clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How ‘Devs’ Explores the Silicon Valley God Complex

The limited FX series, which wraps on Thursday, portrays a megalomaniac who is obsessed with power but is a prisoner to what he sees as a predetermined universe

Hulu/Ringer illustration

At times Devs can seem utterly, obviously fake. From its opening shots of glossy, well-manicured grass below a bright, phony sun, to aerial shots of the Golden Gate Bridge that look computer-rendered, to the generic luxury homes, Devs can come off as though it purposely wants to convey how staged it is. It’s as though the inhabitants are playing out a script, meant to fill a role in a life already constructed.

It’s certainly the way Forest—the PTSD-suffering, megalomaniac tech genius at the center of Devs (played by Nick Offerman)—sees the world. In the first episode, he remarks upon the deterministic nature of the universe, detailing how everything that unfolds has already been set in motion long before it happens. In the fourth episode, he fires an employee for daring to bring a multiverse theory into the titular Devs project, as it provides deviation from the apparent blueprint of our reality.

This universal order Forest obsesses over also doubles as a justification, a way to absolve his grief over the loss of his wife and child. It also exonerates him, in his own mind, of his role as a villain who murders or threatens employees, bends laws to his will, and thumbs his nose at government oversight. If the world is following a script, then he is no longer responsible for the evil he’s perpetuated; he’s merely a pawn in a game that’s been played a million times before.

Devs—Alex Garland’s limited FX series about a mysterious tech firm that seems to have devised a way to know the future—portrays a highly nuanced version of the Silicon Valley God Complex archetype. Forest is the founder of Amaya, a mysterious tech firm named for his deceased daughter and complete with a giant statue of her haunting the premises. Within the company, he leads a small team of developers in an effort to realize his ambitious goal of seeing through time. Forest is uninterested in political gain or worldly affairs and, as he tells his head of security and general attack dog Kenton, he doesn’t “give a fuck about the environment.” What motivates him is a selfish desire to resolve his unending grief through a secretive, controversial, and clearly irresponsible experiment of traveling through time and revealing free will to be imaginary. In news that would appeal to Rust Cohle, time indeed turns out to be a flat circle.

Forest is Garland’s latest edition of technology-fueled madness inflicted on the world, following his breakthrough 2014 film Ex Machina, which featured Oscar Isaac as a secluded genius losing control through a combination of cabin fever and being overtaken by his own obsessions. Both characters reflect the extremes of a Silicon Valley culture that has elevated its leaders as geniuses and often scoffed when government oversight has tried to rein it in. You don’t have to look further than Elon Musk’s Twitter page to see how the genius label can drive someone mad.

In Forest, obsessiveness is driven primarily by a deep, unflinching depression. Since he can’t physically resurrect his family, he has dedicated his life to doing it in the abstract. This along with Forest’s flowing hair and unruly beard pushes for obvious comparisons to Jesus. (If the religious undertones are too subtle for you, the Devs team seems to spend much of their time watching the life of the actual Jesus or Joan of Arc being burned at the stake.) Creating objects and ideas that change humanity is the quest for technological gurus and scientists in both media and real life. Since we can’t see God, becoming one is the next best thing.

Forest is dedicated fully to this project of understanding the universe and selfishly getting to revisit memories of his daughter, who died in a car accident an undisclosed number of years before the events of the series. In order to achieve it he is willing to murder, psychologically torture his staff, and literally bend this fictional San Francisco to his will. Because of his wealth and power, Forest’s pathology goes unchecked as he is given a comical level of free rein. But based on the rules of Devs’ universe, it’s hard to hate or hold Forest responsible for the destruction he’s caused. If free will is a lie and the universe is deterministic, Forest’s behavior was inevitable, decided upon the moment he came to exist; to paraphrase a line he says to Sergei, a developer at Amaya, upon discovering he’s a Russian spy in the first episode: He could only have done what he did.

With that in mind, Forest feels less like a threat than just another bystander watching his life happen. Offerman’s portrayal of the character is increasingly weighed down by that knowledge, as the Devs team perfects their system. This unfortunately carries the adverse side effect of making the secondary plot line involving Lily—a programmer at Amaya and girlfriend of the murdered Sergei—trying to uncover the shady business happening in the Devs building somewhat of a chore. Not only is Lily constantly a step behind the audience, but as more information on the Devs system is revealed, the threats and questions it poses to the laws of the universe and the nature of human behavior render Lily’s freelancing detective work ultimately meaningless.

So much of science fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the books of Octavia Butler to Blade Runner, posits that human progress cannot be divorced from human violence. The advancement of our world ultimately includes the advancement of our destruction. Whether it’s HAL 9000, humanoid robots or cyborgs, or the radioactive effect that technological advancement takes on the planet, society—if given the time and resources—will create its own undoing. While it’s the tech itself in these stories that is meant to be unnerving, the people behind the invention should truly frighten. The kind of ego and audacity to challenge what’s possible has led to a dearth of incredible progress, but that same hubris has gone on to fuel addictive behavior as well as challenge our privacy, the environment, and necessary regulations put in place by the state.

