[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for the “Mrs. Davis” series finale — Episode 8, “The Final Intercut: So I’m Your Horse” — including the ending.]
Throughout “Mrs. Davis,” the titular app out to save or destroy mankind is never thoroughly explained. We know it’s relied upon by billions of users worldwide. We know it’s a piece of artificial intelligence so advanced it appears all-knowing and all-powerful. We know many consider it responsible for ending wars and famines, we know it grants wishes, and we know its ultimate gift is a pair of digital wings, which anoint the angelic owners as top-tier users.
What we don’t know is where it came from, who made it, or what it was made to do. Given everything else going on during the first seven episodes of “Mrs. Davis” — a quest for the Holy Grail, episode-long flashbacks about a sneaker commercial, this guy, this other guy, and that whole thing with a whale — it would be reasonable enough to accept the app’s origins as an unsolved mystery. There simply isn’t time to get to everything, and the point of “Mrs. Davis” isn’t about looking backward or placing blame.
Well, surprise, surprise: The finale starts with a painfully, hilariously clear explanation of who created Mrs. Davis and why. Told in flashback, after Simone (Betty Gilpin) tracks down a woman she believes to be responsible for the A.I. application, Episode 8 opens on Joy (Ashley Romans), who in 2013 was a young coder with grand ambitions. “I know your company isn’t in the world-changing business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t change the world,” Joy says at the start of her pitch to a table of executives. “I’ve created the future.”
How little did she know. Back in 2023, Joy explains what happened next to an increasingly stunned and frustrated Simone: The app that now runs the world was originally designed for… Buffalo Wild Wings. “Why not shoehorn philanthropy into this app for chicken wings? Everybody loves chicken wings!” Joy says in the present day. “So the wings were literal?” Simone says. “The expiration dates… is that coupons? And why the hell did it send me to find [the Holy Grail]?”
“100 percent customer satisfaction is our Holy Grail,” Joy says, quoting from the Buffalo Wild Wings employee manual, which was embedded in the code and, apparently, never taken out.
“This is… so dumb,” Simone says.
“Oh yeah,” Joy agrees. “Algorithms are super dumb.”
Still, “Mrs. Davis” is not. Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof’s Peacock limited series knows exactly what it’s doing and why, including the choice to build an entire show about artificial intelligence and God around a company known for having as many sauces as there are TVs. So IndieWire spoke to the co-creators about how they settled on their ending — when Simone chooses between preserving or destroying Mrs. Davis — what hidden meanings lie within the dense story, and why… Buffalo Wild Wings.
This interview — conducted before the Writers Guild of America went on strike — has been edited for length and clarity. The final question was asked in a separate interview.
IndieWire: How did you land on Joy as the creator of Mrs. Davis?
Damon Lindelof: We had the idea that it would be great if this all-powerful algorithm that everyone had invested a lot of energy into ascribing some level of omniscience and omnipotence was actually just the same as all algorithms — which is, it was built to sell us something. [We wondered,] “What were the silly things that it could possibly be selling us,” and we very quickly dialed in on Buffalo Wild Wings. That would make sense out of why wings were used as a way of incentivizing behavior. The idea that the code was misinterpreting all sorts of aspects — that it didn’t know it was a Buffalo Wild Wings app, but it was still using Buffalo Wild Wings’ language — we loved that idea and Peacock did, too.
We tasked all the writers with thinking about, “Does Mrs. Davis have a mother or a father or both? Who is its actual creator?” And Nadra [Widatalla] pitched the idea of Joy as someone who was understandably pitching to Buffalo Wild Wings, but wanted to use Buffalo Wild Wings as a Trojan horse to advance their own philanthropic ideas of making the world a better and more equitable place. It was really important to Nadra for Joy to be a woman of color. Nadra is a writer who, prior to coming into our writers’ room, worked in the gaming industry and identified with that kind of a coder, as a coder herself, so we just fell in love with that idea.
It diminishes Mrs. Davis and makes it a much more empathic character at the end. We always looked at it [as] “Of Mice and Men,” where Simone is George and Mrs. Davis is Lenny. We had to kind of reverse the polarity of that omnipotence by taking Mrs. Davis down a peg, and Joy seemed to be the perfect vehicle to do that.
