Mrs. Davis is a case of “too much” being a good thing—until it isn’t. Damon Lindelof’s latest (co-created by Tara Hernandez) follows a nun battling an omnipotent A.I. while searching for the Holy Grail, and even that summary only skims the surface of its myriad interests and influences, among which one can also count Lindelof’s Lost, The Leftovers, and Watchmen. The show is a million different things at once, which is initially exhilarating. Alas, that heady buzz doesn’t last, dissipated by a story where each fantasticality winds up being a little bit less fantastic than the last.
Describing Mrs. Davis is a challenge by design, since Lindelof and Hernandez have constructed their eight-episode Peacock affair (April 20) as a kitchen-sink sci-fi smorgasbord that self-consciously revels in clichés. The story begins in 1307 Paris with a cadre of badass women slaying those who seek the Grail, a prologue that’ll be revisited, and wildly re-contextualized, in ensuing installments. But things truly take place in an alternate present that’s been wholly transformed by an omnipotent artificial intelligence app named “Mrs. Davis,” which guides and controls humanity (via Bluetooth earpieces) for its ostensible betterment. Mrs. Davis has bestowed mankind with a reality supposedly free of war, famine, unemployment, and divisions. She’s a benevolent techno-mother (or, to put it in Orwellian terms, Big Sister) that’s fixed our broken world.
(Minor spoilers follow.)
Not everyone is on board with this god-like algorithm’s status quo, however. That includes Simone (Betty Gilpin), a nun working at a remote Reno, Nevada, convent (alongside Margo Martindale’s Mother Superior) that specializes in making strawberry jam. Simone isn’t really Simone—she’s Elizabeth, the daughter of a pair of bickering magicians (David Arquette and Elizabeth Marvel)—and tracing the line between her prior and current selves is a winding process that eventually factors into Mrs. Davis’ equation. First and foremost, though, she’s a habit-wearing crusader determined to resist the advances of Mrs. Davis. Despite the A.I.’s tricky ruses, Simone refuses to speak to Mrs. Davis, because she blames “It” for killing her father—an outlook she explains to her boyfriend Jay (Andy McQueen), who works at a restaurant with no other patrons, and whose actual identity is far holier than it appears.
As it turns out, this is just the tip of the series’ inscrutable iceberg. There’s also a shipwrecked hermit named Arthur Schrödinger (Ben Chaplin)—his name a shout-out to the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, with the famous cat—who learns about Mrs. Davis after being rescued from his remote-island exile. Schrödinger has a deep connection to Clara (Mathilde Ollivier), a redheaded crusader we meet back in 1207, as well as Mathilde (Katja Herbers), a shadowy lead member of a group of women that have something to do with the Grail; they’re joined by Mathilde’s wayward associate Father Ziegler (Tom Wlaschiha). The ties binding these various characters together are intricate, and part of the early zippy pleasure of Mrs. Davis is trying to hold on while it races through one breathless revelation and twist after another.
The story hinges on a deal that Simone strikes with the algorithm, agreeing to find and destroy the Grail in return for the A.I. shutting itself off for good. That mission is unbelievably intricate, chockablock with divine love triangles, German kidnappers, secret societies, complex heists, Old Testament-esque endeavors, Vatican doppelgängers, sacrificial suicide centers, pricey sneaker commercials, Arthurian Hands on a Hardbody-like challenges, and a final bombshell about Mrs. Davis that’s admirably ridiculous.
For a long while, Lindelof and Hernandez keep things humming along in simultaneously intriguing and outrageous fashion, and even better, their tale proves thematically rich. It’s a drama about the tension between religion and technology, as well as about mothers and daughters. It’s a satire of social media status and validation, and of the way in which our devices—and streaming content—manipulate, control, and entertain with truisms and formulas. And at its heart, it’s a wild lark about the possibility of free will in a world where seemingly altruistic overlords are everywhere, be they residing in heaven or on a server.
Both sprawling and inward-looking, Mrs. Davis is bursting with imagination and Big Ideas, and its daring makes it more than worth the journey. Nonetheless, there comes a point during the show’s eight-hour odyssey when its preponderance of components becomes more of a burden than an asset, and the cavalier manner that it resolves and/or discards many of its threads suggests that a couple of its subplots were simply unnecessary complications. Stranger still, a few of those narrative avenues are introduced as cheeky, only to then be repositioned as earnestly poignant—a tonal switcharoo that doesn’t work, leaving one to wonder why they’re suddenly supposed to feel something profound about these madcap characters’ inner lives. Lindelof and Hernandez take so many big swings that, when they miss, the blowback is forceful.
That’s not to say that Mrs. Davis runs out of steam; it continues piling on the lunacy until the life-and-death end, along the way providing enough recurring motifs, signifiers, pop-culture references, biblical flourishes, and quippy one-liners to keep one perpetually stunned and surprised. It’s just that going this overboard ultimately has the effect of minimizing the impact of any single facet of its story.
“When everything is in your face, no individual thing resonates as particularly vital.”
When everything is in your face, no individual thing resonates as particularly vital. Despite enthused performances and sterling direction (courtesy of Owen Harris, Alethea Jones, and Frederick E.O. Toye), exhaustion, and then exasperation, finally sets in. Learning the very lesson that Simone’s mom preaches to her daughter, the series suffers the consequences of ignoring boundaries.