Mrs. Davis and the Search for the Holy Grail; or, Спасибо meiner Herr vamános toute de suite fel y gwynt. An eight-part miniseries airing on the Peacock Network. 20 April-18 May 2023.
[This review was originally published in Medievally Speaking]
Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University
Spoiler alert: loads of key plot details in the review below
If, for some reason, you had nothing better to do and wanted to combine Monty Python and the Holy Grail with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Julian of Norwich’s Showings, you’d end up with the Peacock Network’s madly brilliant Mrs. Davis.
The series jumps from time period to time period, and from location to location, as it introduces a dizzying array of truly bizarre characters. First, there is Mrs. Davis, a globe-spanning AI platform that uses human proxies wearing earbuds to communciate with everyone everywhere. The word proxy has, therefore, become an oft-used verb. In the UK, Mrs. Davis is known as “Mum”; in Italy, as “Madonna.” Pronoun issues are never resolved. Should Mrs. Davis be referred to as a “she” or an “it”? Elizabeth “Lizzie” Abbott, now Sister Simone (Betty Gilpin), has literally become a Bride of Christ, known in the series simply as “Jay” (Andy McQueen). Jay runs a falafel counter in some other dimension where the faithful drop in every once in a while for a meal and a chat (two kinds of communion?), and where “the Boss”—who is never quite identified, but who could be God—lurks behind a formidable closed metal door. We later learn that the lunch counter is Limbo, and that Jay is stuck there because Mary, his mother, selfishly kept a part of him when he was buried—that part has become the Grail. There is a more than slightly demented scientist and Grailologist named Dr. Arthur Shrodinger (Ben Chaplin), who, naturally, owns a cat. And, of course, his first name is Arthur—he is, after all, connected to the Grail quest! (The real Dr. Shrodinger’s first name was Erwin.) There is a group of well-meaning, often baffled, nuns under the spiritual guidance of their gracious and sympathetic mother superior (the always marvellous Margo Martindale), who live off the grid outside Reno in a deserted desert motel turned convent. There is Wiley (Jake McDorman), Lizzie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend (when she’s not a Bride of Christ), a billionaire intent on destroying Mrs. Davis with the help of a ragtag, hyper-masculine guerilla group, who invent a device known as “the constipator” to help Simone overcome a challenge on her quest. The device is right out of a scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are about to be crushed to death in a trash compactor. (One of the two creators of Mrs. Davis was turned down for a job when he applied to work on a Star Wars sequel.) There’s a pope (Roberto Mateos), and, for good measure, a look alike anti-pope. There are conmen and tricksters—such as Lizzie’s mother, Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel), and her father, Montgomery (David Arquette). There are very special running shoes, a 1307 massacre of Knights Templar in Paris, a fastfood chain named Buffalo Chicken Wings, an “Excalibattle,” a Lazarus Shroud (which protects the wearer during otherwise deadly adventures), and an exploding head previously on the shoulders of someone who unworthily drank from the Holy Grail. (Viewers might remember what happens to Nazi-agent Donovan when he drinks from what he thinks is the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; in a further nod to the Harrison Ford film, German agents impede the search for the Grail in Mrs. Davis as they do in Last Crusade.) There are also the butchered lyrics to Eddy Grant’s 1982 hit single “Electric Avenue,” and, of course, there is the Holy Grail, here a glowing, seemingly indestrucible bowl (definitely not a cup), long in the care of the Sisters of the Coin (who refer to it as “the asset”), but eventually swallowed by a giant killer sperm whale, because, in Mrs. Davis, that’s what giant killer sperm whales do.
Grails always come with questions and with searches, and Mrs. Davis is replete with both. As we bounce around in time from 1307 onwards, the present seems to be in some indefinite period in the future, where the entire world, thanks to earbuds, is tuned into Mrs. Davis, the omniscient and omnipresent AI program which seems to have eliminated war, hunger, and poverty. But Wiley thinks Mrs. Davis is the embodiment of pure evil; Sister Simone thinks Mrs. Davis is the anti-Christ. Nevertheless, Simone strikes a bargain with Mrs. Davis: if Simone finds and destroys the Holy Grail, then Mrs. Davis will switch herself off, leaving humanity once again to its own devices.
Just like part of the title of this review, each of the eight episodes of Mrs. Davis is given a title that is little more than gibberish, and the show’s creators admitted that AI was used to generate the title for each episode—for example, “”Zwei Sie Piel mit Seitung Sie Wirtschaftung” and “Great Gatsby 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Such gibberish is the point. Searching for the Grail requires deciphering verbal and other clues, some of which lead to dead ends. So too is the lingustitc word play at work with the names that characters are given throughout the series: Abbott, Wiley, Celeste, Simone, Lazarus, Clara, Schrodinger, Lazarus, Jay, Joy, and so on. Episode one opens in Paris in 1308 as the last surviving Knights Templar are by royal decree being burned at the stake.The Knights have, however, a women’s auxiliary, a group of fighting nuns who tend to the Grail. But, soon all the nuns, save one, are also massacred, and the sole survivor flees with the Grail seemingly by walking on water across the Atlantic to the New World.
Lizzie, whose childhood was spent working as a shill for a card trick that her parents devised and performed, has grown up hating anything that even hints at magic or trickery. She sees Mrs. Davis as just another con whom she vows to expose and destroy. When the younger Lizzie is shot in her liver by a crossbow (don’t ask!), she ends up in the hospital next to the younger Wiley. As adults, they reunite in the quest to find the Grail and to destroy Mrs. Davis, whose followers earn wings for successfully performing tasks at Mrs. Davis’s direction. People can also earn wings by volunteering to die at a future date, in a move toward population control. Mrs. Davis obviously understands the transactional nature of religion, especially medieval religion—pace Chaucer’s Pardoner. The subsequent explanation of the orgin of these wings is, I think, hysterically funny.
