[This story contains major spoilers to the finale of Mrs. Davis.]
Mrs. Davis made a promise from the beginning that Simone, the heroic nun at the center of the genre-jumping story played by Betty Gilpin, would destroy the titular algorithm of the series. And after eight wild episodes, the show delivered on that promise.
The finale of the Peacock series from co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof is titled “The Final Intercut: So I’m Your Horse,” a name that was given by the algorithm created in the writers room to generate episode titles. (In their own quest to tackle the looming conversation around AI, the writers confronted the technology first-hand by developing their own algorithm, feeding it scripts and outlines, and then asking it to name the eight episodes.) Finale director Owen Harris thinks the title is genius. “It’s disconnection with the story is what that title is about,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It says pretty much everything about AI to me; about our relationship with it, our fears and hopes.”
Harris faced a rather immense task in helming the finale. After traveling continents to follow Simone and ex-boyfriend Wylie (Jake McDorman) on Simone’s Mrs. Davis-given quest to locate and destroy the actual Holy Grail so Simone could, in turn, shut down the world’s all-encompassing algorithm, Mrs. Davis revealed a new layer of its epic adventure with each episode. There was a full-scale Excalibattle, a production of the “most expensive commercial ever made” and escapades through the tunnels of the Vatican, not to mention the reveal that Simone teleports to visit her boyfriend Jay (Andy McQueen), who is actually Jesus and trapped in limbo between life and death.
But Harris was prepared to tackle all of the literal (and existential) questions posed by the show. The Black Mirror helmer had helped set up the story by directing the pilot, along with the second and fifth episodes, before returning to land the series. The season one ending is satisfying, as Simone is successful in her quest. After learning the origin story of Mrs. Davis, she is able to destroy the Holy Grail and send Jesus to the afterlife, and Mrs. Davis bids her and the world goodbye, as promised. The finale ends with Simone getting closure with her mother (Elizabeth Marvel) as Wylie returns from his own quest of self-discovery and the pair ride off into the sunset on Simone’s returned white horse.
With Mrs. Davis gone for good, is this the end? The final shot of a turning windmill, as is unpacked by Harris below, keeps the series open to return for more, should Mrs. Davis get renewed. While the creators and Gilpin have expressed their desire to continue on with the show, Peacock recently submitted the show in the limited series category for the Emmys and there are currently no active talks about a second season. Harris weighs in on that, as well as the AI conversation amid the writers strike, while unpacking the finale’s optimism.
This is a big episode! What was your excitement and also perhaps trepidation about bringing this show across the finish line?
I set the show up and I shot the pilot. If I could have, I would have directed all of it. You read the script and realize just how many hats are being worn — it’s a hat on a hat on a hat; you only get to have that sort of fun with an audience if they feel like someone has a really firm grip of the reins. And a show of this scale — where we go on a quest for the Holy Grail — we ended up shooting a chunk in L.A. and a chunk in Spain; it’s so big and vast and genre-surfing and pivoting. And in juggling all these things, it became quickly apparent I wasn’t going to be able to shoot all of it. I decided to do half of it; so I did episodes one, two, five and the finale. And then it was about finding who the other collaborators and directors were going to be, and I ended up finding Alethea [Jones] and Fred [E.O. Toye]; a lot of what they had done with their work spoke to this show, so it felt like we created this team and we all got it. Each episode feels like a pilot in its own way, because it dives into different directions, and it allowed them to bring their own takes into the Mrs. Davis world once we set up this tonality.
What I loved about the finale when I read it was that it reminded me a little bit of the last episode of The Leftovers, which I loved and thought was fantastic. Instead of exploding, things sort of settle. Pieces come together. And there’s something really satisfying about that when the show itself has taken so many tangents. It starts to wrap things up and does so, still, in a really playful way. By the end, a lot has changed with the evolution of the characters and what’s taking place in the world of Mrs. Davis. When you launch something out of the gate, it’s a really nice feeling knowing that you can steer it home as well.
So, Simone destroys the Holy Grail and Mrs. Davis, and sends Jesus to the afterlife. Wylie crosses over to get the answers of life, and then comes back feeling worthy. Simone tells her mom what happened to her father (David Arquette) and gets closure there, and then she and Wylie ride off into a world without Mrs Davis on a white horse. Does that about cover it?
(Laughing.) When you beat it out like that, it does have a satisfying feeling that all of this is going to come down and we’re going to drive these things home. But even so, it still sounds like a nutty bunch of stories. You’ve nailed it. And hopefully, it lands like that. That you’re able to sit back and let everything connect at the end.
How big was your budget? Did you have endless freedom here, or did you have to get creative?