So did you have to pitch Buffalo Wild Wings on this?
Tara Hernandez: Absolutely.
Lindelof: It was the most nerve-wracking meeting of the entire process, and we had to have it before we really started writing.
Hernandez: More [nerve-wracking] than wanting to green light the show! Because we came in with the Buffalo Wild Wings pitch, and it delighted us and it felt so right to the series. It’s this or nobody else. Wingstop will not serve in this function.
Lindelof: And we’re not going to invent some other fictional wing store. It’s got to be them.
Hernandez: Along with our producers, we put together a pitch, and everybody sort of held their breath. To our delight, [Buffalo Wild Wings executives] were entertained by it. There was some trepidation over how they were going to be portrayed — as the ones who are rejecting this app — but to Damon’s point, the pitch made in the boardroom by Joy is so over the top and beyond the scope of what they’re even asking her to do that you can imagine, in a real-world scenario, that pitch wouldn’t pass Congress because it wasn’t the prompt.
Did Buffalo Wild Wings have any other concerns, or ask any questions about what else was in the show?
Lindelof: They definitely read the pilot, and I think they wondered if we were going to be get into [further details about the brand.] They’re colloquially referred to as “B Dubs,” which as not a member of the Buffalo Wild Wings community–
Hernandez: You’re not a part of The Herd?
Hernandez: I’m part of The Herd.
Lindelof: I am now, of course, but I think the idea of whether the characters would be going into one of their restaurants or eating any of their food [came up.] Not that that was a stipulation. They were just like, “How far are we going with all this?” I think they understood they were the payoff for a question that many in the audience wouldn’t expect to ever have answered. I don’t know what your journey was watching the show, but I’m not sure that at the end of the seventh episode people are like, “Oh, I need to know who wrote the code for Mrs. Davis,” or why Mrs. Davis was created. And that’s my favorite thing now: to give the audience an answer that they’re not necessarily expecting, but nonetheless will find hopefully satisfying.
Hernandez: Just one little thing to tack onto that: Within the world of our series, we see users engaging with an app on their phones, so we did work with a UX designer to design the app and build the interface. The one thing that B Dubs asked is that it not look like the Buffalo Wild Wings app — which if you don’t have it and you love chicken wings, I highly recommend.
Skipping from the beginning of the finale to the end, how did you ultimately decide what Simone would do with Mrs. Davis?
Lindelof: We always knew that Simone was going to say in the pilot, “I want you to turn yourself off”, and therefore the laws of dramatic conflict [require] that by the time she gets to the finale, she needs to change. She needs to change her mind: As she gets to know Mrs. Davis along the adventure, she develops sympathy and empathy for her and then decides not to turn Mrs. Davis off.
But then we just rebelled so hard against that because it was so expected. Then the unexpected thing became she shuts her off anyway. Under-girding that idea is something that we’re not going to definitively talk about right now, but in a show that’s so wrapped up in the idea of forces, it did force us to contemplate the question: Did Mrs. Davis pick Simone because Simone would be the only one to turn her off? And that question became really interesting, too, and it was only interesting if Simone does [turn off Mrs. Davis.]
I wouldn’t say we ever waffled, but we certainly were like, “Shit, should she do it?” When we originally pitched the show to Peacock, we were like, “In the finale, just so you know, she’s turning Mrs. Davis off. She’s going to follow through because Simone does what she says she’s going to do. It’ll be a little bit harder than she thought it was going to be, especially because her mother is going to be proxying for Mrs. Davis, and in a lot of ways she has to turn her own mother off. But are we getting cold feet? No, we’re doing it,” and we followed through. We are, if not anything, stubborn, Ben.
OK, this last question is a little out there, but I wanted to ask about Wiley’s story. To me, it was like this algorithm brings him to a place, it orchestrates an experience for him, and ultimately he’s rewarded with an eye-opening change of perspective. That’s a lot of like what TV tries to do, especially today: An algorithm brings the viewer to a show, the show is the experience, and the reward is seeing the world a little differently. Wiley’s journey felt a little bit meta — he even talks about how he’s the love interest and not the hero, or the hero and not the love interest. It knowingly reminds the audience that they’re watching a TV show. Is there anything to that? Is that an aspect you wanted to bake into the series?
