It feels like there’s a new streaming initiative launching every month, and now the market is so saturated that it’s hard to understand what a streaming service even offers anymore. For example: What is “FX on Hulu”? You might want to sit down for this: It’s a catalog of FX shows that will be available exclusively on Hulu, and will not air on FX. Shows that fall under the FX on Hulu umbrella are not technically Hulu originals, nor will they be roped in with regular FX series. They’re part of a new, unnecessary, and confusing-AF category—an unintentional parody of prestige TV signaling. (I guess that Disney, which owns both Hulu and FX, could be framing FX on Hulu offerings as the company’s version of HBO.)
With the confusing, unnecessary label, it’s only fitting that the first FX on Hulu series to hit the market is a total mindfuck that tackles Silicon Valley. That would be Devs, an eight-episode miniseries written and directed by Alex Garland, whose first two installments premiered on Thursday. The premise for Devs is fairly straightforward: A software engineer tries to uncover the truth behind her boyfriend’s mysterious death, and how the giant tech company (called Amaya) they both work for could be behind what happened to him. But it takes only two episodes—and really, about 30 minutes of the premiere—for the series to spark probing questions about the nature of free will, the horrors of technological advancement, and how mankind might be the architects of our own demise. You know, typical Alex Garland stuff.
From those two episodes, it’s also evident that Devs is shaping up to be a slow, thought-provoking burn, revealing more of the what behind the inner workings of Amaya’s secretive Devs department before the why. Your guess about the latter is as good as mine—I have resisted the temptation to binge all eight screeners provided to critics, though Nick Offerman’s creepy CEO might argue I’m just following a predetermined path. But I think—emphasis on think—there’s enough to glean from the early episodes, along with a cursory search about quantum physics, to have a better idea of where things could be headed and what the hell is going on at Amaya. (We’re going to dive into serious spoiler territory from this point forward.)
First, let’s start with what we know through two episodes. Artificial intelligence coder Sergei (played by Karl Glusman) was invited to join the Devs team by Amaya’s CEO, Forest (Offerman), after presenting a predictive algorithm that anticipates the movements of single-cell organisms. The experiment lasts only about 30 seconds before it fails, but still, dope. The fact that this project earns Sergei a coveted promotion to the company’s secretive Devs department is our first hint that Forest has an interest in determinism: the idea that free will doesn’t exist and all behavior is governed by preexisting circumstances. (The free-will-versus-determinism debate also popped up recently on the third season of The Good Place.)
Once Sergei looks through some of the code after joining the Devs team, he has a breakdown and vomits in the bathroom. He then tries to steal some of the code, a betrayal that leads Forest to have his head of security suffocate Sergei with a plastic bag. It’s a harrowing sequence, especially because Forest coolly justifies Sergei’s behavior—and his own—by claiming it’s all been a series of predetermined events. (It’s easier to live with killing someone on your conscience if you think you never had a choice in the matter.)
As we learn during the second episode, after Sergei’s girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) begins snooping around to find out about the circumstances of his death, our dearly departed coder was doing industrial espionage for Mother Russia. Getting promoted to the mysterious Devs department was the golden ticket. Sergei might’ve taken some of those Devs secrets to his grave, but the series continues showing glimpses of the department’s work—punctuated in the second episode with the Devs team projecting a startling, pixelated image of Jesus on the cross. (Whatever is happening, it’s celebrated as a breakthrough.) Is this picture of Jesus Christ the equivalent of taking a snapshot of a historical moment, like time travel by way of blurry surveillance-esque footage? Is it some kind of artificial re-creation of the past? Is it something else entirely? I don’t know, but it’s freaky as hell, and I definitely didn’t expect the messiah’s visage to show up on a series concerned with determinism:
If the thought of a person being able to predict the movements of a simple organism is scary to you—it certainly is to me—imagine that technology in the hands of a huge tech corporation. (It already seems like our phones and computers know exactly what we’re thinking, right?) Now let’s imagine that Amaya can successfully re-create the experiment with humans—and if the pixelated Jesus sighting is any indication, possibly alter the makeup of our world. Devs could step into some cosmic, existentially terrifying territory through the technology of tomorrow: a striking middle ground between the science fiction in Garland’s previous two projects, the human-like artificial intelligence in Ex Machina and the surreal manifestations of bio-horror in Annihilation.
As for Forest’s motivation behind this mysterious Devs project, well, what Silicon Valley CEO doesn’t have a God complex? But we also know that Devs is personal for him: Forest lost his young daughter and hasn’t recovered. (A creepy, giant statue hovers over the Amaya campus, presumably created in the image of his daughter, whose name was also Amaya.) It appears that Forest’s grief has manifested in his questioning the nature of our existence; he wonders whether free will is real, if it can be changed, and—possibly—what it would take to give people the chance to change the past. He might’ve killed a guy and he might eat undressed arugula by the handful like a true sociopath, but Forest’s underlying motivations are at least relatably human. (He reminds me a bit of Mr. Robot’s main antagonist Whiterose, a figure steadfastly pursuing a project that’s driven by grief, and which others might find beyond the realm of reason.)
Now, there’s a difference between trying to prove free will doesn’t exist and trying to reunite with a dead daughter, but that could be where quantum physics comes into play. I have a sneaking suspicion that Devs might dive into multiverse theory—if only because that could allow Forest to see his daughter in a parallel reality. Also, in the Devs trailer, there’s a brief moment when Alison Pill’s character—Forest’s right-hand woman, who oversees the Devs department—is seen overlapping with herself on a bridge:
Other than being a cool visual trick—and granted, that’s all it could end up being—this all seems very “multiple realities happening simultaneously.” That’s the sort of development that could propel Devs into some really compelling territory; less Avengers: Endgame playfully riffing on Back to the Future and more a series questioning the scope of our reality like The Matrix or some of the better episodes of Black Mirror. Maybe in a better world, Westworld would be tackling questions about the nature of reality in an equally thrilling way, instead of being an overlong, overwrought cautionary tale of tryhard prestige TV.
I’m probably getting a little ahead of myself, but this is the kind of Galaxy Brain (Multiverse Brain?) thinking that Devs inspires. (And that’s after watching only two of the eight episodes; I’m sure I’ll go full Pepe Silvia by the finale.) Garland has constructed another brilliant philosophical and existential mine field, a series that’s as exciting to watch as it is to sit back and think about. And as with the auteur’s finest work, the scariest part is finding familiarity in the science fiction, and perhaps confronting yourself along the way.