Devs

Sunday November 1, 2020

I recently watched the TV-miniseries Devs. I thought it was bad in some interesting enough ways to review. Spoilers ahead, although I don’t really recommend that you watch it, overall.

Devs starts out pretty solidly — the first episode begins following Sergei, a AI researcher at a “Amaya”.A tech company that’s definitely mostly a stand-in for Google He’s asked to work on a secretive project called “Devs”. On his first day, he attempts to steal some source code, but is caught and murdered. At this point, the show starts following Lily, Sergei’s girlfriend, as she attempts to figure out what caused his disappearance.

At the end of the first episode, it seems like Alex Garland (the show’s writer and director) subverted the expectation that Sergei will be the main character, setting up an exiting murder-mystery sort of show with Lily as the main character. But while Sonoya Mizuno (who plays Lily) is billed as the lead actor, the story really isn’t about Lily. At best, it shows her stumbling through a series of predetermined events, seemingly not even trying to show her thought process or motivations, but making sure to have plenty of shots of her wandering around in her underwear.

By the third episode, we learn what Devs is: it’s a computer that can precisely simulate the entire universe, allowing them to see and hear any point in the past or future. This is an interesting premise for a show! Sam Hughes explores this idea in a short story, but there are lots more interesting question to ask and things to think about. The show, however, is not interested in asking interesting questions, instead spending its runtime vaguely gesturing towards deep-sounding ideas while saying precisely nothing at all.

Primarily, Devs explores two ideas: free will, and the possibility of a multiverse.

On the subject of free will, the show is quite clear, at least for the first 7 episodes: free will does not exist. All actions are predetermined. Devs can simulate the universe, and its predictions are always correct. You’d think that at this point Devs would explore the psychological implications of knowing that you don’t have free will, of seeing simulations of your own future actions and then acting to make them happen. Instead, it opts to have dozens of long scenes of characters pretentiously pontificating on the fact that there is no free will, and going no further than that.

Not content with just discussing free will, though, Devs also wants to talk about multiverses. By episode 5, the show is quite clear that multiverses are real. This is written into the script (when the Devs team switches the code to use the many-worlds interpretation, the predictions become clearer), as well as shown in several scenes that superimpose many possible realities. The fundamental conflict between determinism and the existence of multiple worlds then goes completely unaddressed for the rest of the show. There are lots of questions this brings up: If there are many worlds, then which one does the Devs system show? How did the system work before, if there were actually many worlds all along? But Devs isn’t interested in answering these questions, it’s just interested in making broad gestures towards the ideas over and over again.

While all of this is going on, Lily enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Jamie to help figure out what happened to Sergei. Alex Garland wants to make it really clear that Jamie is such a nice guy who treats Lily really well and is always chivalrous and kind and willing to help, but got dumped by Lily anyways without doing anything wrong.

In the final episode, everything comes together: It turns out that Lily is actually The Only Person Who Has Free Will — she’s shown a version of the simulation where she shoots Forest, the CEO of Amaya, but instead chooses not to shoot him. Despite this, Lily as a character doesn’t have any actual agency, since both Lily and Forest die in the simulation and in the version that actually happens, and Lily’s motivations are so opaque that we don’t have any idea why she chooses not to shoot him. The show says that she has free will, but the only choice that she makes makes no difference to the story.

After Lily and Forest die, the Devs team creates a simulation where they can live happily ever after — Forest is reunited with his dead daughter, and Lily gets back together with Jamie. It’s a happy ending, apparently, because the guy gets the girl in the end.I’m not exaggerating here, the final shot is literally Lily and Jamie hugging.

It’s a shame that Devs is so bad, since the ideas it talk about are interesting, and the cinematography and sound design are solid. If it was interested in actually asking questions and exploring ideas, it could have been quite good, but instead it opted to pretentiously gesture towards grand-sounding ideas, while carefully saying nothing at all.