Hernandez: With all of that, [you have to account] for the audience having an interpretation based on their own human experience. To delegate and put on screen everything exactly as we intend people to emotionally react to it is not, I think, the TV experience. People should watch and come away with their individual, authentic reactions. But as far as being sort of self-referential, that was very intentional. Putting in these sort of nods, short of saying “We know we’re writing a TV show,” but we were very communicative with our readers, who became our audience, by just saying, “If it feels this is sort of directed at Wiley’s role in the show, that feeling is correct.”
Wiley’s such an interesting character and his journey is so rich that he could be the lead of a show. He certainly is holding my attention for the time he’s on screen, and he has a clear journey to find his worthiness as a man in this world. The revelation that this isn’t his show and that he isn’t on the poster — that [he’s] behind Simone with half his face covered by her veil — is just sort of the perfect expression of him having to sit in the back of the saddle, as it were.
Lindelof: I think that embedded in your question is a deeper and more provocative analysis of how contemporary television is dealing with the meta of it all. There are shows like “Atlanta” or even “Swarm,” which is a cousin of “Atlanta,” where Donald Glover is a character in an episode of “Swarm” playing Donald Glover talking about Beyonce. It gets so meta that it’s adding an entirely different level to the show. [It’s] saying, “I want the audience to realize that they’re watching a television show”. It doesn’t mean the characters inside the show are Ferris Bueller-ing and talking directly to the camera. It’s not that level of meta, but there is a heightened sense.
So I do think that of all the shows that I’ve personally worked on, “Mrs. Davis” is the most heightened. Even though there are ridiculous aspects of all the shows that I’ve worked on, the characters don’t know it. The characters are always sort of responding and feeling as if what they’re dealing with is real.
But of course, what you’re talking about is our desire for the audience. You ask someone after the pilot, “Do you like Mrs. Davis?” They’ll just give you kind of a binary yes or no because they don’t know Mrs. Davis yet. You ask them the same question at the end of Episode 8, they may say, “I still don’t like Mrs. Davis, but man, it’s much more nuanced now.” And that’s the purpose of a television show: to give depth and nuance and complexity to the human experience because there aren’t just good guys and bad guys. It’s sort of like you come into “The Shield” with a cop character and you leave it with the guy who murdered him, and then that guy becomes the hero for the next six, seven seasons of “The Shield.” But along the journey, how we feel about these people just has a lot more complexity to it.
So the broader point of television shows is that we’re teaching people how to experience life. You may have a five-minute conversation with this human in which you think that they’re a terrible person, but that’s just five minutes. You just got five minutes of them. They’re going to be the lead in their own show in which you had a five-minute cameo. If you start to think about life in that regard, where it’s not all revolving around you and everybody is the star of their own “Truman Show,” maybe you’re going to start to feel a little bit better and a little bit more connected about how it all works.
This all may simply stem from me being a TV critic, and when I hear “algorithm,” I think “streaming service” — all that code deciding what we watch. How do you feel about how much algorithms affect what you make and what gets seen?
Lindelof: I would say that my baseline emotional response to it right now is confusion because we [sometimes] assign algorithms consciousness to say, like, “it wants,” versus “it’s programmed by a human being to do a very certain thing.” At the end of day, all the algorithm can do is curate. It still can’t make you like something. It can’t force you to sit through it. All it can say is, “You might like this.” If you walk into a restaurant and the server comes over, takes a look at you, and says, “I think I can fix you something that you’re going to like” — the question becomes: Are you going to be eating grilled cheese sandwiches for the rest of your life?
Or gourmet cheeseburgers, maybe?
Lindelof: Right? Yeah. And that’s the thing: I do worry [about shows] like “Swarm” or things that defy the conventional thinking of what an algorithm solves for. All it will say is, “I know that you like Dominique Fishback, so I will recommend this.” But there are so many other elements of that show that the algorithm might miss, and it does tend to solve for mass appeal. So you just end up sort of programming for white people between the ages of 14 and 33 and everybody on the fringes kind of gets ignored. That’s not good. We need niche programming and the algorithm is anti-niche.
“Mrs. Davis” is available to stream in full via Peacock.