Mrs. Davis, A.I., and the Place of Religion in the Modern World

A Review of Peacock’s New Series Mrs. Davis

NOTE: I have moved my blog to Substack. Follow me there for a full discussion of every episode of Mrs. Davis as well as other topics topics related to religion and popular culture.

This new Peacock Series from Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) and Tara Hernandez (Big Bang Theory) stars Betty Gilpin as a nun in a battle against a powerful AI (Mrs. Davis). This fun (sometimes truly bonkers), thought-provoking tv show also involves a quest for the Holy Grail, and lots of pop culture references, from Monty Python to Fight Club. As usual in Lindelof’s work, this is also an exploration of the place that religion, spirituality, and the search for ultimate meaning have in a world where God seems to have been replaced by an all-knowing all-powerful algorithm.

Mrs. Davis, the new Peacock TV show by writers and producers Damon Lindelof (LostThe Leftovers) and Tara Hernandez (Big Bang Theory) could not have premiered at a more appropriate time. Over the last few months, one of the main topics of conversation has been AI and the dramatic transformation it will bring into the world. In 2018, Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet (the umbrella company that owns Google), said “A.I. is the most profound technology humanity is working on—more profound than fire or electricity or anything that we’ve done in the past […] It gets to the essence of what intelligence is, what humanity is. We are developing technology which, for sure, one day will be far more capable than anything we’ve ever seen before” (you can see the clip from the 60-minute interview below)

Since the release of ChatGPT in November of 2022 by OpenAI, the sense that we are witnessing a paradigm shift has only accelerated, with many voices arguing that artificial intelligence is not an idea anymore but a reality that is going to profoundly transform the way we think and the way we work, while also radically altering our understanding of who we are as humans and even of reality itself. There is excitement as to what A.I. will mean for the future of workeducationmedicinegamingartrelationships, and cyberwar, among many other topics. Some people are preaching the arrival of a utopian future where A.I. will solve most of our problems, while others are alerting us of a Terminator-like impending doom. Mrs. Davis tackles the issue of A.I., paying particular attention to the place that faith, religion, and, in particular, the human need for meaning will have in a world dominated by unimaginably powerful algorithms.

The show is described by its creators as a battle of biblical proportions that unfolds when faith is pitted against technology, as a nun (Sister Simone, played by Betty Gilpin who, in her habit looks very much like Miss Clavel in the Madeline books!) and an Artificial Intelligence (Mrs. Davis) become adversaries. The main engine of the show is a quest for the Holy Grail, but it also includes an outrageous cast of characters and situations that seem to tell the viewer that the show might be asking important questions, but that we should still have fun in the process.

Science, Reason, and the Era of Disenchantment

Mrs. Davis also seems to explore what the famous 19th-century sociologist Max Weber defined (using a term borrowed from Max Schiller) as “disenchantment,” or the process by which the Age of Enlightenment (17th and 18thcenturies), with its assertion of reason and the scientific method, eroded the role that myth, magic, and religion had as an explanatory tool for humanity (the original German term, Entzauberung, actually means “de-magicization”). While there is no doubt that scientific progress has been great for humanity, Weber also complained that the process of disenchantment created an epistemological vacuum of sorts, since science is able to quantify and measure reality but, ultimately, is not able to explain it (science can explain what the natural world is and how it works, but it cannot tell us what it ultimately all means). The displacement of religion as central to the social project and its replacement by science created, according to Weber, a crisis of meaning (or its lack thereof). We now know more than ever (and A.I. is only going to accelerate the quantity of knowledge produced), but we now have confused quantity with quality, or, in other words, data has replaced meaning.

Lindelof has echoed similar issues as central to the development of the show“If you think back to what it was like to be alive 100 years ago, religion was such a central part of everyone’s lives, and our generation is in the midst of this great transition away from spirituality and religion writ large and into this other thing that feels largely dominated by technology.”

These are not new themes for Lindelof. Lost’s central engine was the quest for ultimate answers, and the tension between the roles of science and faith in that search for meaning was clearly personified by two of the central characters, Jack Shepherd and John Locke (see the famous episode Man of Science, Man of Faith).

