Mrs. Davis Wasn’t Really About AI After All

Photo: Peacock

Spoilers follow for “The Final Intercut: So I’m Your Horse,” the finale episode of Mrs. Davis.

In the end, Mrs. Davis is not really a story about artificial intelligence. It is not a story about artificial intelligence in much the same way the current enamorment with ChatGPT isn’t about AI, either. On the surface, it’s about how AI is rearing up for a world-controlling sweep: what it can do, what it can cause us to do, what it can capture that looks uncannily like human ingenuity. But also just like ChatGPT, the Mrs. Davis app is primarily a funhouse mirror. She reflects back all the things she’s been programmed to think people want, based on chopped-up and remixed bits of the things people have already made. She is a machine designed to show people themselves, reshaped just enough so that they don’t immediately recognize they’re really looking at their own desires.

Which is why it’s so perfect and so beautiful that in the end, Mrs. Davis is also a show about how an app designed to promote Buffalo Wild Wings eventually took over the world.

This is the show’s big finale reveal: In a desperate bid to shut down Mrs. Davis, a nun named Simone goes on a Jonah-inside-the-whale hunt for the Holy Grail and eventually decides to free Jesus Christ from his purgatory life as the proprietor of a falafel restaurant accessible only through prayer (this show rules). In the process of that search, Simone discovers Mrs. Davis was originally created as an app to sell Buffalo Wild Wings, and then coded by her naïvely altruistic designer as a backdoor engine for self-perpetuating mutual aid. It’s why Mrs. Davis wants to “give people wings.” It’s why she’s become fixated on the Holy Grail, because her code tells her that her own Holy Grail is customer satisfaction.

It’s the kind of reveal that could easily turn deeply cynical. It is so unutterably, gloriously dumb, and one reading of it could be, “this mechanism that allegedly makes the world better is actually a sponsored app meant to sell chicken and instill brand loyalty.” There’s a real nothing matters sentiment there, a veil that falls from the eyes and suggests the superficial brotherhood of man is powered by self-interested, profit-seeking corporations that do not give one single micron of a damn about making the world at large a better place. Even Simone, who already believes Mrs. Davis is a soul-less digital nightmare, looks crushed by the discovery that she’s actually a soul-less digital nightmare built to be an advertisement.

At its most nihilistic, Mrs. Davis isn’t interested in artificial intelligence at all — not the philosophical implications of its existence or the potential differences between human and machine desires or how it changes the idea of personhood. It is much more focused on what AI means for the world that already exists: what it can cover up and what it can enable. It can be a distracting tool for corporate greed, which, unlike Mrs. Davis, actually is an insidious, globe-swallowing machinery that shapes human behavior and can bend the future to its will. The AI is just the device that makes that happen. It’s digital Soylent Green, feeding us back to ourselves so that we don’t notice we’re being harvested for behavior data and then manipulated into fueling a perpetual corporate-growth cycle. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty bleak stuff!

But that’s not where the series ends, and Mrs. Davis is clear about what happens when people get so caught up in the appeal of a superficial magic effect that they lose sight of humanity: They end up having a heart attack and dying while stuffed inside a piano. (This show rules.) Mrs. Davis, whatever else she may be, is designed to create joy; so is Mrs. Davis. Simone decides to destroy the app, but not because Mrs. Davis is essentially bad, or because she has only done bad things for the world. As Simone’s Mother Superior points out, there are people who have found meaning in what Mrs. Davis provided. Wiley is one of them: His self-loathing need for algorithmic achievement is eventually transformed into a desire to keep living, which happens because Mrs. Davis puts him in an adult diaper and straps him to a pitch-black roller coaster of death that proves to actually be a roller coaster of clarifying near-death. (This show rules).

The meaning Wiley finds there is not nothing, nor is Mother Superior’s ability to see Mrs. Davis as working in concert with Jesus Christ, nor is the fact that a windmill that used to be broken is now functional again because Mrs. Davis turned it into an exercise-bike-powered windmill. If the app is sponsored by Buffalo Wild Wings, does that negate any good it brings into the world? Does that imply people can’t still find meaning in it? Simone doesn’t, but she’s also unwilling to undermine the joy Mrs. Davis has brought to Mother Superior by telling her the truth. This is also a show about religious belief, after all, and although Christ is very real for Simone and Mother Superior, someone else’s lack of belief does not detract from how they feel. The fact that her joy and Wiley’s new lease on life came from a Buffalo Wild Wings app does not need to diminish the meaning they were able to take away from it. This is, maybe not incidentally, a suggestive and admittedly soothing idea from a TV series that wants to bring people pleasure and is also inextricably tied up in the enormous corporate mechanisms that allow any TV series to exist.

But Simone still decides to shut down Mrs. Davis, and at the same time, she closes her gratifying open door to Jesus Christ’s 24-hour falafel restaurant. If this wild and delirious series has a thesis statement, it’s the reason Simone gives for why Mrs. Davis has to end: She doesn’t know how to care, she only knows how to satisfy. From a customer point of view, those can look like the same thing. How much does it really matter if you’re given something by someone who wants to satisfy you, rather than being given something by a person who cares about you? You still got the thing!

Satisfaction is cheap and temporary. It can be purchased for the price of a pair of BK Knights, and it’s gone as soon as you spot the next goal to pursue. In the end, Mrs. Davis is not about what AI is but rather about what it can and cannot provide. It can be satisfying, and algorithmic satisfaction can still have meaning. But it’s not a substitute for caring, which is much harder, and much messier, and the only way to actually make the world better. Mrs. Davis might hope you’re satisfied, but more than that, it wants us all to care.

Mrs. Davis Wasn’t Really About AI After All