2020 has been a year in which, more than ever, it’s been difficult to shake the feeling that we don’t have much agency over our lives. Things happen that are outside our control and we watch them happen, wondering if there ever was a moment when we were in charge of our everyday existence. Therefore it is probably no surprise that two recent high-profile sci-fi series tried to wrangle the theme of whether we live in a deterministic universe, even if they were both made before our sense of agency took its biggest knock in the shape of a nasty little virus: HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Devs, which was written and directed by Alex Garland.
Of the two, I’d say without hesitation that Westworld is the far weaker. In its third season, HBO’s robo-oater took a sharp turn into cyberpunk with its focus on supposedly all-knowing, godlike AIs and power-crazed tech magnates bent on controlling that most unruly of diseases: humanity. The series also took a turn for the decidedly worse in terms of keeping up appearances that its metaphysical meanderings had much or indeed any substance to them. Sure, it was loud and bombastic, but this could not distract from the fact that, increasingly, Westworld, was wasting its considerable acting talent and its production values on a glitzy but hollow confection that wasn’t even particularly entertaining any more, as its characters were increasingly stripped of whatever depth or wit they had.
Devs is a different beast. Like Garland’s last two films, Ex Machina and Annihilation, it demands patience and makes for disorienting, even chilling storytelling. Where Westworld, even at its best, likes to brag about its own supposed cleverness without ever quite cashing in those particular chips, Devs seems oddly dazed by the metaphysical discourses running through it. There is a quality to the series that is situated somewhere between hypnotic, subdued and soporific, which I can easily imagine some people will find offputting. This infects many of the show’s main characters, especially the protagonist Lily (Sonoya Mizuno, who made her debut in Ex Machina) and two of the series’ antagonists, more or less, the tech entrepreneur Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie, the chief designer of the Devs system (Alison Pill). In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find more affectless (though by no means uneffective) performances this side of a Yorgos Lanthimos film.
While Devs‘ starts out in the murder mystery genre – and there are thriller tropes sprinkled throughout -, its core concern is with the aforementioned issue of free will vs determinism. Lily works as a software engineer at the tech company Amaya, the love child of Apple, Google and the production design of Black Mirror. After joining Amaya’s Devs team, whose work is kept ultra-secret, her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) dies under horrific circumstances. The reasons for his death are murky, but everything leads back to Devs which, it turns out, has created a quantum-computing system that can extrapolate all of reality from a single particle – and not only in the present moment, but into the past (the Devs team uses the system to peek in on the crucifixion of Jesus and the love life of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, as one does) and, it seems, the future too. The implications of this system are staggering: it suggests a fully deterministic universe, one in which every single point in time determines the next. From the micro, from single atoms, to the macro – clouds, stock markets, societies, the universe -, everything can be foreseen, and therefore everything is already determined. Free will? Just an illusion. Choice? A comforting fiction. No wonder that Forest and Katie, the driving forces behind the Devs system, walk through their daily lives as if they’re suffering from constant shell-shock.
Garland’s choice (or is it?) to combine a metaphysical exploration of the issue of free will with a murder mystery is a clever one: for one, following Lily’s quest to find out first what happened to her loved one, and later why it happened, keeps the series’ plot moving forward, for another, it raises questions of culpability: if everything is deterministic, including a person’s actions, can they meaningfully be said to be guilty, say, of incitement to murder? Are they responsible for any of the mistakes they have made, that have brought them to this point?
As is sometimes the case with Garland, though, while his stories are driven by metaphysical questions – among other, the nature of sentience and gender politics in Ex Machina, and self-destruction and radical change in Annihilation –, there is often a point at which his handling of these themes, when spoken out loud by his characters, becomes fuzzy and frustrating, and weirdly flat. Sometimes, the more Garland says something, the less it actually has to say, and Devs‘ final episode definitely suffers from this. The series builds up to what promises be a momentous, world-shattering event – and when it arrives, it is something of a “Well, duh.” (Endings have rarely been Garland’s biggest strength, going back to his early collaborations with Danny Boyle.)
Which isn’t to say that Devs as a whole is a failure, even if some of its parts end up working decidedly less well than others. While the philosophical implications of the series’ epilogue remain purposefully vague and don’t exactly benefit from thinking about them too long and too hard, I’ve often found Garland’s stories to be of that deceptively intellectual style where you may come for the ideas but you stay for the emotions. Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller are, Garland has proven with Ex Machina and Annihilation that he is great at evoking an emotional tone. Devs may not always succeed at using story to ask philosophical questions, but for me it worked beautifully at using tone to tell stories about characters suffering from loss and trauma. Lily’s trauma is the loss of Sergei, then the loss of everything she believed in. Forest’s trauma is the loss of his daughter and his fear that he caused her death, so that he longs for a world in which none of us ever had any choice. Never mind the grand questions of whether we have agency or whether our every move is predetermined: when Devs tells these stories of human beings, it remains engaging until the end.
As a result, while Devs is often intriguing (and sometimes infuriating) as an artistic, metaphysical kaleidoscope of ideas and images, I found it most memorable when it gives its characters a moment to breathe, when they find a minute of respite from trauma and loss. There is a beautiful parallel sequence late in the series, in which Lily realises that her options are slim to non-existent and that she won’t be safe anywhere, so she seeks out the people who have put her in mortal peril, together with her ex Jamie (Jin Ha) who still carries a torch for her. While Lily and Katie have one of those conversations that your average streaming service would describe as “All is revealed” in their episode synopsis, Jamie and Forest sit on the porch and have the kind of awkward chat you get when one party is responsible for the other having been tortured and threatened with death. While the conversation between the two women is more key to Devs‘ plot and themes, it is the scenes between her former boss and her former lover that have the most humanity, humour and warmth – and since Garland uses such scenes sparingly, they are essential to engaging the audience.
Garland’s stories at times risk vanishing up their stylish, chilly backsides (yes, that sounded better in my head before I wrote it down), but sometimes I like them best when he brings them back down to earth. He is a smart, ambitious storyteller, and that is a refreshing thing to see, especially in sci-fi films and TV, where spectacle often ends up trumping everything else. I enjoyed Devs, but in the end it is not the series’ thoughts about determinism, free will and the nature of reality that will stick in my mind. It is the small glimpses of humanity against a backdrop of lofty ideas and themes, the small sadnesses and triumphs. It is the hesitant early-morning banter between two lovers afraid of ruining the moment. It is Jamie and Forest throwing a frisbee back and forth under the streetlights. Did they choose to throw that frisbee or were they predetermined to do so? Does it matter?