Their shared goal leads to Lizzie and Wiley’s on-again-off-again romantic relationship. Wiley is, at one point, jealous of Jay, whom he curses. For such blasphemy. Wiley is struck by lightning and rushed to a hospital, from which he is kidnapped by Hans Ziegler (Tom Wlaschih), a deranged German priest. Ziegler kidnaps Wiley because he is wearing unusual running shoes, which may be key to finding the Grail, or to uncovering a scheme that has the real pope kidnapped and replaced with a look alike. All these plot details make total sense—or no sense at all—viewers just need to go with the flow when watching Mrs. Davis.
The plot of Mrs. Davis is big on characters teaming up, so, in additon to Lizzie/Sister Simone and Wiley going off on their quest, we also get Shrodinger and his long-lost daughter Clara (Mathile Olliver) on their own Grail quest. Clara’s mother is Mathilde LaFleur (Katja Herbers), the public face of the Sisters of the Coin, a secular religious order of women bankers whose rules dictate that no one should ever drink from the Grail and that the Grail must once a year be shown to at least 1% of the world’s population. Clara learns the hard way what happens when someone violates the first rule; the second rule, the Sisters hope, can be observed by producing a television commercial for a new brand of sneakers (matching the footwear Wiley wears that catches the eye of Father Ziegler), which will air during the Super Bowl. The commercial will show one of the Sisters running at lighting speed while wearing the sneakers and holding the Grail. In Mrs. Davis, the Grail is, after all, a bowl that is special, if not super! (Stay with me here.) The problem is that the Grail under the care of the Sisters of the Coin is a fake. The real Grail has been swallowed (Jonah like?) by the previously-mentioned killer sperm whale. (Patience, gentle reader, all will eventually be revealed.)
Simone eventually retrieves the real Grail from the killer sperm whale’s belly by heeding the advice of Jesus’s mother, Mary: “an act of selfishness [hers] created the Grail; only an act of selflessness can destroy it.” Simone also learns about the origin of Mrs. Davis. A computer programmer named Joy (Ashley Romans) created Mrs. Davis as part of a pitch for a job with a fastfood chain named Buffalo Chicken Wings—as in the wings with which Mrs. Davis rewards good deeds! But the company rejected Joy’s pitch and her possibly all-knowing AI program, so Joy unleashed it for free upon the world. The program was not, however, without some internal glitches, which is where the mangled lyrics from “Electric Avenue”—as well as the mix-up over wings—fit in. Simone drinks from the Grail knowing that doing so will mean saying goodbye to Jay and free him to leave his lunch counter Limbo. She will do that selfless act that will indeed destroy the Grail. Mrs. Davis lives up to her part of the bargain with Simone, and shuts herself off, and the world descends into chaos. Wiley meets up with Simone, and the two ride off on a white horse into the sunset, Lizzie having learned that physical and spirtual love are not mutually exclusive.
The dots do always end up getting connected in Mrs. Davis. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a small step. The longest journey is from the head to the heart. Clichés abound. The two creators of the series have the kind of track records that make it perfectly logical for them to have come up with the idea for Mrs. Davis. Tara Hernandez was a writer and producer on the always zany Big Bang Theory and its spinoff Young Sheldon. Damon Lindelof, who didn’t get hired to work on a sequel to Star Wars, nonetheless gave us Lost and Watchmen. Both trusted their script enough to allow Wiley’s second-in-command, JQ (Chris Diamantopoulos), to comment that the quest for the Grail is “the most over used MacGuffin ever.” Tongues are constantly in cheeks throughout the eight part-comedy, part-scifi episodes of Mrs. Davis. Medievalism is also readily on display from the Grail quest itself, to an appearance by a frankly distraught Mother of God, to a temporarily-on-hold Harrowing of Hell—with a nod to other mystery play stagings of the story of Jonah and the whale and that of the raising Lazarus—to the Excalibattle, to a nun, who like Julian of Norwich, believes she is literally a bride of Christ, and who belongs to a religious order of women who have cut themselves off from the outside world, just like the first medieval monastic communities did.
Sister Simone is, however, more than a bit disconcerted to find out that Jay is a serial bigamist—so many brides, and only one Christ! Mrs. Davis is filled with Chaucerian “solaas” and more than a bit of “sentence,” in its debunking of our often unbridled enthusiasm for what AI can do for us—or allow us not to do for ourselves. Indeed, Robert E. Barron, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Winona-Rochester (Minn.), has given Mrs. Davis a full thumbs up on his Word on Fire YouTube video for its expression of what he calls a spiritual message of extreme importance: “we are not using the internet; it is using us.” The bishop calls Mrs. Davis “his favorite TV show.” There is a further Chaucerian echo in this Peacock limited series as well: the cast of characters in Mrs. Davis are not out of any Dantesque divine comedy; rather, they seem straight out of the medieval English poet’s wonderfully and madly human Canterbury comedy whose pligrims also set out on a journey that leads them—just like the characters in, and the viewers of, Mrs. Davis— to where they least expect to go.
Mrs. Davis, an eight-part limited series created by Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof;directed by Owen Harris, Alethea Jones, and Frederick E. O. Toye; original release 20 April-18 May 2023, on the Peacock Network.