At the core of FX’s Devs, an eight-part limited series from visionary filmmaker Alex Garland, is an age-old question, one that’s been contemplated by philosophers and laypeople alike for millennia: Does free will actually exist? Or is life just an endless chain of reactions, a kaleidoscopic turning of causes into effects?
If you’re worried about just having had the series spoiled for you, don’t be—the above are takeaways from the first hour or two of the series, not the end of the last episode. Garland also teased his deterministic themes at New York Comic-Con last October. Even the trailers come with the log line “Nothing ever happens without a reason.” And while there were the usual caveats and embargoes from FX about plot specifics in pre-air coverage, once the clock starts on the season, Devs is surprisingly forthcoming about the details of its mysteries. The series’ most abstract, most complex ideas are inexorably connected to its action, which necessitates a certain level of transparency in its storytelling.
And there’s the rub, for both the viewer and Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno, in her third collaboration with Garland), a computer programmer for tech giant Amaya. Once you learn to recognize what constitutes a bread crumb in Devs’ storytelling, you can choose to follow that path toward enlightenment. The same basically goes for Lily, who must learn to take control—or at least, grapple with the illusion of it—in her rapidly expanding world, one that spins out from her daily routine in Silicon Valley to include espionage, artificial intelligence, quantum mechanics, and some uncomfortable truths. Once she’s down the rabbit hole, though, Lily quickly learns that the most startling revelations are often the most painful.
The inciting incident comes straight from procedurals and pulp novels—the disappearance of a loved one, in this case, Lily’s boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman), an artificial intelligence coder and her co-worker. In the premiere, Sergei makes a breakthrough that impresses Forest, the CEO of Amaya, a man who speaks in Zen koans when he’s not munching on undressed greens. Played by Nick Offerman in a variation on his “cultured woodsman” persona, Forest comes across as both an unassuming tech nerd and charismatic cult leader. Rather than lord over Northern California like a Bond villain, this billionaire lives in a house on a public street (which, given that this is San Francisco, is probably still pretty expensive) and drives an old station wagon to work.
This juxtaposition is one of the few times Devs actively subverts expectations. Otherwise, Garland, who wrote and directed every episode, restrains himself to just a handful of narrative curveballs. Instead of big revelations, he adds more layers that are meant to enhance our understanding of the philosophical matters he’s laid out; the picture isn’t expanded so much as brought into sharper focus. Lest we forget just how big these questions are, Devs is full of stretches of expository dialogue that serve as crash courses in quantum physics and determinism; there’s no such thing as a taciturn genius in this version of Silicon Valley. Forest’s right-hand woman, Katie (Alison Pill), becomes just as prone to speechifying as he is. Even the engineers who are cut off from the rest of the world while at work in the enigmatic Devs division like to keep each other informed of their progress, which leads to what can only be described as name-checking interpretations of quantum mechanics and theories that have shaped our understanding of the physical world.
The pacing is as deliberate as the writing, with the story moving determinedly from one chapter to the next. The serious tone rarely lets up, as humor does not appear to be one of the possibilities in a story that insists that anything that can happen, will happen. Still, Devs is never dull, just perhaps too beholden to its guiding principles. The cast engages even when Garland’s text-heavy exploration of consciousness and predetermination doesn’t. Offerman both charms and frightens as Forest, who at one point plays Frisbee with a would-be adversary. In her first turn as a series lead, Mizuno captivates in the role of someone who is given every reason to question their understanding of reality, yet never succumbs to doubt. Where she demonstrated a balletic physicality in her previous appearances in Garland’s work, here Mizuno focuses on elocution to convey her character’s shifting emotions. The more conflicted Lily becomes, the more deliberate her speech, until each syllable is as fraught as the high-minded concepts Devs introduces at a regular clip.
Garland had centuries of literature, multiple disciplines (brushing up on your gestaltism couldn’t hurt), and even a few branches of physics to draw from in cultivating his interpretations of immutable laws and human nature. That research is the foundation of Devs as much as Garland’s own oeuvre. The influence of the sterile, but not bland environs of Ex Machina’s Blue Book and the beautiful, unnatural (to this world) phenomenon at the center of Annihilation can be seen and felt throughout Garland’s limited series. But with Devs, he aims for a blend of these sensibilities: the organic and the technological, the fixed and the transmutable, the divine and the earthbound. Garland uses religious iconography in ways both subtle and overt, but is most successful in setting an increasingly foreboding mood. San Francisco’s bustling life is concentrated at the Amaya compound (inspired by the Google campus); it’s otherwise depicted as a ghost town with a literal pall over it. Music composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (The Insects) regularly shatter the calm with their score. Garland hasn’t overlooked a thing in constructing the setting of his techno thriller. It’s the story within it that struggles to be cohesive and compelling.
Reviews by Swapna Krishna will run weekly beginning March 5.