This article contains spoilers for Mrs. Davis episode 8.
It’s perfectly natural for a director to develop a niche. What’s rarer, however, is for a director to develop a niche as specific as Owen Harris has. After getting his start helming episodes of TV shows like Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Misfits, the London-born director entered the dystopian world of Black Mirror to helm three of the often cynical show’s most reasonably cheerful installments.
By the grueling standards of the long-running sci-fi anthology, Harris’s three episodes: “Be Right Back,” “San Junipero,” and “Striking Vipers” are positively saccharine. San Junipero in particular is often fondly remembered as “That one Black Mirror with the happy ending.” Getting to explore the brighter side (or at least less dark side) of technology was no accident for the director invested in human-centric storytelling.
“I think you gravitate to the sort of stories you want to tell,” Harris tells Den of Geek. “I always find myself wanting to look at these questions from a very human point of view. I also want to believe that there’s some hope amongst all of this.”
That mindset is what led to Mrs. Davis co-creators and showrunners Damon Lindelof and Tara Hernandez tapping Harris to direct four episodes of their Peacock sci-fi series including the premiere and the just-released finale. Mrs. Davis‘s ambitious story of a nun (Betty Gilpin) seeking the Holy Grail in order to destroy an all-powerful algorithm is a challenging endeavor for any creative thinker to tackle. As evidenced by that unexpectedly optimistic finale though, Harris appears to be as fitting a choice as any.
We talked with the Mrs. Davis director about his experience on the show, including his thoughts on a finale that reveals the AI’s shocking origin, borrows from a popular internet meme machine, and settles in for some falafel with Jesus Christ.
Den of Geek: When Damon and Tara approached you to direct Mrs. Davis, how did they even describe it?
Owen Harris: They did something very clever, which was to send me the pilot with no explanation. If they’d done the opposite, I would still be scratching my head and potentially wouldn’t even be talking to you right now. After reading the pilot, I almost immediately sent my agent a message saying, “What the fuck was that?” But I absolutely loved it. Then I got together with Tara and Damon, and we had a good chat about it. They started to explain where this was going.
I was already hooked from the pilot in terms of its originality, its bravery, its humor, its absurdity. I picked up on an almost Monty Python-esque sort of wit going on with how much it enjoyed its own silliness. I just thought this was a really interesting mix of something that was clearly going to become quite complex, but also deal with that complexity with a sense of joy. It felt like really brave storytelling.
Moving on to the finale now – what was your reaction to the reveal that Mrs. Davis was coded as an app for Buffalo Wild Wings? Because that made me laugh so hard.
It’s so good! (Damon and Tara) spilled that to me in the early conversations. That and the British Knights commercial: those two elements were very much baked into their original idea. For me, it was almost fundamental to the tone of the show. Whenever you’re dealing with AI, especially dramatizing it, the reveal of what this AI is, where it came from, or who’s behind it, I’ve often felt it to be slightly anticlimactic. Because in the end, it’s usually just one of us, but he’s a bit sinister or whatever. I thought it was really clever the way they spun this. It really helped me understand tonally what they were trying to do with this show. It felt very much part of this Mrs. Davis roller coaster.
I can’t believe you just said “roller coaster” because that’s my next question. Were you aware that Wiley’s, for lack of a better term, “suicide coaster” was something that first developed as a joke online? What was it like designing “The Apparatus?”
It’s sort of a Euthanasia Coaster, right? I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, in terms of whether (Damon and Tara) had this idea then discovered this whole almost folklore-ish backstory of a roller coaster that was going to euthanize whoever rides it. But even as we were designing it, we got into the idea of what it would really take to make something like this. Something that would kill you basically.
Overall, we tried very hard to not have the artificiality of visual effects become part of our world. Because when you’re dealing with a story where one of your characters is artificial, you’ve got to work twice as hard to ground it and make people be willing to suspend their disbelief. Production design took the lead and built this huge platform, a stretch of track, the roller coaster, and all these parts of the pyramid. Then it was very much about the the ride itself becoming more psychological – peering down into the chasm and getting that feeling in your stomach before you start one of those rides and over the edge. It was about trying to conjure that feeling through what you glimpse, as opposed to what you actually see or know.