Lindelof pursued a similar line of questioning in The Leftovers, a show that I would argue represented the most important exploration of religion in contemporary popular culture (you can read an interview I did with Lindelof about that show in my former blog). While Lost was a question in search of an answer, The Leftovers seemed to posit that all we have are questions. A spiritual/existential search is a quest without ultimate answers, but a quest worth taking nonetheless.

Hernandez, the co-creator of the show, seems to agree with Lindelof’s concerns as it pertains to what she sees as our modern worship of technology. She believes that “it’s intoxicating to believe that there is a data-driven technology out there – what others might call a higher power – that can sort through the muck and guide us through this big mess of an existence we call life,” says Hernandez. But she also believes that “if we were okay admitting that we have no idea, the world would be a much better place. In fact, that should be the series tagline: Mrs. Davis – we don’t know shit.”

This fundamental questioning of the nature of A.I. is why I find this show so interesting. We are currently being inundated with a narrative that argues that A.I. is on its way to being sentient (see the claim by a Google engineer, and the truly bizarre conversation that the NYTimes technology critic Kevin Roose had with ChatGPT), and that, as it gathers momentum and it refines the way it processes information, it will be able to answer all of our questions. The hope (some might say faith) that we are putting into A.I. is a reflection of a basic human need for the search of absolute certainty. That has always also been the appeal of religion, as a tool that offers comfort and structure, it tells us stories about the nature of reality and our place in it. A.I. has become a placeholder, a metaphor for our need for ultimate meaning.

Meghan O’Gieblyn, in her great book God, Animal, Machine, a collection of essays that explore the intersection of religion, technology, and culture in contemporary society, argues that despite the rapid advancements in technology, and in particular the rise of A.I., humans are still grappling with fundamental questions about the nature of existence, morality, and the role of religion in a secular world. A difference now, O’Gieblyn suggests is that these perennial questions about what it means to be human and about the nature of reality are now asked as a data problem. In the words of O’Gieblyn “all eternal questions have become engineering problems.” For O’Gieblyn, though, it is still worth it to reengage with those questions or to “reenchant or reensoul, objects within a world that is already irrevocably technological,” to use Weber’s language.

Mrs. Davis plays with these ideas, particularly this notion of reenchanting a world that has lost its faith in magic and religion (magic and magicians play a fun role in the series). A.I., the show seems to say, might have a place in the modern world, but it might not be the one we are giving it right now. It might be time to reconsider not only the role of A.I. in modern society, but also the role that faith, religion, and spirituality play in giving meaning to our existence and to the world around us.

A Note on the Pop Culture References

A fun part of watching the show is that, while it might ask important questions, it does not take itself very seriously (a radical departure from The Leftovers). The show is built as a hypertext with constant ironic and playful references to other shows, films, books, and works of art. The first episode includes homages to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci CodeMonty Python and the Holy GrailCast AwayThe Big LebowskiMad Max: Fury RoadThe MatrixJohn Wick, and classic screwball comedies to name just a few. Lindelof makes also fun of himself with a hilarious joke about a hatch (a reference to Lost). 

Mrs. Davis also plays with the modern way in which shows are watched and taken apart as if they were contemporary scriptures. Previous Lindelof show Lost, with its episode recaps (Jeff Jensen’s in particular), its own Wiki page, numerous online forums, and podcasts, was not only consumed but also read as scripture in need of interpretation, as the source of answers to our existence in this universe (what or where is the island? How did the characters end up there? Why are they all apparently connected?). Lindelof is aware of that, and it seems that with Mrs. Davis he wants to avoid his followers to take the show so seriously. That might explain why he is willing to take so many risks with its storytelling. His goal is not to construct a show as if it were a philosophical treatise, a scripture to take apart, but a fun ride that asks smart questions. After all, it can be difficult to take seriously a show in which a nun on a motorcycle jumps through a giant pink-sprinkled donut.

Having said that… I will recap Mrs. Davis in my new Substack page… because as a Professor of Religion with an interest in pop culture, and in particular, the work of Damon Lindelof, writing obsessively about a TV show that asks religious questions is like having your cake (or in this case a donut) and eating it too.

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