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Mrs. Davis, Beau Is Afraid, and the Year of Controlling Mothers

Whether it's an all-powerful AI or a guilt-wielding Patti LuPone, manipulative mother figures are having their moment.
  • Elizabeth Marvel in Mrs. Davis; Patti LuPone in Beau Is Afraid (Photos: Peacock; A24)
    Elizabeth Marvel in Mrs. Davis; Patti LuPone in Beau Is Afraid (Photos: Peacock; A24)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers for Mrs. Davis Season 1, Episode 8, "THE FINAL INTERCUT: So I'm Your Horse" and for the film Beau Is Afraid.]

    It's no coincidence that she (it?) is called Mrs. Davis. The all-knowing artificial intelligence at the center of Tara Hernandez and Damon Lindelof's mind-boggling series isn't called Miss Davis, nor is she Alexa or Siri or HAL. The name "Mrs. Davis" is meant to evoke a mother figure: helpful, encouraging, nurturing. She's also a system of control over the globe-spanning swath of her user base, and Sister Simone (Betty Gilpin) has spent the entirety of the eight-episode series on a quest to find the Holy Grail and, as she was promised, get Mrs. Davis to turn herself off.

    In this week's finale, Simone reaches the end of her quest, and in doing so, finally sees Mrs. Davis for exactly who she is. We meet Joy (Ashley Roman), the woman who created Mrs. Davis, an origin story that is, true to the show's vibe, both illuminating and absurd. Joy doesn't see herself as Mrs. Davis' mother: She’s a coder who created an app, and that app has since become something else. If she is Mrs. Davis' mother, she cut those apron strings long ago. But Joy is who Simone finds at the end of the trail of breadcrumbs — "1042 redirect Sandy Springs" and last week's "Electric Avenue" group-sing — left by Mrs. Davis' glitchy sub-routines.

    Joy tells Simone the maddening truth, that Mrs. Davis began its “life” as an app for Buffalo Wild Wings, which was Joy's attempt to Trojan-horse an app that would incentivize mutual aid and acts of service within a product everyone loves. This nearly breaks Simone's brain, and after everything she’s seen over the course of the series, that's saying something. But as Joy also reminds Simone, the algorithm is ultimately just code, and this code's purpose is complete customer satisfaction.

    Through Joy, the finale introduces one last mother-and-child relationship to a story packed with them. There's Celeste (Elizabeth Marvel), Simone's actual mother, whose relationship with her daughter was fraught even before she was responsible for Simone being shot with a bow-and-arrow that nearly killed her. There's Simone's Mother Superior from the convent (Margo Martindale), who’s advised Simone in her quest to destroy the grail. We also met Mathilde (Katja Herbers), defined by her decidedly un-motherly capabilities when it came to her daughter, Clara (Mathilde Ollivier). The penultimate episode, "Great Gatsby: 2001: A Space Odyssey," introduced Shohreh Aghdashloo as Mary, the mother of Jesus, who fashioned the grail out of a piece of her dead son's skull so she could keep a part of him with her, inadvertently creating the liminal cafe space where he now serves falafel for all eternity. And of course there's Mrs. Davis, mother to all who download her app.

    The common thread through most of these maternal relationships (we'll let Mother Superior off the hook here) has been manipulation and control. That's been self-explanatory for Mrs. Davis throughout the series, but the parallels to Celeste have also been evident. Celeste has been pulling strings and keeping tabs on her daughter all season, always one step ahead. Celeste holds a lot of guilt for injuring Simone, and she's turned that guilt into an adversarial relationship with her daughter, having convinced herself that Simone was her father's accomplice in faking his death. Mrs. Davis, mother figure that she is, nurtured that misapprehension, telling Celeste what she wanted to hear: that Simone did in fact help her father fake his death, and does know where he is.

    Multi-layered and harmful as Celeste and Mrs. Davis' mothering has been, it draws an uncanny parallel to one of this spring's most fascinating movies, Ari Aster's psychological horror comedy Beau Is Afraid, which stars Joaquin Phoenix stars as the title character, who's spent his whole life unable to please his domineering mother, played off- and onscreen by Patti LuPone. The film, which portrays a nightmarishly toxic version of a mother-son dynamic, has had critics and audiences alike murmuring about Aster's relationship with his own mother (it's probably fine). Aster's earlier film, Hereditary, was also steeped in the damaging relationships and dark legacies passed from mother to child. But where Hereditary was about a mother's unknowable secrets, Beau Is Afraid is about parental control.

    At first, that control manifests as guilt. Beau's mother, Mona, calls her son on the phone, handing him a guilt trip over being unable to make his flight to come visit her. By this point, Beau's world has already been well established as a waking nightmare of an urban hellscape, either a projection of his worst anxieties and fears about living alone in a big city or a justification of them. Mona's phone-call harangue is a purposefully cliched depiction of the classic nagging mother who's done a real number on her adult child ‚ this is why this anxious, terrified, barely functional adult man is like this. But Aster's three-hour movie delves deep beneath the surface to investigate a relationship that's far more noxious and damaging. When Beau tries to call his mother again, he learns that she's been killed — gruesomely beheaded by a falling chandelier — and that he must do one last thing for her and return home for her funeral.

