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by Karin Lowachee

The Devil in Devs


Devs is a bold and stylish, physics-forward limited series from FX on Hulu, created by writer/director Alex Garland, who earned critical acclaim for Ex Machina and Annihilation. As he did in both films, Garland enters a realm where science meets philosophy, in this case using quantum mechanics and a deterministic interpretation to explore the ideas of free will and the multiverse.

While the realism of the series's science and technology can be broken down into its component pieces (and torn apart in the process, as physicists have done in reviewing the show), seeing Devs as a contemplation on death and religion—and more specifically, on Christianity—reveals a deeper meaning. Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) is a young encryption coder who works for Forest (Nick Offerman), the svengali entrepreneur of a San Francisco quantum tech company called Amaya, named after Forest's dead young daughter. Both characters are grieving and trying to make sense of the reality of death.

From the first episode, death looms quite literally over Amaya-the-company by way of a gigantic effigy of little-girl-Amaya as monument, arms raised as if in supplication. Also in the first episode, Lily's boyfriend Sergei gets pulled into "Devs," apparently the R&D department of Amaya. He is a high-level coder whose quantum predictive program draws the eye of Forest and Forest's right-hand woman, Katie, played by Alison Pill, who also recently starred in the first season of Star Trek: Picard. By the end of the episode, Sergei is murdered by Kenton, an ex-CIA operative who is now Amaya's head of security—all under the eyes of Forest and Katie. It turns out Sergei was embedded by the Russians for industrial espionage and this fact reinforces one of the major themes of the show: the tension between appearance and reality, or more broadly the existence of apparently two conflicting realities. This partial thesis bears weight right to the eighth and final episode, when Forest's reality is undermined by Lily's.

While this setup would seem to point toward a more standard spy drama, Devs balances such basic plot elements with artistic cinematography and an almost glacial narrative pace in which the characters seem to move and speak with somnambulant inevitability. This tone is reflective of Forest's hell-bent belief that we live in a deterministic universe where all of humanity operates on "tramlines" and not by free will; he offers this explanation to Sergei and forgives him for spying, declaring that Sergei had no choice but to do what he did. This is cold comfort for Sergei when he is suffocated to death and later burned to look like an immolation suicide.

Over the course of the series, we discover that Devs is Forest's obsession to make his daughter live again through the use of a quantum computer that can project past and future events down to the particle and thus encompass even individual lives. It's hand-wavy science, but for the sake of the show's premise and philosophy it manages well enough. Forest desperately wants Devs to work because, as Katie, who is both employee and lover, rightly assesses, Forest wants absolution from Amaya's death. It was he who'd been on the phone with his wife when she was driving home with their daughter, and this distraction caused her to be side-impacted by an oncoming car. If Devs works, it would mean the death was "tramline" inevitable and he isn't at fault. As Forest tells Lily (as a means of comfort), in that moment when he witnessed the crash, two things became absolutely true: one, "that Amaya was gone, dead, no going back," and the other, that he "had no comprehension of her death, it was an impossible, implausible, absurd, meaningless, untrue thing." He goes on to explain that "they weren't contradictory states, they were absolute states, each complete in itself, leaving no room for the other." But he "held them both and still do[es]." This is yet another example of dual realities, but also of Forest's arrogance and ego, because if he truly believes in the tramline theory, he should just accept Amaya's death as he calmly accepts Sergei's and cast off any responsibility.

Initially the project doesn't quite succeed. Enter the engineers, two of whom are given names: Stewart—an older man depicted as a sort of truth-telling oracle with a hefty splash of sass, played by Hollywood veteran Stephen McKinley Henderson—and Lyndon, a young upstart genius, portrayed by Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising). It is Lyndon who ultimately breaks open Forest's project by breaking his rules. Rather than working within Forest's single world parameter, Lyndon injects a code that supposes a multiverse. Lo and behold, Devs derezzes from grainy visuals and garbled sound to depicting Christ speaking Aramaic on the cross. Forest cans Lyndon because ultimately he is not interested in every possible Christ that exists in the multiverse. He doesn't say it, but he doesn't have to: All Forest wants is Amaya.

