Hulu's Dystopian Murder Mystery 'Devs' Is Impossible to Explain, but We'll Try Anyway
It took me a few tries to come up with the proper thing to call Devs, the new limited series written and directed by Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina), and I'm still not sure I got it totally right. It's a bit of a murder mystery, but also a bit of a tech thriller, and a bit of a muted, though no less soul-crushing, meditation on the nature of time, grief, and whether or not free will is real (and if that even matters). It's a very weird, very beautiful show, made even weirder by all of the promotional material that has been extremely vague in indicating what you're getting into if you decide to crack it open. So, what exactly is Devs, and what is Devs, and what is "devs," anyway?
If you've been tracking anything about this show at all (or if you just read the paragraph above), you probably already know that the whole thing is directed by Alex Garland, the director of his breakout feature film Ex Machina, about a reverse-engineered Turing test performed on a beautiful artificially intelligent robot, and Annihilation, a loose adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer's exceedingly frightening science fiction novel about a group of scientists who venture into a jungle that's been biologically polluted by a mysterious catastrophic event. Devs marks his first foray into directing television, but taken all together, it feels like simply one long, expanded Alex Garland movie, with new episodes coming out every Thursday on Hulu. It even looks, unmistakably, like an Alex Garland movie, which is thanks to his cinematographer Rob Hardy, whom he worked with on both Ex Machina and Annihilation. Hardy shot every scene with the same misty, filmy look, giving every light source a soft, slightly blurred edge and focusing intently on the greens and yellow-greens in any aspect of verdant, organic nature.
The show is set almost entirely inside a utopian Silicon Valley wet dream of a tech company called Amaya, housed in part inside a modern glass-paneled office building whose windows reflect the vast expanse of forest around it, a 21st century Hanging Gardens of Babylon -- though, like the Hanging Gardens, it's better suited to myth than reality. Employees are bussed in and out from their homes in San Francisco, their offices have high, airy ceilings, and their desks face outward through huge floor-to-ceiling windows, looking upon the grassy lawns and sunny outside dining areas dotted around the company's campus. Devs, Amaya's mysterious "development branch," is a brisk stroll away on a wooden walkway that winds through the kind of old-growth forest you'd expect to see on any brochure of the Pacific coast.
What Devs is, no one but the Devs employees know -- and even they, as you soon come to find out, don't quite understand what it is they're doing. In the premiere episode, Lily Chan's (Sonoya Mizuno, another frequent Garland collaborator) boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) gets a coveted position inside Devs by demonstrating a quantum predictive program that he's invented, foretelling the random movements of a worm. Forest (Nick Offerman), the enigmatic, shaggy-haired owner of Amaya, shows Sergei around the building that houses Devs, protected by a vacuum moat and an electromagnetic field, but won't tell him anything about what he's supposed to be doing there. By the end of the episode, Sergei has disappeared without a trace, prompting Lily (also an employee of Amaya) to infiltrate the company to try to figure out what happened to him, and what it has to do with what's going on inside Devs.
To explain what that is would be to spoil the entire thing -- and would also be impossible for me to do, since I'm not sure even I understand it. Because this is a Garland product, the show is more than what it seems at the outset: the "plot" becomes somewhat secondary to the show's true intent, which is a cyclical debate about the structure and purpose of our universe, and whether it can be influenced by the theoretical gajillions of other universes out there. (Because of the philosophical subject matter and the warm, glittery San Francisco setting, Devs feels, at times, like a spiritual successor to the second season of Netflix's The OA.)
"The universe is deterministic," Forest intones midway through the first episode. What we see as humanity, or any creature, having free will is actually an enmeshed web of cause and effect -- our every action, disguised in our minds as a deliberate choice, is actually inevitable, he explains. The show deliberately obfuscates what's actually going on for most of the season, but you don't have to have a degree in quantum computing to understand it, though some scenes throw out sets of coding references and quantum theory terminology at a mind-boggling rate. Like the company campus it's set in, it invites you inside of its walls with promises of a modern, glowing tech utopia before revealing the frightening heart of what lives deep beneath, warped by the paranoia and obsession of grief-stricken megalomania gone too far.
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