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'Mrs. Davis' showrunners and Betty Gilpin explain origin of how this wild sci-fi saga was born

Co-creators Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof, and actor Betty Gilpin and Jake McDorman unpack that crazy pilot episode.

By Tara Bennett
A still image from Mrs. Davis Season 1

If you've made it to the end of Peacock's Mrs. Davis pilot, and you're left blinking slowly, wondering how to process everything you've just witnessed, that's kind of what series creators Tara Hernandez (Young Sheldon) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) intended. Their genre-bending dramedy about a contemporary alt-reality where an A.I. algorithm — dubbed, Mrs. Davis — is now ingrained in our everyday lives, and the nun (Betty Gilpin) fighting it, is packed with a lot of ideas and concepts. It even rendered their cast a bit flabbergasted. But everyone involved promises SYFY WIRE there's a method to madness. 

RELATED: What 'Mrs. Davis' star Betty Gilpin learned talking to real nuns about her character

If there was ever a series that demands episodic post mortems, it's Mrs. Davis, where every episode could inspire a dissertation level discussion on anything from invasive tech to Holy Grail mythology to religion made literal. SYFY WIRE is up for the challenge and we begin with “Mother of Mercy: The Call of the Horse” as we assemble Hernandez, Lindelof and actors Gilpin and Jake McDorman (Wiley) to share what it was like building this series from the ground up.

**Spoilers below for Mrs. Davis Episode 1.1**

What is Mrs. Davis all about?

Betty Gilpin as Simone sits in a classroom in Mrs. Davis

Let's start with the impetus of the idea for Mrs. Davis. Did everything spring from the idea of this invasive A.I. or from this rebellious nun who represents the rejection of it? And then what must your planning whiteboard even look like?

Tara Hernandez, Co-creator and Showrunner: To pitch the series, Damon and I worked for a while together to come up with the bones and the structure to be able to convey, here's our idea, here's what we want to get across; here's what feels like a nice journey with a beginning, middle and end. And absolute credit to our writers and their brilliance to add the organs and the meat and all the layers on top of that story. It wasn't just one whiteboard. [Laughs.] I think it was, at the end of the day, 10, maybe? There were a lot of drawings and a lot of embarrassing sketches of whales and Grails and all the things that fit into this show. 

But one of the things that I think we all leaned into is this being a quest for the Holy Grail. Because [the show] centers on this algorithm which embraces, loves and repeat cliches, we looked at the Grail expectations, which is what we called things you would expect on a quest for the Holy Grail. From the beginning of our writers' room, we wrote down what people associate with those types of stories, which are knights, the Templar, Nazis and ancient protective rituals, and all these things. And we just figured out how can we hit these tropes, these ideas in a new and modern way? So that was a board that was up throughout the duration of the series breaking.

Mathilde Ollivier as Clara holds a sword behind a wall in Mrs. Davis

Damon, as someone who often explores parental trauma and faith's impact on our lives in your series, what about Simone's journey appealed to you? 

Damon Lindelof, Co-creator and Writer: I think that the idea of living in a Dickensian construct where parents are fairly terrible and selfish and narcissistic, and the kids are now basically working through and trying to absolve themselves of the things that were put on them versus the fundamental parts of their own nature, and then to tell it inside of this insane playground definitely felt very familiar to me. But I think that when it came to particularly creating this path, Tara was very resolute — and it was such a Northstar for all of us — in saying, "This is not a story where Simone's faith is a coping mechanism." As you know, [faith] is a big part of my storytelling, which was undergirding the entire The Leftovers concept and even parts of Lost where I'm using my belief as a way of coping with the mystery. But [Simone] doesn't have that mystery in her life...

Simone and Wylie's adventure

Betty Gilpin as Simone and Jake McDorman as Wiley stand outside in Mrs. Davis

Betty, when Tara and Damon pitched you the role of Simone / Lizzie, did they give you some insight about how to get your head around playing her?

Betty Gilpin, Sister Simone / Lizzie: When Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof and I first talked, [they knew] it's so hard to talk about the show without spoiling stuff and they didn't want to spoil anything for me. But they still wanted to give me a general idea of what it was about. They just gave me the pilot and it was really exciting to me. I had done The Hunt with Damon, so I knew that he was a master at creating his own genre and is a genius about "hiding your vegetables" in that he asks really big thesis statement questions about our society in a very joyful and strange genre way. And Tara turns out to be a genius at that as well. Reading the script, I was so intrigued by the character and just really marveled at even though it's so profoundly strange, the whole thing — and I'd never read anything like it — it really does touch on so many of the things that I wonder about our lives today. So, I was in.

What was your first scene playing her and did it help center you for what was to come?

Gilpin: The first scene we shot was the motorcycle chase. We did all of that first. I remember the production assistant, Grace Gaither, saying out on the walkie, "That's a wrap on the ostriches. We're moving on to exploding clowns." Jake McDorman and I just burst out laughing which set the tone for the rest of the time. It was really fun.

Jake, did you understand from the audition who Wylie was or did that come after you got the role?

Jake McDorman, Wiley: I think I did? I first got the scene [where Simone and Wylie] are under the rock in the pilot. The script was under wraps, so the only information I got was like, "You're kind of a cowboy. Your ex is a nun. You're in a giant rock being chased by Germans and you're having an argument. Go!" And I was like, "Right. right." [Laughs.] But based on that argument in the scene between Simone and Wiley, you could pick up on the fact that here's a guy who is trying to unabashedly win back his ex, but pretend like he's not. Present himself cool, like Han Solo, but she's deconstructing that image, sentence by sentence, with him. It does have such a unique tone. And Tara and Damon walked such a fine line where you don't want to play it too silly because on the next page, there's some high stakes drama that you want to have people come with you on.

Then I did get a script that was like, "Holy sh**! This is like an explosion at the emoji factory!" [Laughs.] Just every genre and every single thing you can imagine, from magnifying glasses and jam exploding on nuns, is just in that first episode. So then I got an even better sense of the context. But it still was that very fine line of like, play it real, but have some fun. But also, it's real. [Laughs.]

Was there a first scene filmed that helped clarify Wiley for you?

McDorman: One of the first scenes that Betty and I did together was that scene under the rock and getting to go toe to toe with with Betty was so much fun. There's not a better actor to walk that line so perfectly with. To really break your heart and go as deep as she can go with the drama and then make you laugh as hard as she does with the comedy, she's the perfect instrument to bring that script to life. And so just following her lead on that and getting to play on that level set the tone for, I think, everybody. 

Episodes 1-4 of Mrs. Davis are now available on Peacock.