How Alex Garland and Nick Offerman Created the Bleakly Optimistic Ending of 'Devs'
FX/Hulu's 'Devs' was a wild, metaphysical trip all the way until the end.
This post contains spoilers for the end of Devs.
Alex Garland's Devs lures audiences in with its promise of a story rooted in science, but as it unfolds over its eight episodes, it proves that it is as much of, if not more, a spiritual tale. By the end, the how of what is being created is not as important as the why and the metaphysical consequences of that. Sonoya Mizuno's grieving Lily makes a choice to disrupt the projected future that the Devs algorithm has spit out, refusing to kill Nick Offerman's tech innovator Forest, but letting them both fall to their deaths in the building's electromagnetic floating elevator. Except Forest manages to sputter back to some form of life thanks to the data he has been collection, allowing them both to exist forever in the many worlds of the system he built. Most of the time it will be paradise, but there will be moments where the environment feels more like hell, he explains.
"I think that was a deal Forest is willing to make," Offerman says when I speak to him about the finale. "Finish out your mortal turn, continuing to be bereft of those you have lost or get yourself into this system, and as long as it doesn't get unplugged, you get to continue the meal of your time with these loved ones. If it's indistinguishable from real life, I understand making that bargain. I think the morality of it is pretty murky, what he's willing to go through to make it happen under the guise of, 'well, it's not really my fault, it's all been predetermined so let's not worry about it.'"
In separate interviews, I spoke with Garland and Offerman about the series' pyrrhic conclusion.
Devs was explicitly about faith
"Devs" was never actually "Devs." Forest reveals to Lily that the "v" in Devs is Roman, meaning that Devs is actually Deus. He knew he was playing god with his system. The notion of humans playing with godlike ideas is a recurring theme in Garland's work, stemming all the way back to his collaboration with Danny Boyle for Sunshine. "In the case of Ex Machina, for example, it's about humans acting as if they are God by creating a new life, and in the form of Devs, it's humans creating God," Garland says. "So, they are constructing something which is all-knowing and all-powerful, which is our basic definition of what a god is, particularly the sort of Judeo-Christian God, and the Islamic God."
The iconography of the show starts clicking into place then, even, for instance Forest's shaggy hair and beard, which in retrospect is slightly messianic. "[Alex] wanted us to put together by the end of the show all of the little religious clues dropped here and there," Offerman says. "For me, the main one is just that building, the Devs building, is so clearly our church and what's in the screens, the data, is so clearly our religion." For Offerman, a man who has been defined by a famous mustache, determining what kind of hair a character is going to have is one of his favorite parts of the process.
Over the course of the season, it becomes more and more obvious that Forest is entirely motivated by grief over the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident for which he feels responsible. "I haven't had a lot of experience that's really commensurate with what Forest has undergone with his family tragedy, so I leaned pretty heavily on Alex's fine writing," Offerman says. "He provides the fuel for Forest's emotional state." And neither Offerman nor Garland saw Forest as godlike, despite his endeavors. "So he now controls all the data on the planet, but he still drinks milk right out of the jug from the fridge or whatever," Offerman says. "Alex talks about one of the reasons he cast me was because he thought that I have a natural empathy about me and the thinks that's important for Forest. Otherwise, we just think he's a heartless monster."
It all comes back to determinism
The line of thinking that brought Garland to Devs was centered on determinism, and a meditation on determinism is where it ends. When I ask Garland why he leaves Forest and Lily in the system, he replies: "It's hard for me to give a reductive answer to it, but it relates to Forest pointing out that within a deterministic state, life is just something we watch unfold like pictures on a screen, and it's sort of like saying if one's taking a deterministic position, that is what life reduces to."
By the end, Forest and Lily only exist in a screen that Alison Pill's Katie is desperate to keep plugged in. "Within that context, where you've almost literally reduced them to pictures on a screen, they still care about stuff. So determinism doesn't rob us of the thing that we end up being defined by most of all, which is our capacity to care about things, and particularly to care about people," Garland says.
Devs is a show that mixed the bleak with the beautiful, and its entrancing contradictions continue into its final moments. A sense of hope cuts through the ending, but it's also utterly terrifying, especially for Lily who is essentially imprisoned there against her will. It's technically everything she wanted at the outset of the narrative: A world where her boyfriend is not murdered and life goes on as normal. But that world is an eerie simulation, a picture on a screen.
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