.
Perhaps this sounds unfair of me; after all, I did not even bother finishing the series. Am I judging things prematurely? Here is what Owen Harris, director of four of the show’s eight episodes, had to say about the series finale:
Who knows where Mrs. Davis has gone. I love the fact that the show doesn’t try to wrap that up entirely. I love the fact that the grander themes of the show in terms of faith, religion, technology, it’s not a question we post at the beginning and try to answer in the end. The answers we try to find are in the personal, intimate stories, but the bigger questions, they’re carried by the breeze at the end, and who knows what’s happened to Mrs. Davis. We’ve turned her off, so that’s the only thing I know with any certainty. But what does that even mean?5
If the people who made the show do not know what the point of it was, then it makes some measure of sense that viewers would feel as though they are unclear on what the show is about — which, by the way, is likely why many of the mainstream critics who apparently loved the show fail to articulate what the show is actually about beyond a plot synopsis.
Furthermore, suggesting that the “grander themes” of the show (in other words, what the show should be about) are simply “carried by the breeze at the end” is indicative of a terribly insincere approach to storytelling — lampshaded within the context of the show itself by its own absurdity. To call Mrs. Davis a “surrealist” piece is an offense to the “surrealist” films that actually tried not to be “epic and stupid,” to borrow Lindelof’s own words.
And perhaps the biggest frustration I have with Mrs. Davis is that people of faith (Christians, especially) are the target audience for this kind of project. The setup, the plot, the characters, all of it should appeal to people who are genuinely interested in conversations of “faith, religion, [and] technology,” which Harris identifies as the “grander themes.” Yet the show seemingly works overtime to lambast the convictions of the very people it should be appealing to, reducing faith and the honest-to-goodness struggles of people who genuinely wrestle with commitment to Jesus Christ to something “epic and stupid” — whose legitimate questions are “carried by the breeze at the end.” Frankly, the handful of militant atheists I have talked with have never insulted me as much as Damon Lindelof — and I am actually a big fan of his body of work: Nash Bridges (2000–2001), Crossing Jordan (2001–2004), Lost (2004–2010), Star Trek (2009), The Leftovers (2014–2017).
Metamodern Storytelling? Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)6 cleaned house at the Oscars, with some calling it the most acclaimed film ever made.7 In the wake of the film’s release, serious attention was given to the idea of “metamodern” storytelling, of which Everything Everywhere All at Once and Mrs. Davis are pristine examples.
What is metamodern storytelling, exactly? True to philosophical form, these things prove difficult to define in the moment, but Jonathan Rowson makes a good effort to describe this particular rift in the cultural zeitgeist:
Metamodernism is a feeling, and all that constitutes the feeling and flows from it. When we consider the mystery of consciousness and the human drama playing out on this charming anomaly of a planet, feelings are far from trivial — they have cosmological significance….One way to grasp the value of the idea of metamodernity is to say it’s about focusing our attention on our subject and inter-subjective relationship to these times we live in, when we stand, in some quaveringly uncertain sense, after, within, between or beyond modernity.8
So, a “metamodern” approach to storytelling would be a story that exchanges traditional storytelling methods for irony and satire. It is, in some ways, the next stage of evolution of the mindset that gave birth to “deconstructionist” storytelling, which sought to break down traditional narrative structures in stories.
Now, for the sake of keeping the forest in view here, here is an example — the western is known for being one of the earliest genres to dominate the filmmaking landscape in the early-to-mid twentieth century. It popularized straight-laced, morally upright heroes played by the likes of James Stewart and John Wayne. The mid-to-late twentieth century gave rise to deconstructionist takes on these heroes, with the likes of Clint Eastwood subverting expectations by playing characters that were perfect opposites of those made popular by Stewart and Wayne. In our modern context, the early-twenty-first century, we see a natural progression — ironic and satirical portrayals of these kinds of heroes: Simone (a female nun), wearing an outfit that is a spitting replica of the Lone Ranger’s (sans mask), riding on a white horse to the scene of a car accident.
This clear shift in storytelling is what has made characters like James Bond a lightning rod for these kinds of discussions. Bond, a character born from the pen of Ian Fleming amid Cold War paranoia, has had to evolve and update with the times, and the straight-forward and generally self-serious approach to those narratives has seemed more and more out of place in a landscape dominated by the self-aware Marvel feature. This also goes to the heart of the modern controversy surrounding Star Wars, a property born from the imagination of George Lucas and designed with childlike wonder in mind, not the self-aware approach taken by director Rian Johnson in The Last Jedi (2017).
The metamodern approach to storytelling is predicated on the ability to wrinkle, make fun of, play with, and satirize that which came before. And, sure, these can breed interesting narrative takes — I actually think Johnson’s film tries to respect Lucas’s characters in a way that many do not, for example. Yet the committed Christian is going to have to reckon with these approaches sooner rather than later — if it has not become clear yet, “Jay” in Mrs. Davis is Jesus himself, Simone’s “husband,” who is presented in highly satirized fashion as being an attractive and sexy man (that is completely at odds with the closest thing we get to a physical description of the Messiah in Isaiah 52:2 and Revelation, by the way).