The fact that Jesus Christ is the initial image and voice that blows open the Devs project speaks to the idea that religion is a defining factor of humanity. More specifically, it speaks to the idea that belief in the existence of a god and resurrection defines much of humanity, in defiance of science and the fact of death. It is impossible to fully see the scope of Garland's vision without a working knowledge of Christianity. Forest is quite directly trying to play God with an Old Testament Jehovah's harsh impunity while simultaneously raising his daughter from the tomb. He shows little emotional connection to the fact he has a direct hand in murder (it doesn't stop at Sergei), and his attempts to assuage Lily's fears read more like sociopathy than compassion. Original sin is even referenced in dialogue between Forest and Katie, citing Lily as the disobedient Eve. The irony is that Forest isn't channeling God or Christ, but rather the devil.

In the story of the war in heaven, it is Lucifer who opposes God because he doesn't want humanity to have choice, but rather to return to God with predetermined and unquestioned obedience to all of the commandments. Lucifer would be responsible (and receive the glory) for humanity's success; this proposal gets him kicked out of heaven. It isn't until Eve partakes of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge (between good and evil) that humanity is cast out of Eden and consequently given their agency—and inevitable death—making any path to heaven one of conscious choice. These theological concerns imbue Devs narratively, visually, and sonically.

The building in which Devs is housed is reminiscent of a Mayan temple on the outside—constructed of "a lead faraday shield, thirteen-yard-thick concrete shell," gold mesh, vacuum seal, electromagnetic fancy dancing—but has the inside aesthetic of an art deco cathedral with a Tesla-esque quantum computer rising dominant through the core like a crucified Christ above the altar of a church. Everything is gilt and glass, while otherworldly soundscapes drift through scenes, interspersed by choral music, sampled blues, and throat singing. The mosaic in both image and sound is at times dissonant and eerily symmetrical. In one scene we see Pete, a homeless man (who is also not quite what he seems), dancing to a musician in the park; in the next, Kenton is in a bloody throwdown with Sergei's Russian handler in the grim concrete of an underground garage. Every beat in the series plays purposefully and polyphonically as ideas and themes layer on top of each other like a fugue.

It's no coincidence Forest looks like a harried Jesus and Lily is an androgynous beauty with the physique of a dancer. She is the gamine innocent lured by the prophet pretender (she even calls Forest a "false prophet" in the final episode, rather than his self-description of Messiah), which is just another interpretation of Lucifer. Lily rejects Forest's beliefs and ultimately his attempt to control her future by manifesting through action the very theory he initially rejected: that of the many worlds. Even though he and Katie "saw" Lily's involvement in an action that seems to bring about the end of Devs, who's to say it is this world's Lily they saw? Or perhaps free will does not run counter to a deterministic universe if the overall result is the same. This result comes through both Lily's Eve-like decision and that of Stewart's, the oracle who in the final episode recites Philip Larkin's "Aubade," a beautiful contemplation on death.

Some of the narrative scaffolding falters when you realize that Forest and Katie should've probably anticipated this possibility, given the nature of their project. It is surprising they didn't even attempt to test their theories by exercising some "choice" themselves. Be that as it may, the end still makes an uneasy sort of sense, even if by the final scenes Forest is once again playing god or devil with Lily's existence—taking any choice away from her for how she might want to live (or not live), even though both of them are "healed."

Alex Garland's high-concept and visually stunning limited series is not for granular scientific deconstruction. It simply can't hold up to that examination. Rather, it is a philosophical and theological rumination on an age-old question of the nature of humanity, our conscious free will, and the moralities we employ to navigate a universe and a world we barely understand even as we live—and die—at its mercy. The science in Garland's science fiction acts as a framework to ask these deep and abiding questions, but he also demonstrates that past a certain point, even scientific questions share similar domain with those of the spiritual.



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