2023 – The Daily Beast
April 20, 2023
(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Mrs. Davis.)
It was an inevitable question, and I did ask it: What did Betty Gilpin really think when she found out what Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez’s new sci-fi drama, Mrs. Davis, is actually about?
In the Peacock series, which debuted Friday, Gilpin plays Simone, a nun with a passionate distaste for an all-powerful AI app called “Mrs. Davis.” Beyond her quest to destroy Mrs. Davis, Simone also accepts a second, extremely casual mission—hunting down the Holy Grail. Oh, and did we mention that she’s also in a very literal, very physical relationship with Jesus Christ himself?
And then, in the middle of all these AI-generated quests and odysseys of faith, there’s Gilpin, doing a bit that she aptly labels as “Lucille Ball… in King Arthur’s Court.”
“Finally,” she says, “the work I wanted to do all along.”
When asked what she thought when she first learned the concept for Mrs. Davis, Gilpin deadpanned, “I thought, ‘I’ve seen it before.’” Later, she described the experience of watching the show as “a little like watching CCTV footage of the craziest mushroom trip and just being like, ‘Oh, my God, I forgot about that bar!’”
On screen, Gilpin’s comedic timing is impeccable, aided along by her preternatural gift for mugging for the camera. During our interview, she didn’t miss a beat, either. For every joke answer Gilpin provided, however, she’d also hand over a sincere one.
Really, Gilpin said, when she first learned the concept for Mrs. Davis, she thought, “Yes—hell yes.”
“In theater school, you get to play high stakes and big, grand situations, and ask the big questions, and do Shakespeare,” Gilpin said. In the real world, however, “It’s a lot of mumblecore low stakes. And I just love high-stakes shit. And I was desperate to do that.”
In Mrs. Davis, Gilpin’s character Simone has dealt with high stakes and big questions throughout her life. Her parents were magicians—her father the on-stage face, her mother the brilliant engineer—but their gift for illusion and shared self-absorption stole her childhood. Simone joined a convent after developing a very sensual, obviously metaphysical relationship with Jesus Christ himself. (He apparently makes a mean falafel.)
To Gilpin, it was important to tackle her scenes with “Jay” without judgment. “I don’t have this relationship with Jesus,” she said, “but Simone does and I needed to treat it like a real intimate, specific relationship… And Andy McQueen, who plays Jay, made that pretty damn easy. So those scenes are some of my favorites.”
Some might consider the show’s depiction of Jesus sacrilegious—or at least, surprisingly horny. But as she thought about the relationship Mrs. Davis develops with religion, Gilpin recalled conversations she’d had with two different crew members that illuminated just how many perspectives went into making it.
“One said, I had a very complicated relationship with the church growing up, and I am now an atheist, and this is why I’m doing this show,” she said. “And somebody else said, I am very committed to my faith, I have a very specific and personal relationship with Jesus, and that’s why I’m doing this show.”
The inter-dimensional restaurant where Simone reliably finds herself breaking bread with Jesus represents more than a love nest; it’s also the place where she finds her calling. The powers that be in the nun’s spiritual falafel shop want her to unmask Mrs. Davis, while the AI insists she’s the only one that can complete the essential task of finding the Holy Grail. How are we liking those stakes?
Gilpin has a knack for bugging her eyes open and screwing her face into configurations that are somehow both shockingly funny and intimately familiar. That zany quality is a godsend in this high-concept series, which grounds itself in its star’s off-kilter charisma. Gilpin never looks out to camera in Mrs. Davis, but her on-screen eccentricities can sometimes tickle the fourth wall, drawing us all in with a familiar, twitchy kind of humanity.
Rather than throw on a habit and embark on a Grail quest with no research, Gilpin said she spoke with real-life nuns in preparation for her role. She described the nuns who spoke with her as “some of the smartest, most incredible women I’ve had the pleasure of talking to” and marveled at their capacity for meditation. “They’re really doing the work that, you know, often people pretend to be doing,” Gilpin said.
In Mrs. Davis, Simone’s moments in the convent are some of her happiest throughout the series—not just because they’re making some very appetizing strawberry jam, but because of the sense of belonging that she finds through the place, her sisters, and their work. Much to her chagrin, however, Mrs. Davis blows up her life at the convent pretty quickly. At that point, the series begins to highlight Gilpin’s skills as an action performer. (As Gilpin said, Lindelof and Hernandez like to switch genres.)
For much of the time we spend with her, Simone is a woman on the move—busting illusions and breaking out of handcuffs before speeding off on a motorcycle. While the show’s eight-episode run puts Simone through the wringer, however, Gilpin was unfazed. After starring in Netflix’s wrestling comedy G.L.O.W., she said, “if somebody asks you to fall once a week… or like, get on a motorcycle, that seems like I’m a travel agent.”
“My body has fallen down a cement flight of stairs so many times that now it doesn’t even register,” Gilpin added. “I just float out of my body and watch from the ceiling and then come back into it. I love it.”
But what does it actually look like when a living, breathing human being tries to fight an AI? Mrs. Davis delights in paradoxical questions like these. It doesn’t feel accidental that Simone’s two central quests also represent opposing virtues. Grail missions are timeless, as called out by a character who calls the cup one of the most overused MacGuffins in history. The show’s questions about AI, however, are timely, as evidenced by the endless conversations surrounding ChatGPT.
“I don’t think we realized when we were filming, how exactly topical it would be,” Gilpin said of the series. “Some of the big questions our show asks are also some of the big questions that we are asking right now.” Chief among them: “Whether or not AI is going to save us or kill us.”
If the AI overlords are, indeed, coming for us all, let’s hope they at least let us wait until this delightful, confounding series finishes its run. From beginning to end, it’s one of the most refreshingly bizarre shows we’ve gotten in years. (And nowadays, that’s saying something.)