Katherine Dugan, author of the 2019 book Millennial Missionaries: How a Group of Young Catholics Is Trying to Make Catholicism Cool, wrote for Slate in 2020: “Baby boomer and greatest generation Catholics in the US tended to choose particular saints for devotion based on their awe at the saint’s utter inimitability. But younger Catholics are looking for ways to embody their own potential sainthood.” Who you are must necessarily be connected to how others understand you, and whether the two things ever coalesce into a stable identity, saint or not, is one of the side effects of existing online. This evergreen question of what role religion plays today, how it can survive the scrutiny of thousands of years of troubling history, and where technology comes into the conversation nonetheless tends to receive short shrift in favor of what can only be called essentializing, unimaginative fictions of conflict.
It is said that the life of monastic contemplation and equilibrium, alternately fetishized and denounced as illegitimate by society, is only possible in brief glimpses, but if there ever was room for God, it’s been squeezed out by kids and their phones. Such finger-wagging about technological addiction is disingenuous, however, since dependence on our smartphones and other accoutrements is a problem for every age group. Besides, appeals to putative generational gaps can only cover so much ground, as the line between parody and sanctimony has now run paper-thin. And what about the future? What happens if and when technology outstrips our ability to understand it? This is the shape that debates about AI have taken, a development assumed to be a utopian inevitability by digital prophets and Web3 evangelists. We’ve lived with the specter of HAL 9000 for over 50 years, except now warnings of the apocalyptic perils of synthetic intelligence have given way to desperate entreaties that the opposite may well be true. In all respects, we are told, life will be made simpler, more comfortable, and less confusing once we offload undesirable tasks onto a set of adequately capable, massive, “living” algorithms.
You’ve heard the sales pitch a dozen times before. It’s one Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez play with in the new Peacock production Mrs. Davis, with the added twist of belief thrown in. In promotional materials, the producers situate the series as a showdown between the titular, seemingly omniscient AI (who is married somehow?) and Simone (Betty Gilpin), a wayward-soul-turned-nun who believes that Mrs. Davis has ruined the world by making humanity utterly dependent. As is standard with Lindelof, who tried on generational trauma as the theme du jour in 2019’s Watchmen miniseries, such a frame is merely where the narrative begins, and one might say glancingly at that. Mrs. Davis is a world of marauding magicians, ironic size-50-font location titles, and exploding heads, all scored with a jukebox soundtrack and written with an unflinchingly literal sensibility. That is to say, the existence of not merely a historical but a divine Jesus is taken as a given. So is the Holy Grail, the show’s primary MacGuffin.
Yet Mrs. Davis isn’t really about AI, nor is it really about the church, not in any capital-A (or capital-C) sense. The show’s setting—in Reno and the desert and ranches surrounding it—creates an anywhere feel, the western iconography coupling visual cues of freedom (open roads, vast skies, long horizons) with the cacophony and harried desperation of the user. Mrs. Davis is an AI accessed through an app that incentivizes random acts of kindness through quests. Do enough quests and a user gets virtual “wings,” a status symbol only visible in the app but universally coveted and revered. Mrs. Davis’s primary mode of communication, however, is vocal. In every episode, the world around Simone is populated with followers, who appear to be in constant, private conversation with the AI, earbuds in, attention rapt. Mrs. Davis promises happiness and unfettered beneficence, but rarely is the audience privy to what people are saying to Mrs. Davis, let alone what she could tell them that would inspire them to ceaselessly talk with her.
Juxtapositions between the mundane and the divine abound. Lindelof and Hernandez dramatize screen addiction with the endless dialogue of the faithful in prayer. Like God, Mrs. Davis speaks to others through her users, a process called “proxying” that seemingly everyone on earth is happy and willing to do at a moment’s notice. Like God, she knows everything about everyone thanks to our highly surveilled, digitized world. To the untrained eye, she even performs miracles, really the result of the unseen labor of her followers completing their little quests. Perhaps most consequentially, Mrs. Davis is granted unquestioned, disembodied personhood. One of the show’s running jokes is the variety of euphemisms for “mother” bestowed upon her in various countries (the Spanish call her Madonna). She is adored, embraced, and impossible to ignore because she tells people they are worthy and creates a feedback loop that proves it. As L. M. Sacasas writes in his essay “Outsourcing Virtue,” “There’s no need for good judgment, responsible governance, self-sacrifice or mutual care if there’s an easy technological fix to ostensibly solve the problem. No need, in other words, to be good, so long as the right technological solution can be found.”