Certainly, there are plenty of times when Christians are overly self-serious and pretentious about their faith — and those moments are repulsive and should be met with reproval, even satire (do not underestimate the power of satire to castigate in a way that is good-natured). In fact, the pretentious Law-keeper becomes the great villain of the early church, the individual that Paul, Timothy, James, Peter, John, and others contended with at different turns and use quite ironic language (sometimes shockingly direct language — think Paul, specifically) to take to task on their misguided theology. I am not against taking faith with a measure of irony — Jesus Himself was a man full of ironies and employed sarcasm with ruthless efficiency (just count the number of times He asks a learned man of Israel, “Have you not read?” in the gospel accounts — you will need both hands).
However, when that satire and irony is employed in a way that has no interest in reproving, rebuking, or teaching, then perhaps Christians should begin weighing the validity of the assessment. I look at Mrs. Davis, its satirizing of the Christian faith, and hear the producers, writers, and directors themselves saying their intent is to make something “epic and stupid” in which the “grander themes” are “carried by the breeze at the end,” asking of their own material, “But what does that even mean?” and conclude that this particular “metamodern” story is not worth my time.
Because when the “cool and interesting” sheen of metamodern narratives is stripped away, when you get past the surrealism and begin excavating these kinds of stories for real value, what you tend to find is nothing that resembles a framework in which absolute truth, or even sincerity, exists. In the metamodern framework, “feelings are far from trivial — they have cosmological significance.” But there is no discussion of which feelings are valid or sincere, because there is no standard against which to measure them. Feelings simply, pretentiously, are, and because they are experienced, that is validation enough.
Let us be clear: emotions are important, and Scripture is a book that is absolutely shot through with raw emotions — David’s burning anger against his enemies, Elijah’s deepest fears in the face of widespread betrayal, Jesus’s agonizing angst before His death, Paul’s joy in the face of trials, the Father’s love for you and me. But the subjective feelings of the judged do not seem to be a factor when God judges the world according to their deeds (not their subjective emotional experiences) in Revelation 20 — this is why Christians stand in hope on the deeds of Christ by faith, and not their own.
No, at that point, the only thing of cosmological significance is the person and work of Jesus Christ — and I have to say, folks, I do not particularly care whether “Jay” manicured His beard before He died or got a nice set of abs upon resurrecting. So, if someone is going to take my faith — in which my apparently very valid subjective feelings are all tied up — and reduce it to something “epic and stupid,” then my very valid subjective feelings tell me to stop watching three episodes in and go do something more productive with my time.
Cole Burgett is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute. He teaches classes in systematic theology and Bible exposition and writes extensively about theology and popular culture.
Kimberly Ricci, “Peacock’s ‘Mrs. Davis’ Is Seriously Terrific and Feels Like a Spiritual Successor to HBO’s ‘Watchmen,’” Uproxx, April 18, 2023, https://uproxx.com/tv/mrs-davis-review-peacock-damon-lindelof/.
Rachel Syme, “Mrs. Davis,” The New Yorker (n.d.), https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/television/mrs-davis-04-24-23.
Liz Shannon Miller, “Mrs. Davis Review: A Fascinating Series about Science, Faith, and Exploding Heads,” Consequence, April 18, 2023, https://consequence.net/2023/04/mrs-davis-review-peacock/.
Damon Lindelof, quoted in Tara Bennett, “‘Mrs Davis’ Creator Damon Lindelof on That ‘Epic and Stupid’ Excalibattle Adventure in Episode 3,’” SyFy Wire, April 22, 2023, https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/mrs-davis-damon-lindelof-creators-explain-episode-3.
Owen Harris, quoted in Keisha Hatchett, “Mrs. Davis Director Breaks Down That Finale Reveal and What Simone’s Wacky Journey Says about A.I.,” TVLine, May 18, 2023, https://tvline.com/interviews/mrs-davis-season-1-episode-8-recap-finale-explained-owen-harris-interview-1234988784/.
Cole Burgett, “When the Hurly-Burly’s Done: A Review of ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once,’” Christian Research Journal, May 11, 2022, https://www.equip.org/articles/when-the-hurlyburlys-done-a-review-of-everything-everywhere-all-at-once/.
Joyce Li, “‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Makes History as the Most-Awarded Film Ever,” Hypebeast, March 12, 2023, https://hypebeast.com/2023/3/a24-everything-everywhere-all-at-once-most-awarded-film-ever.
Jonathan Rawson, “Metamodernism and the Perception of Context: The Cultural Between, the Political After and the Mystic Beyond,” Perspectiva, May 26, 2021, https://systems-souls-society.com/metamodernism-and-the-perception-of-context-the-cultural-between-the-political-after-and-the-mystic-beyond/.