I feel like a lot of the goofier aspects of the show (like the Euthanasia Coaster) eventually lead in nicely to the poignant and profound aspects. My favorite scene in the episode, for instance, is when Wiley, Jesus, and Simone all gather together at the falafel restaurant afterlife. What was it like shooting that and working with Andy (McQueen), Betty (Gilpin), and Jake (McDorman) on that day?
It’s probably one of my favorite scenes too. Mrs. Davis was constantly throwing challenges up in terms of your expectations of what you’d normally face on a film set. But with that, not only did I have one (traditional) romantic goodbye moment, I was dealing with two. Simone was saying goodbye to both of her partners, and both goodbyes had to mean something. Both of them had to create an emotional conclusion, that she’s deciding to go on this next part of her journey alone without them by her side. It was such a surprising scene. Obviously Betty, Jake, and Andy all come to that moment with their own baggage from playing these roles. There’s so much energy coming from them in terms of what the scene means to their characters.
There’s a moment before Simone walks into the falafel shop and she’s meant to interrupt (Jay and Wiley) having a chat. (Andy and Jake) ad-libbed and riffed on a bunch of things for them to be having a chat about. They were just great at it. We could have spent a good part of the day just listening to them mess about in this little conversation. It created this energy so that when Simone walks in, she’s walking in almost on another relationship that she has formed that we haven’t even seen yet. It’s actually this love triangle.
Do you agree with Simone’s decision at the end of the episode to shut Mrs. Davis down?
I love the fact that I don’t know (if I agree with it or not). I love the fact that by the end of the show we’re not screaming “shut her down!” That’s really clever. You can’t help but think that Mrs. Davis has actually done something for Simone herself. She’s brought something into her life that maybe wouldn’t have existed without her. We set Mrs. Davis up as an antagonist, and as the side of technology that we’re fearful of, which is this technology that people are blindly following. There is an aspect of Mrs. Davis that is dramatized in that way. But it’s really clever that by the end of the show, the moment where we should be shouting “turn her off!” we were left with the little moment of like, “are you really going to do that?” Hopefully, part of that is the is the audience thinking “but does that mean there won’t be another (season of) Mrs. Davis?”
Did working on this show change how you feel about AI, or even God?
With regards to AI: I’ve worked on a bunch of Black Mirrors and I’m not against technology, I’ve just got lots of questions. I’m like most of us in that I want (technology) to be good because I use it so much. I think (Black Mirror creator) Charlie Brooker once said something like “technology is a bit like growing an extra limb. We want it to protect us and to be useful to us. But at the moment, it’s flailing around, and we don’t quite know what to do with it.” It’s that relationship we have with technology that I’m always questioning. I love stories that allow me to take a different point of view on that.
In terms of faith or religion: this series was born during the pandemic. I think that time created a moment of reflection for all of us in the way it allowed us to assess things and look at our lives and what we invest our time in. One-hundred odd years ago we would look to religion for all the answers. Then science and technology came along and we find ourselves now reaching for our phones to get answers. Which is fine, but you know, that relationship is quite cold. I think we will start to feel a little bit like is there “Don’t we need more as human beings?” I think that people’s faith still fills a very big human need. Making a show like this and working with the nuns, it’s amazing the energy you get. It’s very powerful, that connection. I enjoyed Mrs. Davis for that as much as I enjoyed tackling the sort of the tech technology side of it. It was very eye opening.
On a scale of one to five stars, how would you rate your experience with Mrs. Davis?
I’d give it five stars. I had a lot of fun making this show and I hope that comes across. These sorts of challenges don’t come along often. It’s a lot of fun making this stuff but it’s hugely challenging. If you get the right team behind you and everyone brings their “A” game, you can do some pretty fun and special things.
All eight episodes of Mrs. Davis are available to stream on Peacock now.