Meanwhile, Simone resists such linear behavior. She has a direct, conversational, and highly erotic relationship with Jesus, who works at a diner only she and the other faithful can access, and she’s harboring trauma from the separation of her parents, one of whom died tragically during a magic act (another of the show’s thematic parallels). She lives for her husband Christ, and to convince people, in small ways, that the AI known as Mrs. Davis is a thing, not a sentient being, that it has brainwashed humanity into believing in its glorious altruism. When Simone finally gives in to Mrs. Davis’s intrusions and agrees to go on a quest to find and destroy the Holy Grail, it is with the express condition that Mrs. Davis will self-terminate should Simone succeed. The dependency will be broken, and the world will have to quit cold turkey.
The show’s creators know that audiences expect them to fumble all of this heady material; it has been handled mostly terribly up till now. So, Mrs. Davis goes to great lengths not to take itself too seriously, tossing so many balls in the air that it’s easy to forget what exactly any of it is leading to. The specifics are spoiler-fodder, aided and abetted by a weekly format, but Mrs. Davis seems to be a show where the spoilers ultimately don’t matter. Or rather, they zig and zag before petering out, until the final, spectacularly droll rug-pull. The world created here is planted firmly in the hyperreal, part Pushing Daisies, part Wes Anderson. As such, the heightened nature of every line, behavior, and set piece highlights its mundane, real-world counterparts.
More intriguing, though, is the degree to which Lindelof and Hernandez undercut the severity of AI and its disastrous repercussions by focusing on what cannot be known. If Mrs. Davis promises only good things, the limits of her power make themselves apparent in the random, accidental, and chaotic, the frustrating but basic facets of life that she has blinded the world to. Where God is silent, diffuse, absent, Mrs. Davis is loud, obvious, responsive. Catholics, like me, believe God is always with us, but Mrs. Davis ensures that you never have to question her presence. One never has to be alone, or uncertain, or still. The dilemma, for Simone and her allies, becomes not whether there is a place for religious belief in the modern world, but whether a convincing enough secular substitute that seems to genuinely enact the things religion only hints at is what people really want. Are miracles truly marvelous if they routinely occur? What’s the use of divine grace if easy mastery is always at hand? What has happened to moral conscience if an app is what motivates strangers to be kinder to one another?
And yet, Simone struggles—with herself, with her God, with her family—over the difference between reality and mask, between constant comfort and the uneasy, unpredictable turbulence of life. Herbert McCabe, a Marxist Dominican priest and theologian, writes in his 2007 book Faith Within Reason,
It seems to me that the idea that we are completely free to reclassify the objects of experience in just any way at all […] rests on the idea that we are simply spectators of something that stands over against us called “the world” and we are at liberty to put just any kind of grid we like between the world and our eyes.
In other words, just because language can morph to encompass multiple meanings for a concept—the very ground upon which branding and marketing is based—doesn’t mean that language literally transforms the concept. That’s just magical thinking.
Similarly, the desire to live a meaningful, fulfilling life can’t be remedied by surrendering to arbitrary systems that reward us for what they report is good (or popular) behavior. Virtue, tainted as the word is by conspicuous performances of righteousness, should be strived for with the understanding that it must be independently exercised rather than technologically incentivized. Lindelof and Hernandez liken the doctrines of Catholicism to the source code of a machine, but ultimately, Mrs. Davis emphasizes the idea that the rules and directives of a system are only as good as the people who, upon carrying them out, know when and when not to apply them.
The surrender to God is different from the surrender to an algorithm, not solely because the former requires faith, invites doubt, and entails constant reiteration but because the holy guidance we seek in trying to lead dignified lives can only ever be found by turning towards, not away from, one another. The human animal, as McCabe calls us, is not defined by isolation or enmeshment but by a free choice between the two. At bottom, Mrs. Davis’s commands were written by a person, and in this way, when someone talks to her, they are really interacting with a kind of frozen human simulacrum. Whether or not this counts as sentience is beside the point. Instead, Mrs. Davis, at its most compelling, invites the audience to ask what excuses and weak justifications will be made in the name of AI and its attendant effects, how we will or won’t differentiate between morality and convenience, and what kinds of choices will be taken for granted. McCabe concludes,
Whenever I act intentionally it is always possible for you to ask me, “What did you do that for?” (meaning not exactly “What did you hope to achieve by doing that?” but “What was the meaning of your action?,” “What was it that your act was an act of?”). And whatever answer I give will be informative precisely because there might have been other answers.
What was it that your act was an act of?
Nicholas Russell is a columnist at Defector.