Not as deep as it thinks: Alex Garland’s Devs (with spoilers)

I doubt I’d bother to devote a whole post here to a series I didn’t care for if Devs wasn’t so convinced of its own depth. In the teaser for Alex Garland’s miniseries, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) declares that the “the problem with people that run tech companies is that they become fanatics and end up thinking they’re messiahs.” That’s a great topic for an SF show … but not this show.

Lily is an encryption specialist working for Forest (Nick Offerman), a quantum-computing entrepreneur who also employs Lily’s lover Sergei (Karl Glusman). In the opening episode, Sergei gets bumped upstairs to Devs, Forest’s big mystery project. One day in Devs leaves Sergei so horrified he’s vomiting. Forest realizes Sergei won’t be able to honor his confidentiality agreement so he has security head Kenton (Zach Grenier) kill Sergei. A fake video makes it look like Sergei burned himself to death.

Initially Lily is devastated, then she finds evidence something fishy is going on. She asks her ex-boyfriend Jeremy (Jin Ha) for help, but he’s still nursing a broken heart and tells her to get lost. When it becomes obvious she’s in real trouble, Jeremy changes his mind and helps. What follows is a standard thriller about conspiracies and corrupt corporations: Kenton keeps killing people (including Sergei’s handler — he was a Russian mole) and has Lily committed as a suicidal loonie with paranoid delusions.

We alternate between Lily’s plight and the work of the Devs team: Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lyndon (Callee Spaeny) and Forest’s lover and right hand Katie (Alison Pill). Devs lets them watch blurry images of the crucifixion or Marilyn Monroe making love to Arthur Miller, but its real purpose is that Forest can watch past images of his dead daughter. Forest has figured out the universe is completely deterministic; all it takes to see anything — past, future, now — is enough computing power to analyze the entire universe and extrapolate from that (I find this just another version of “computers are magic” but I can live with it as a premise).Forest’s grief over his wife and daughter has indeed made him a fanatic. After Lyndon shows the images become crystal clear if you base the extrapolations on a many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, Forest fires him. It doesn’t matter whether Lyndon’s right; Forest has to believe that it’s his daughter on screen, not some parallel-world counterpart. This obsession is the most interesting part of the story, but Devs then cops out: Katie reprograms the system based on Lyndon’s theories and Forest suddenly has no problem with it. I suspect that’s because Garland didn’t want grainy images on the computer for the big finish.

The finish kicks off with Lily showing up at Devs. Forest and Katie previously told her the system forecast her arrival, but can’t predict the future after that night. Lily decides not to go, but after Kenton kills Jeremy, Lily arrives at Devs packing heat. Katie shows her images of the next few minutes in which Lily kills Forest and dies herself. Lily, however, defies destiny by throwing the gun away, which is why the computer system suddenly loses it mojo: the universe is no longer deterministic.

I found that twist completely predetermined but I admit they set it up well. Forest’s belief in a deterministic universe unconsciously shaped his design for Devs so that it shows him exactly the universe he expects. Because the Devs team are absolutely convinced they’re right, they never bothered to test the model by trying to depart from their projected actions. Lyndon, the dissenter, falls to his death because of his faith in the many-worlds interpretation (in some world, he’ll be alive, so no problemo).

Stewart kills Lily and Forest anyway, declaring it’s predestined, but Katie is able to resurrect copies of their minds in the holodeck — er the Matrix — er the Devs computer. In the simulation Forest’s family are alive and so are Sergei and Jeremy (it looks like he’ll get Lily back) so we have a happy ending, sort of.

While the cast are good, most of the time they deliver their lines as if they were heavily sedated (it’s startling how much better Alison Pill is on Picard). Possibly Garland wanted the artificial feel this gives the actors’ scenes, but it didn’t work at all for me. The SF ideas he plays with aren’t so fresh or well developed to sell the show. And then there’s the supposed Deep Thoughts about Silicon Valley and Big Tech, where the show falls flat on its face.

Tech firms ability to be blithely disruptive while insisting they’re making things better (e.g., Internet Archive stepping on copyright to supposedly help readers during the pandemic) is a great topic for an SF show. So are Silicon Valley’s own internal practices. But the bad policies on Devs are murder and cover ups, stock thriller fodder. I don’t even see why Forest had Sergei killed, as he has no evil plots or anything in the works. Why did he even hire him if Devs could predict what was going to happen? You’d think that would be one point where pushing against destiny would be worth it.

Besides, Forest isn’t at all messianic. If, say, he sold Devs as an infallible tool for spying on people and ignored that the many-worlds possibility meant the visions weren’t reliable, that would fit. But he doesn’t want anything other than to see better images of his little girl. That’s human, but it’s not the worst thing a tech CEO can do.

Garland says he’ll be using the same cast in a new series as a new set of characters. I’m confident I won’t be watching it.

#SFWApro

2 Comments

  1. Peter

    I feel pretty similarly to you, I would have liked this more if it had been less insistent of its own profundity. I like the concept and appreciate the themes, but a lot of the science that Garland and co seemed to try to display “seriously” was actually pretty junk and many of the characters didn’t really act like… people.

    I did like Offerman’s performance and the cinematography and musical cues were outstanding, so I’d watch another series with this crew. Just hope it has better characters and less pretentiousness.

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