Jesus Meets Sentient AI in ‘Mrs. Davis’ | Sojourners

Jesus Meets Sentient AI in ‘Mrs. Davis’

Sophie Kohler / Peacock

The new Peacock TV series Mrs. Davis has the most unhinged first 15 minutes of possibly any show I have ever seen. Men burn at the stake, heads roll, water is walked on, blood fountains. There are Knights Templar, nuns, magicians, a sex worker, pineapple falafel, and a man named Schrodinger and his cat (no relation to the famous scientist). It’s as impressive as it is dizzying, and I couldn’t help but gasp.

It’s an introduction that leaves you wondering what exactly you are watching — and the answers are not immediately forthcoming. From Lost-producer Damon Lindelof and Big Bang Theory-writer Tara Hernandez, Mrs. Davis is a show that interrogates religion and technology, thriving on an over-the-top absurdity that belies its thornily layered themes. It slowly spools out answers — and, even more frequently, questions — over eight hour-long episodes, released weekly (the final episode aired on May 18th).

The series tries to accomplish a lot, and sometimes bites off more than it can chew. Some plot elements can feel like non-sequiturs: “The pope is an imposter” sounds like a serious spoiler, but is a B-plot of one episode at best. (Now is a good time to mention that the show can color somewhat outside theological lines.) But beneath it all, Mrs. Davis holds fast to a compellingly intimate depiction of Jesus that anchors the frenetic intensity of the show.

Mrs. Davis is, in theory, about a nun battling a sentient Artificial Intelligence. Called Mrs. Davis, the AI is used by (or, more accurately, controls) most people on Earth. Mrs. Davis’s ubiquity has stripped the mystery from everyday life. She reveals the sleight of hand behind every magic trick, and counts the cards of every poker game. Earpieces provide a constant link to her guidance, while phones display who has digital “wings,” a blue checkmark-like status symbol earned by completing quests for Mrs. Davis. Some users spend their lives chasing wings, effectively following the AI’s every whim forever.

One of the last holdouts who refuses to use Mrs. Davis is Sister Simone (played by Betty Gilpin), a smart-mouthed nun with a large helping of childhood trauma. Raised by two magicians, Simone was a nontraditional figure for religious vocation. But she converted after experiencing what the show depicts literally as a love affair with Jesus, a brown man with kind eyes who loves serving others. She takes her vows as a nun to marry him, the absolute love of her life.

Mrs. Davis takes very seriously the concept of marriage to Christ. Simone is in love with Jesus in a way I haven’t seen on TV before. They share meals and jokes, they argue about other relationships, they push back on each other’s ideas. Simone experiences it as an ecstatic and at times erotic union. She calls Jesus “husband.”

It’s a serious and grounding element to some of the intentional ridiculousness and sarcasm of Mrs. Davis. The show’s basis in genuine, unashamed religiosity and love stops it from leaning too hard into cynicism or satire, despite how much of the latter abounds. Mrs. Davis loves to play with tropes. There’s the rugged, cowboy ex-boyfriend. His best friend is an Aussie caricature with a shirt that won’t stay on, all accent and homoerotic machismo. Together, they lead a resistance that takes its cue from Fight Club, posturing musclehead idiocy. Then there’s a motorcycle chase through Hollywood sets, evil Germans, Vatican conspiracies, and a literal belly of the beast.

Even underneath all the pop culture flash, in Mrs. Davis, you can never quite tell what is real. The show explains that in magic, there’s a concept called a force: It’s an illusion of choice when the outcome is predetermined, like when a magician asks you to draw a card from a manipulated deck. (Teller, of Penn & Teller, served as a magic expert to the show.) The show is full of forces, from characters lying to each other to Mrs. Davis herself pulling strings. How can you tell what is true versus what is AI manipulating others around you, and therefore shaping your reality? Can there be a meaningful resistance, or is that too playing a predetermined role? And what do these questions mean for religion in a world ruled by all-knowing technology?

It’s a question that the Catholic Church in Mrs. Davis is still trying to answer. Remember the imposter pope? The original was imprisoned for talking to Mrs. Davis. After an unsatisfying spiritual experience, the pope turned to AI for guidance instead, making Mrs. Davis a false idol. But Simone’s Mother Superior offers another view of AI: She has faith in its goodness, trusting that the algorithm works in a way that aids, rather than fights, God’s will.

There’s a lot to peel back from the show, layer by layer. In its freneticism, Mrs. Davis sometimes risks losing you. The series doesn’t answer every question, and isn’t interested in holding your hand along the way. But sticking with the show as it takes its risks pays off with a powerful, emotionally resonant finale. To get there, like Simone, you just need to have a little faith.

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