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say they have enough money. You’re going to reach for the stars. All of your references are going to be $100 million movies, and you’re writing hour-long pieces of television. You never have enough. But we definitely had enough money to have fun. When you have challenges, and they can be creative or financial ones, I think it opens the door to invention. So both on the production and direction side, we were always trying to be as inventive as possible in the way we spend that money. Tara and Damon were always re-looking at scripts to figure out where those big hits would be and whether they could reshape them to then afford a different moment. You’re always playing around. But, it wasn’t a small budget — we had a lot of fun spending it!
Damon Lindelof told me that he and Tara Hernandez wanted to give resolution to this story, because it would be hubris to have a cliffhanger without a second season greenlit. After raising so many questions all season long, what were your talks like with Damon and Tara about giving this story a satisfying ending?
This is similar to the Black Mirrors I’ve done [“Be Right Back,” “San Junipero” and “Striking Vipers“]. They don’t necessarily posit a question and give you an answer at the end. They tell you a story that allows you to look at a question from a slightly different point of view that might open up an angle you might not have considered before. I think Mrs. Davis did a very similar thing.
We set out with these big, grand themes of faith, religion, technology; our relationships with all of these things, with each other. Those bigger questions aren’t necessarily answered. What we end up doing is we hone in on the relationships and, as an audience, those are the questions you want answering. You want to know how things will end between people. Because universally, that’s what we’re attracted to and most fascinated about.
Once this show gets out the gate, it explodes. We find ourselves in this Excalibattle and it has this lovely sense of scale, but by about episode five, it starts to settle down into relationships and characters, and you find little moments where you can start to care. So in terms of how it concludes, I think the most satisfying questions are answered but the bigger questions have just been opened up for conversation. We’re not going to figure any of this stuff out. If you look at ChatGPT and the craziness going on, we’re just at the beginning of starting to answer this relationship with technology; this just allows us to look at it in a different way.
The finale revealed the origin story for the creation of Mrs. Davis. It showed how altruistic intentions ended up with pretty clichéd results. Damon talked about algorithms in that way, and he also called this an optimistic show. When it comes to leaving us on answering if Mrs. Davis is good or evil for the world, why did you end on the image of the windmill still spinning?
That’s the reason why we go back to the windmill, because the windmill isn’t necessarily conclusive about anything. The windmill could just be the wind. It could be something supernatural. It could be something where, maybe someone is communicating from a different area of our story. Maybe it is Mrs. Davis. By where we end up taking the character of Mrs. Davis, which I really like, is that you question: Do we turn her off or not? It’s bizarre. Because there’s a little part of you that thinks, do you really want to do that? And especially because you see how Simone has grown from her relationship with Mrs. Davis and really benefitted in terms of the questions that she’s needed to answer in her own life.
It should feel like that sense of a new breeze in the air, or another scent in the air that drifts across that could suggest a different future for things. Whether that’s just Simone and Wiley, whether it’s something else. And that’s what I absolutely loved about the show, even when I read the pilot, is its sense of joy and optimism. It’s a show that came out of the pandemic and a situation where we were all feeling quite stuck and lost and confused. I’d been doing Black Mirrors and even though the ones I did had a sense of care and love, it felt like the world was doing such a good job of being dystopian and this is a show that had a joyful heartbeat to it. This was just unashamedly silly and joyful and absurd, and embraced that sense of play when everything felt really heavy.
Focusing on that question of if Simone made the right choice by turning off Mrs. Davis, why do you think she didn’t waiver in that decision by the time she got to the end, after all that personal growth?
Great question. I’ve never really reached a conclusion myself with that. I’m sure Betty [Gilpin] would answer that question in a blink. There’s a part of me that likes that idea that right up until the final second, she doesn’t really know herself. Or that in those final moments, she starts to have a little question in her own mind. But in the end, maybe it comes down to faith. And she feels something inside her is stronger than the notion of what Mrs. Davis is suggesting to the world; that we should all put her faith to her.
When the show starts, it’s subtle, but we’ve just gone past the tipping point where over half the world are Mrs. Davis users. If you think about continuing down that trajectory, how healthy is that going to be if we end up building this new religion, and we’re unquestioning about it? And also, there is this slight sinister undertone about the wings and where you go to check in and where Wylie has gone. And up until Wylie turning up, maybe we still believe that’s part of Mrs. Davis’ world. So there are different aspects and thoughts as to why Simone does it. But in the end, I think it comes down to something more fundamental, like right or wrong. And she decides that the right thing to do is to turn her off.
A lot is unspoken with Wylie’s journey. I actually had to rewind and turn up Wylie’s conversation with Jay in the falafel restaurant before Simone walks in. He asks Jesus: “How do you feel about #blessed?” And Jesus says it’s the first he is hearing about it. (Laughing.)
