tv review

Thank the Algorithm for Mrs. Davis

Photo: Sophie Kohler/Peacock

In the final scene of the fourth episode of Mrs. Davis, Simone, a nun in search of the Holy Grail who is played by Betty Gilpin, views a top-secret videotape. We watch Simone as she watches the TV screen in front of her and suddenly screams, “What the f—?” The credits roll before we hear the expletive in its entirety, but we know exactly what she says. That’s also how it feels to watch Mrs. Davis, the religious odyssey/thriller/comedy/drama/sci-fi epic co-created by showrunner Tara Hernandez (The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon) and Damon Lindelof, known for his work on LostThe Leftovers, and Watchmen. I mean that as the highest possible compliment.

The Peacock series, which debuts today with four episodes, is the rare show that feels inscrutable at first and eventually seduces you to such an intense degree that you would eagerly die on the nearest available hill defending it. For much of my first viewing of the premiere episode, I was confused; during the opening moments, in which a gruesome fight sequence plays out inside a 14th-century Paris convent, I thought I had accidentally clicked on the wrong screener. By the eighth and final installment of season one, I was ready to race through the streets with a sparkler in each hand shouting, town-crier-style, “Watch Mrs. Davis, you magnificent cowards!!”

To the extent it’s possible to summarize this show, it is about a nun who embarks on a series of increasingly ridiculous quests under the direction of an AI dubbed the Algorithm, or Mrs. Davis. The story is rife with MacGuffins, including the original, most significant MacGuffin in storytelling history: the Holy Grail, which Mrs. Davis tasks Simone and her ex-boyfriend Wiley (Jake McDorman) with tracking down and destroying. It’s not wrong to refer to the series as a constantly evolving mystery-box show, but that’s also too reductive a term for what a mindfuck Mrs. Davis is. This series is like a puzzle box that turns into a Transformer and also an Etch A Sketch that can microwave a plate of pineapple-infused falafel for you. It’s got magic tricks and sly Lost references and a finale reveal that is one of the best things I’ve seen on TV all year and maybe last year also.

While Mrs. Davis offers plenty of surface pleasures — it’s suspenseful and weird and, once you become attuned to its rhythms, like the kind of earwormy song you don’t want to stop dancing to — it also has something deeper to say about the way human beings engage with the world. In the version of modern society envisioned by Hernandez and Lindelof, an all-knowing AI far more insightful than Siri guides most citizens through their daily lives. Gilpin’s character — whose given name is Lizzie, but renames herself after pledging to a sisterhood led, as all sisterhoods should be, by Margo Martindale — is deeply suspicious of the Algorithm. That’s partly why she joins the convent and devotes herself instead to a higher power, which, as the series subtly implies, is just another way of letting a mysterious entity tell you how to live your life. Who should you turn to for the answers, Mrs. Davis asks: ChatGPT or Jesus Christ? Is there even a difference?

In its storytelling approach, the series operates like the Algorithm or a religion, demanding your trust even when it seems to be guiding viewers into a house of mirrors where the power’s gone out. Mrs. Davis often presents certain details as facts, only to eventually reveal deeper truths that recalibrate our understanding of what we saw earlier. It’s teaching us how to watch it as we watch it.

If it seems like this review is dancing around plot details, that’s because it is. Mrs. Davis is the kind of television experience best entered into with an open, unpolluted mind. Gilpin is phenomenal in the lead role and grounds every moment in relatable, often raw emotion that gives the series the beating heart it needs. She has a firm grasp on the tone and the gifts required to lean just as effectively into subtler, dramatic moments — the range of emotions that ripple across her face as she learns information about her dad in episode six is simply breathtaking — as she does into daffier sequences. It’s a gorgeous, multilayered performance that never starts flying off into the wind even when the story lines sometimes threaten to.

It helps, too, that Gilpin is surrounded by fine actors who know how to return all her volleys, including the aforementioned Martindale, a warm Mother Superior who never shies from sharing a sip of liquor on a special occasion; McDorman, who is so classically cocky and handsome in this that he may have rearranged my optic-nerve fibers; Chris Diamantopoulos as a tech-bro buddy of Wiley’s with a very thick Australian accent; a very zen Andy McQueen; a no-nonsense Elizabeth Marvel; an all-nonsense David Arquette; and Ben Chaplin as a man with the last name Schrödinger who, yes, does have a cat, obviously.

The three directors who oversee these episodes — Owen Harris (Black Mirror), Alethea Jones (Made for Love), and E.O. Toye (Westworld, Watchmen) — have all worked on twisty, mystery-boxy projects before and handle the proceedings with audacity and brio, smash-cutting from intimate conversations to action sequences in a way that is deliberately jarring but never feels disjointed. While Hernandez, whose experience is rooted in comedy, and Lindelof sound like an odd match on paper, their vision, which marries cartoony surprises with elaborate world-building, somehow gels. Everyone working on Mrs. Davis seems to know exactly what story they’re telling even when viewers aren’t entirely sure, and that enables us to trust in where this ride is going.

At its core, Mrs. Davis is about storytelling itself — the narratives we tell ourselves about our pasts and the ones we readily absorb from Bibles and digital apps — and how and why we choose to believe what we believe. It’s also about the pure joy of hearing a good yarn, illustrated in episode five when Schrödinger fills in Simone and Wiley about a character’s backstory and the two keep interrupting with “Whoa!” and “Holy shit!” This, too, is part of the process of watching Mrs. Davis. It’s just unfiltered fun.

And when you eventually finish the finale — stick with this one, I beg you — you are welcome to join me so we can both run down the street, screaming as loud as we want about what a wild-ass pleasure it’s been to engage with this beautifully demented TV program.

Thank the Algorithm for Mrs. Davis