REVIEW: ‘Devs’ (2020) is an Intriguing Examination of Humanity and the Nature of Free Will

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“A thought-provoking and emotionally resonant meditation on the nature of free-will.”

From the outside, Devs is just another sci-fi thriller told in Alex Garland’s signature style and with a basic premise: a software engineer named Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) investigating the truth behind the mysterious and sudden death of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), and how the Google-esque tech company they work for might have something to do with it. Indeed, for the first few episodes, Devs leans heavily on the basic tropes of thriller sci-fi TV series, complete with a Russian espionage subplot and a bigger conspiracy behind Sergei’s death. But as the series progresses, the answer to whether Lily’s suspicion towards Amaya —the company in question— is true or not is secondary to the show’s main exploration of predeterminism and the nature of free will, as well as how our obsession with technological advancement can erode our worldview and humanity.

Garland drills home the horror created as an impact of technological advancement not through the main heroine but rather through Nick Offerman’s enigmatic character Forest, who is the architect behind Amaya and the mysterious titular department of Devs where Sergei worked. When we first meet him, Forest seems just like Oscar Isaac’s Nathan in Ex Machina: a tech company leader with a God-complex personality who’s overprotective of his creation, but later episodes reveal different motivations behind his ambition.

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With Katie (Alison Pill in an icy performance), Forest builds a quantum computer with a purpose to study the relationship between cause and effect. He believes that everything that happens in this world is predetermined, impacted by events in the past, and a cause to something that will happen in the future. He also assumes that if he can make sense of something that happened in the past using a basic quantum mechanics theory, he can predict the future, and even create multi-simulations with different outcomes —just like how the many-worlds interpretation (MWI) works.

It’s sad to understand where Forest is coming from, and Offerman’s wonderful performance really showcases the feelings that drive his character, but it doesn’t change the fact that what Forest is doing throughout the show should not be justified. If anything, Forest’s obsession over his creation should work as a cautionary tale on how the advancement in science and technology can be the very reason why humankind is doomed in the first place had we kept allowing it to distort the way we view our lives. This is where Lily enters the picture. Unlike Forest, Lily still hasn’t lost touch with reality. She doesn’t obsess with technology, or with the concept of predeterminism. What drives her is grief. She simply wants to understand what happened to Sergei and uncover the truth so that she could finally move forward.

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Mourning the loss of our loved ones is an important part of grieving, and there’s no timetable when it comes to it. But obsessing over it is never going to help us to ease the pain. Lily understands this very well. That’s why even though she knows how dangerous Forest and the people of Amaya are, she still puts herself out there so that she can begin to move forward by understanding what really happened to Sergei.

Throughout, Lily’s journey serves as the emotional beat of the show, and Mizuno’s portrayal of her is phenomenally subtle. But more than that, Lily is also where Devs provides hope. Through her, the show reminds us that no matter what the advancement in technology promises us, what in the end will make our life more meaningful is our relationships with other human beings, not with technology itself. It’s a very hopeful note to an otherwise hopeless and dark series, but that’s the beauty of Devs.

Though at times the pace could be a lot more palatable, in the end, Garland’s examination of the nature of free-will, along with the show’s mesmerizing visuals and haunting score, prove that Devs is worth the journey. Those looking for a gonzo sci-fi trip with a lot of big revelations will be disappointed with it, but those willing to go on an adventure full of thought-provoking ideas about life are no doubt going to be rewarded in the end. Devs is simply one of the best new shows of the year so far.

Creator: Alex Garland

Executive Producers: Alex Garland, Andrew Macdonald, Allon Reich, Eli Bush, Scott Rudin, Garret Basch

Cast: Sonoya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Alison Pill, Jin Ha, Karl Glusman, Zach Greiner, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson

Available on: Hulu and BBC iPlayer

Header image courtesy of Hulu