    A strictly literal reading of Beau Is Afraid would be a mistake given how much surreality Aster has pumped into it, but as the film goes on, we learn more about Mona Wasserman, who is far more than just a hectoring, guilt-tripping voice on the phone. Like Celeste, who owns a security business, the better to help her keep tabs on her daughter, Mona is the CEO of a highly successful business, MW Industries, that deals in pharmaceuticals, personal hygiene, and security — everything you need to keep yourself safe and secure. The company's slogan, "Perfectly Safe," says it all.

    By the film's revealing final half-hour, we realize just how pervasive Mona's business has been in her son’s life. Most of the people Beau encountered throughout the film were employed by his mother, from his longtime therapist to the violent naked man terrorizing him outside his building, to the doctor who takes care of him after hitting him with his car. Beau has been living in a MW Industries-owned building, taking MW Industries medication, watching news reports of his mother's "death" on MW-branded streaming video. How much of this is "actually" happening versus unfolding as a projection of Beau's anxieties in his own head couldn't matter less. Whether it’s real or fictional, this iss a story about control.

    As the movie progresses, we realize that Mona has controlled everything in Beau's life, both inside his head and out in the world. She repeatedly told him that his father died while ejaculating at the moment of his conception, and that Beau inherited the same affliction, to keep him from ever finding sexual satisfaction and thus having a reason to leave her. She's kept Beau medicated and afraid of the world.

    Why Mona is doing this is never made clear. Maybe Mona was afraid too, and, as a single mother, this is how she kept her son safe. Maybe she could never handle the idea of the myriad ways her child could be influenced by the world, and dedicated her life to keeping that from happening. Maybe she's a cruel and domineering person who sought to punish her son unrelentingly for every possible and perceived slight.

    By the end of Mrs. Davis, we know the motivations behind the AI that’s become a surrogate mother for the world, and they're both infuriatingly mundane (Buffalo Wild Wings!) and surprisingly un-menacing. Mrs. Davis is no more than an algorithm. It's code. It behaves in a linear fashion, according to its programmed objectives. And its objectives were 100% customer satisfaction.

    As Beau Is Afraid pulls back, Mona's control over her son's life is shown to be ever more sinister. As Mrs. Davis pulls back, the algorithm's control over its wide-ranging user base seems less malicious. The implications are still bad — the loss of free will, dishonesty, manipulation — but the motivation behind it is simpler and less devious than Simone had figured. As Joy puts it, "Algorithms are super dumb." Dumb as in ridiculous, yes, but also dumb as in not based on complex emotions. Mrs. Davis didn't lie to Celeste about Simone being her father's accomplice to torment Simone, her enemy. She did it because she knew that's what Celeste wanted to hear, and as Simone later says, Mrs. Davis wasn't made to care, she was made to satisfy.

    By the end of the series, Simone has come to understand Mrs. Davis' purpose, which leads to a reckoning with her own mother. Her final conversation with Mrs. Davis is proxied by Celeste, and in it, Simone finds the grace to forgive them both. Simone's earlier conversation with Mother Superior gave her a better sense of how Mrs. Davis helped people— not only the string quartets sent to the windows of widowers and bedtime stories whispered softly into the earbuds of the anxious (honestly, Beau could have used one of those), but the sense of passion and purpose she gave them. "Yes, some are only motivated by the promise of her wings," Mother Superior says, "but what those wings mean… they're a reminder of what we aspire to. That, given the chance, any one of us can take flight."

    "You did what you were created to do," Simone tells Mrs. Davis at the end, "which is give us the world we wanted to see. Tried to convince us that there's no famine, no war, no hardship, when there will always be famine and war and hardship. You really did everything you could to protect us from fear and disappointment and, most of all, pain."

    Mrs. Davis tried to engineer harmony in her children through satisfaction, while Mona Wasserman tried to engineer loyalty in her child through fear and guilt. Both employed similar tactics of manipulation and control. By the respective ends of Mrs. Davis and Beau Is Afraid, the parallels diverge significantly. Maybe we can chalk that up to the differences in worldview between Lindelof/Hernandez and Aster, or maybe it comes down to genre distinctions. Mrs. Davis is an adventure story that concludes on an uncertain-but-upbeat note. The AI willingly turns itself off, Simone having completed her quest. Meanwhile, in Beau, a horror story and Kafka-esque tale of despair, Mona proves to be unwilling (perhaps even unable) to be killed. Mrs. Davis ends with uncertainty but offers some hope that these systems of control may be undone. Ari Aster may not be quite so optimistic.

    Mrs. Davis Season 1 is now streaming on Peacock; join the discussion about the show in our forumsBeau Is Afraid is now playing in theaters. 

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Mrs. Davis, Ari Aster, Ashley Romans, Betty Gilpin, Damon Lindelof, Elizabeth Marvel, Joaquin Phoenix, Patti LuPone, Tara Hernandez