I’m so pleased you did! So that conversation, Betty has to walk into the bar and they are just sitting there, and that hadn’t been scripted. It just said, “Wylie and Jay are sitting there shooting the breeze.” But then you are following Simone in, you realize they have to be saying something. They looked at me and said, “What are we going to be taking about?” I kept chucking in things that they could be talking about, or one of them would start an idea, or Betty would shout something from behind the camera that they could be talking about it and because they’re just brilliant and very funny and clever, they would just riff on it. And they start chatting and that was the one that stuck.
We don’t know what Wylie and Jay talk about. We also don’t see his actual roller-coaster ride. Can you fill anything in about what he discovered about himself on this excursion that made him realize he is worthy to be alive?
It’s not necessarily those two moments. I think the idea is that he’s learned it across our journey — across the quest, across the show — and I think the very fact that he steps up at the end and honors a commitment, he feels that he has overcome something. And maybe, that act of bravery. The roller coaster itself we deliberately don’t show. Because what we discover is, and this is how Mrs. Davis wanted it to be, is that it’s purely psychological. It’s the final test. And he steps up to it. But he probably wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been on this journey with Simone and this quest, and answered some questions for himself about himself.
And it’s the same for his relationship with Jay. We don’t go there at all and I think again it’s about him facing something that was bigger than him. Jay for him was something he didn’t think he’d be able to comprehend. And in having that conversation, I suppose there’s a sense of acceptance. That’s one of my favorite scenes of the whole show, and certainly of the episode, just because it’s very Mrs. Davis. It’s not a scene where someone says goodbye to their loved one; Simone is saying goodbye to her two loved ones. It’s this very weird dynamic, but it plays so well. You get pulled along when she says goodbye to Wylie and then takes yet another big step forward when she says goodbye to Jay.
So, Wylie found his faith?
Exactly. Whatever that means, I suppose. And in that sense, faith in what? He found something inside himself and maybe that’s what this conversation about faith is about. It isn’t about religion, it’s just about something you are looking for inside yourself. And maybe that’s where the answers come from rather than a piece of technology. Or, do they all work together?
Wylie was right about the horse being alive; more of Mrs. Davis’ tests. What does Simone and Wylie’s future look like after they ride off together?
I couldn’t help myself to go after that shot at the end, with the sun setting. Trying to pull those things off in the middle of Los Angeles is quite tricky. But we wanted it to feel almost classic, in a way that it didn’t need to be a gritty ending. It had a sense of fantasy; it felt a bit nostalgic. And that, for me, was about tonality. I wanted to land that sense of optimism, and I think you get that by creating nostalgic imagery and then tying that image of them riding off together into the drift of the windmill embedded in.
So, they will be together.
Yeah, I’d like to think so! Who knows. But that’s where they are right there. They’re connected… they’re reconnected. They’ve realized some things about each other and themselves, and maybe they have a brighter future because of that.
Circling back to when I spoke to Damon at the start of the season, he said he wanted resolution but also wanted to set up the possibility of a second season. Betty echoed that. Then Peacock recently submitted the show as a limited series for Emmys. What were your talks with Damon and Tara about what you hoped this show could be; in terms of doing more seasons?
We all had such a wonderful experience making this show, that the idea of it just being a one-off, I think deep down we all felt a little bit like, “Really? Do we…” For me, there was always a sense of this story needing to reach a conclusion in a way that didn’t want it to be a cliffhanger. And I also think that maybe I would have found it frustrating if we’d been that playful with the story to not conclude it. On Black Mirror, you are dealing with anthologies but they are an hour long. When you’re making that show, it’s about laying breadcrumbs and our job as storytellers is figuring out how playful we can be and how much we can expect from our audience to go on this journey before we start to give them back something for their investment. And I think this show has that same playful energy but you need to start paying people back for their time and investment, so I think it’s satisfying that it reaches that conclusion.
I don’t necessarily think that it needs to be the end of Mrs. Davis. Mrs. Davis is a conversation that is right now incredibly prevalent and if anything, definitely moreso than when they started writing the show. I definitely think there could be an interesting evolution of what that show could then become. I would hate the idea of that not being with Betty, because I don’t know what Mrs. Davis is without Betty! So I hope there is a nun in it, too.
I only just heard about where they’re putting it in the Emmy categories [when it was announced] and I haven’t had a conversation with Damon and Tara since I saw that. But, what category would this go in anyhow? (Laughing.) You almost need a category for Mrs. Davis. The only thing it’s not is a documentary. And in a way, limited series suits what it is. When you watch it, it feels like that. But it would be lovely to think there could be more, because it’s a lot of fun.
Have you gotten any sense of how it’s performing? (It’s certified 91 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.)