There is a reason the word “techno-utopianism” exists. It’s an idea that’s existed long before Silicon Valley and will likely persist after it’s gone. The internet, space travel, cell phones and tablets, robots—these are objects meant to lead us closer to an idealized society. Even the ways in which these creators have changed work culture and the cities they live in are thought of as revolutionary. They are gods in their own playground, with their wide campuses, state-of-the-art offices, and private buses; they continue to lead by example with the sophisticated restructuring of work-life to make it a more ideal environment, and something aspirational. But most things that are aspirational often reveal how few people get to benefit from progress, ultimately left without a vote in the way the world grows around them. The tech mavens are agents of change, and change is typically deemed good. If utopia is achievable on earth, they are the ones who decide what it will look like.

The good intentions behind things like the internet can’t erase how that same invention also led to an advancement in our worst impulses. The rise in misinformation, the loss of privacy, a more expedient method for committing crimes have all come along with our growing dependence on the internet. Society needs to advance—it has no choice—but human behavior won’t necessarily grow with it. We are still bound by hubris and prone to giving in to our basest instincts.

Devs takes place in a world and time similar to ours. In it, San Francisco can look at a distance like the kind of utopia that Apple commercials are made of. And yet at the edges of the ambient lighting of the streets and luxurious homes, you see the homeless, particularly the guy who sleeps in front of Lily’s apartment complex who turns out to be more than he seems. It’d be highly unlikely if this weren’t meant to play on the real San Francisco, which despite being one of the wealthiest cities in the country, has one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S. It’s a subtle addition, but it’s an effective one considering how much the show questions the futility of life: If there’s no free will, no fairness, does what has happened or yet to happen even matter? Being homeless is no more a happenstance than the car crash that took Forest’s family away. For as much as Devs dramatizes the psychological effect that loss, combined with egomania and wealth, can create, if you live in that world long enough, Forest and Katie, his no. 2 and lead developer, seem to be the only ones who make sense.

The only thing that seems to stir up any real emotion or passion in Forest is someone daring to validate the multiverse. That theory of the universe, the idea that our existence is just one of a vast, unending series of other versions, has existed for centuries in fiction and philosophy, and it’s especially familiar to those who read comic books or watch Marvel movies. The scientific basis for it is much more recent, and incredibly controversial, with some scientists admonishing it as God with another name. Forest is adamantly opposed, more than likely because it involves the capacity to make choices on some level. It would imply that Forest exists in the “wrong” reality, rather than one in which his daughter is alive. With one episode left, the multiverse is the potential wrench in the system that could upend everything.

Devs has been slowly building up to an earth-shattering event to be revealed in this Thursday’s finale. Whatever it is—as Katie tells Lily during their “heart-to-heart”—will lead to a total collapse in cause and effect. It’s a monumental happening that both Katie and Forest have watched over and over. It’s not really a question of acceptance so much as an understanding that whatever takes place is going to unfold exactly as expected; they are essentially just watching themselves do it at this point.

Everything about Forest, and the show itself, has been obsessively hurtling toward total destruction. Whether or not some sort of apocalypse is on the horizon, there’s certainly going to be a collapse within time and space. The music at the forefront of the show has set the stage for it as much as anything else. The score, by Ben Salisbury, Geoff Barrow, and the group the Insects, continues their working relationship with Alex Garland: Salisbury and Barrow both worked on Ex Machina and Annihilation. Their music for Devs is truly their best yet, hauntingly capturing the sensation of a world collapsing in on itself. Their Hans Zimmer–esque droning synths, hair-raising buzzes, and dystopic samples capture profound grief and an unstable universe breaking apart. It’s a magnetic and discomforting atmosphere that elevates the show dramatically. The score, combined with the Kubrickian visual palette and the emotional vacancy of its lead performance, draws you in only to reveal an intense agony tearing the world at the seams.

There is an insatiable need in people to figure out the universe. It’s an admirable ambition that has led to incredible scientific advancement and discovery, but inevitably and without fail, humanity hits a wall. There will always be something unknowable and inscrutable, which is obviously maddening. But the unknowable also can be humbling, for knowing too much can be just as tormenting. Forest has used his power and wealth to achieve a utopian dream of reliving moments with his daughter again, both symbolically—in the form of a giant and disturbing shrine of her—and through visualizing the universe’s timeline. In creating this personal heaven and space to act out his grief, he killed and destroyed others. While Devs is a vision of malevolent tech genius and power turned up to a preposterous degree, the sentiment is relevant. Human behavior can go as far as technological advance can take it, for better or worse. Forest is one in a long line of sci-fi egomaniacs with unchecked power, but he’s also a chilling warning of the dangers posed by a certain kind of hubris that exists in our own world.

Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.