Written & Directed by Alex Garland
How do I know I am making a choice to type these words right now? How do I know that I chose to watch all eight episodes of Devs? Are these actions free choices of my own making or merely preprogrammed behaviors, following a path I was set on by some cold, indifferent force of nature? Devs explores these ideas in its roughly eight hours and is my favorite of filmmaker Alex Garland’s work to date. I’m reasonably positive about Ex Machina but found myself underwhelmed by Annihilation. I think long-form mini-series may be the structure that best suits Garland’s style of pacing and cerebral storytelling.
Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is an employee at the tech company Amaya in the Bay Area. Her boyfriend Sergei also works there and gets a promotion to the secretive Devs department. The whole Devs operation is in a building in the center of a forested glen, protected with heavy security. What Sergei discovers inside that building is something shocking, a level of computational depth and knowledge that it shakes him to his core. But then Sergei never comes home, and Lily begins investigating his disappearance. She’s led down a series of rabbit holes that reveal truths about her partner she never knew and brings her face to face with Forest (Nick Offerman), the founder of Amaya and man driving Devs to explore what might be better left alone.
Devs is a series most focused on free will vs. determinism. Is our life something we construct, or is it already designed for us before we’re even born? This is a massively ambitious story with a scope that, at moments, feels almost divine, particularly in the final episode as characters are forced to face events they believe they know. It feels like people fulfilling a prophecy or going through the steps of a ritual. The poet W.B. Yeats was known to hold the philosophy that time is simply a repetition, a variation on things that have already happened. That’s where he “widening gyre” comes from in the poem “The Second Coming.” Existence is circular, with people playing roles or archetypes. Is Lily destined to do what has been foreseen, or does she have the choice to alter the predetermined narrative?
There’s a delicate balance when telling a story like this. How much to tilt in favor of ideas over character. I think Garland pulls off quite a tightrope act, characters are painted with precise detail so that we don’t need to get their entire life story to understand their motivations, their personal losses, their philosophies. Characters often feel representative of archetypes or metaphors. There is a programming trio in the Devs facility that are essentially the mythological Fates, a trinity of an elderly man, a woman in her 30s, and a young boy. They are past, present, and future, in conflict with each other. The old man is wistful and is closer to the boy than the woman. The woman sees them both as disassociated from the bigger picture, while she is very present with what is happening at the moment.
Garland is masterful at imbuing his work with a particular atmosphere and mood. I would compare this to very meditative and intellectual science fiction work like Denis’ Villeneuve’s Arrival, the German series Dark, the Cary Fukunaga series Maniac, the woefully underrated, and canceled The OA, and the writing of Ted Chiang. If you want something fast-paced and action-oriented, Devs is not that. The show takes its time in the first half, slowly unfolding just what it wants you to know and giving you pieces of a larger puzzle that don’t become clear until the last few chapters. There can be a level of cold distance in the presentation, but that is intentional. The characters are all working at a level of computing the typical person couldn’t really get a grasp on, and so to a degree, they exhibit a sense of social awkwardness. The most human, ironically, is Fenton; Amaya’s head of security, who could also be argued, is the central antagonist for most of the series.
If you are willing to take a plunge into the depths of a story that will challenge you, force you to ask questions about your preconceptions Devs will reward you in multiples. I know with the closing of the final episode, my mind was reeling with questions. I suspect I will keep drifting back to this show for a long time to come, mulling over the hypotheses it presents, putting them up against my own experience of the world. In times as uncertain as these, to contemplate that everything that’s happening was predetermined before our planet came into existence can either be eerily comforting or profoundly disturbing. I think it is a valuable use of our time to explore these ideas.