It’s been really weird for me because I’m in London, so Mrs. Davis doesn’t even exist here. I have these conversations and then I go to a world that doesn’t know anything about Mrs. Davis. So I’ve got no idea. I literally am in my own little bubble, so I don’t know how it’s been doing. Obviously, we’ve been pleased that it’s been received well and people have embraced the tone. I love that people have been willing to go on the ride but, how it’s doing? We’ll find out one day.
Did you have any involvement with the algorithm they created for this show (developed by writer Jonny Sun), to name the episodes?
No. I’ve been playing around with ChatGPT and others to just see what they can do. But I didn’t get involved in that, that was very much a writers room in the sandbox play.
What did you think about the finale title that the algorithm came up with: “The Final Intercut: So I’m Your Horse”?
I think the title is genius. Whenever I see a title of an episode I’m always like, [hmm]. It’s disconnection with the story, I think is what that title is about. The fact that it’s being written by an AI that’s ingested a story and responded with this says pretty much everything about AI to me and about our relationship with it, and our fears and hopes. The way the title responds to the show says everything to me.
You all have a unique perspective to the ongoing AI conversation amid the writers strike, since you’ve been confronting AI in making this show. Do you have different feelings about this negotiations sticking point after working on Mrs. Davis?
With the writers strike, I completely empathize with their concern about an AI that is so rapid. Maybe I’m sort of naïve in this way, but I still believe there’s an interaction that takes place between storytellers and audience. There will definitely be shows, content, films where an AI could write. I’m sure there will be. But, they’re probably not the things I want to watch. And I would hope there will always be room for the sort of stories that I want to tell and that I want to watch other people telling.
If you think about what an AI does, in terms of its sourcing and mimicking, there is something slightly sociopathic about its personality. You know when someone is honest. You know when a story is honest and when a truth is being told from a unique perspective that is born out of a life. And there’s only so far you can go in sort of mimicking that. There will be a Damon Lindelof AI version of the story: “Write this like Damon Lindelof.” That’s quite unnerving for writers to feel they can be mimicked and ripped off in that way. I think a human being has to be very much at the heart of this sort of creativity. Because I think otherwise, we’ll be left cold by it.
The Mrs. Davis writers tested AI here with the episode titles. Do you think there are additive ways for writers to use AI?
Yes. I think it would be naïve to think we can keep it totally out. Even if you try to regulate it… it’s like, you tell 100 students not to use it, there will always be a few that will. Be that writers or entrepreneurs, however you try to regulate this, it’s never going to be an even playing field. I think Pandora’s out of the box. So I think it is very much about, let’s accept that it’s out there, but let’s have conversations and be open about how we can use it. So in a writers room, would it be so wrong to use AI to help break stories, to chuck ideas or come up with names, titles and throw some things around? I don’t know how far that can go before it would start to interfere with the process massively.
A big part of my job is communicating ideas, because it’s the visual side, so I’m always trying to find ways to communicate a location or atmosphere, and AI, the rapid way it responds to commands, you can generate some really interesting stuff. But I still think there’s a huge human part that I would want to keep among that research and development. I think it’s going to be impossible just to say it’s banned. So I think we just need to keep the conversation going and make sure we’re all being open about it.
Looking back at Mrs. Davis as a whole, what do you feel was the biggest swing that you pulled off, and are you left wondering how any of the big swings will land?
When I read the pilot and had my first conversations with Damon and Tara, the word I constantly brought up and reminded myself of was bravery. To be brave about how we set about this show, and not to ever feel that we should take a backwards step. With this sort of storytelling, you have to just embrace it, trust it and go for it. And do it with passion and confidence, because I think if you tell a story confidently, that’s already half of the battle done. I think that’s how you engage with people. So I’m super proud of the fact that we built a really strong group of creative people who were all up for it and really had a big swing at it.
On the flipside of that is, did we stick the landing? And that’s on every level. I feel like we did. I’ve seen every episode and I’m super happy with the show. I’m super proud with the fact that we were brave and that it was original, so that maybe overrides any sort of questions or concerns. But it’s one of these shows that’s going to ask a lot from an audience. How it’s formatted, how it goes out; launching with four and then bits every week. There’s an algorithm somewhere that’s told someone this is the way to do it. You never know how that’s going to land and how that’s going to work. And, again, because I’m over here, I can’t turn around to my mate watching it to ask.
It’s certainly been a fun and unexpected thrill ride to watch.
That’s lovely to hear. And that’s how I felt making it and for that reason, I would love to do a second season. When I did “San Junipero,” I remember sitting in the edit watching the final cut thinking, “I have no idea whether people are going to buy into this love story. Are they going to give up?” All I knew is that I was caring so much about these characters. But you think, “Have I just gone off into this world and bought it?” You never know. So it’s enjoyable that it’s done as well as it has, and that’s all you can really hope for.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Mrs. Davis is now streaming all episodes on Peacock.