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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Devs introduces an intriguing mystery with its premiere

Karl Glusman and Nick Offerman
Karl Glusman and Nick Offerman
Photo: Raymond Liu (FX)
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When you first start watching the premiere episode of Devs, you’re certain of one thing: This show is supposed to be “high concept.” From the random images at the beginning of the premiere to the eerie music that permeates the first episode, this show is sending a message of what it wants to be: smart and edgy. And that makes sense, as it’s the brainchild of Alex Garland who wrote and directed Ex Machina and Annihilation, the latter of which was based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a guy familiar with the ins and outs of artificial intelligence and the sheer weirdness that sci-fi can be, and he appears to be putting that experience to great use in Devs.

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The entire first episode is meant to unsettle you. Every choice is meant to show that there is something not quite right here. Even on a sunny, beautiful day when people are enjoying the outdoors, I felt cold watching it. This atmosphere is perfectly encapsulated in the strange and creepy plastic-looking statue, modeled after a young girl, that towers over the campus of Amaya, the Google or Facebook-like tech company at the center of Devs. Yes, it might be the “coolest” place to work, but I don’t know that I would ever be able to get used to a giant doll statue hovering over my place of work. How are you even supposed to concentrate knowing that thing is out there just….looking at you? No, thank you. It’s just weird and I do not like it—which is, of course, the point.

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The central question of the show, and one that will likely unspool over the course of its eight-episode limited run, is what in the world is going on at Devs? We see glimpses and hints over the course of this episode. Sergei (played by Karl Gusman) works on artificial intelligence at Amaya and demonstrates he’s able to successfully predict what a single-celled organism will do for about 30 seconds. After the presentation, Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie (Alison Pill) invite Sergei to join the mysterious world of Devs.

And indeed, it’s a world, not just a team. Devs is indicative of everything that’s messed up about Silicon Valley and startup culture—the invitation to work nights, the lack of interest in “observing weekends,” as if over-working is a treat. The open workspace that is a nightmare in terms of productivity (though, if people have no phones to talk on, it might be less of an ordeal). The complete and utter lack of privacy that is coupled with the expectation that Amaya is watching and recording every single thing that you are doing at any given time.

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What is Devs though? Forest says that even the people on the team may be unclear about the end goal, signaling that each of these people may work on a piece of a much larger puzzle. It’s an application of the current quantum computing system they use, but Forest rules out some of Sergei’s guesses: national security, cold fusion, artificial intelligence, encryption, biotech, search engines. At this point, my relatively uneducated theory is time travel, given Forest’s speech about determinism coupled with Katie’s insistence that the code actually changes nothing, even if it is revolutionary. If you think choices are predetermined, then being able to travel through time wouldn’t really affect anything.

Alison Pill
Alison Pill
Photo: Miya Mizuno (FX)
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The Devs office consists of a machine built within a Faraday cage, which blocks electromagnetic fields. The gold mesh surrounding the building could be to conduct heat and electricity (plus it looks pretty freaking cool), while the vacuum seal may ensure that everything within the building stays in the building (including air). Knowing this doesn’t provide answers necessarily, but it is intriguing information, and shows how many resources Amaya has put into protecting whatever knowledge is hidden in Devs.

This is why Sergei’s next move is such a surprise. He somehow copies the code that he finds on his computer at Devs onto his wristwatch. That provokes all kinds of secondary questions: Is Sergei some sort of plant? A seemingly normal wristwatch with the capability to receive data isn’t exactly something you’d wear every day—though he is wearing it in his initial meeting with Forest and Katie. This means that the data-watch is either an exact duplicate of his personal wrist watch, switched out after he returns home for the day before starting at Devs, or he’s been wearing it for awhile. Either way, there are unanswered questions about who he’s working for and what his motivations might be.

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The result, of course, is Sergei’s brutal murder at the hands of Amaya’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier), while Forest cooly watches. And, to make things even more complicated, they fake footage of him leaving the campus and then returning the next day to light himself on fire, supposedly committing suicide in front of the creepy statue.

Illustration for article titled iDevs/i introduces an intriguing mystery with its premiere
Photo: Miya Mizuno (FX)
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Despite the footage, Sergei’s girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is convinced there’s something strange going on. After all, she’s also an Amaya employee, working in their encryption department. She ends up going to an ex-boyfriend, Jamie (Jin Ha), to decrypt information she finds after restoring the contents of Sergei’s phone from a cloud backup. Presumably, this is the code that Sergei downloaded onto his watch. Jamie refuses to help her, but once he finds out about Sergei’s death, I have a feeling he’ll change his mind.

It will be interesting to see, in future episodes, how Lily comes to grow and develop as a character. She’s at the center of this mystery, thrust into it thanks to Sergei. But she’s still a little bit of a blank—we know a decent amount about her after this first episode, but she doesn’t quite feel fully realized yet. That will likely happen over the course of future episodes, when she’s the focus of the episodes and, presumably, the person driving the narrative forward, rather than just playing her part as she does in this premiere.

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Overall, this was a very promising first episode, and it bodes well for the rest of the series. The mysteries presented are intriguing ones, and because it’s a limited series we can be relatively sure we’ll get some answers by its end. (The fact that it’s from the mind of Alex Garland also indicates there probably is a resolution in mind, versus writing a mystery he doesn’t know how to solve, leading to a disappointing conclusion—looking at you, Lost.) All in all, I’m looking forward to seeing where we go from here.


Stray observations

  • Lily is incredible at portraying the anxiety of someone who is quietly worried.
  • The fact that Lily knows all of Sergei’s passwords is a quiet (and tech-oriented) way to show the nature, and closeness, of their relationship.
  • Before he starts speaking, Nick Offerman is delightfully unrecognizable as Forest, Amaya’s CEO. He’s also utterly terrifying, from his utter lack of regard for any sort of utensils to eat a salad to the stone cold way he watches someone murdered on his orders (even if he shows some emotion about it later on). The acting in this show is generally fantastic, and Offerman is incredible playing against type.
  • Alison Pill is wonderful in everything she does, and apparently after her role in Star Trek: Picard as a synthetic life expert, she’s getting very good at talking about artificial intelligence.
  • The role of music in this show is crucial and incredible for setting the scene.
  • Given what Jamie says about Lily and Amaya, does the company feel a little bit like a cult?
  • Can I just say, again, that the giant doll statue is creepy?
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Swapna Krishna is a space, tech, and pop culture writer. Her work has been published at Engadget, Gizmodo, The Verge, Polygon, and more.

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