New limited series Devs, which premiered on March 5 as the first FX on Hulu exclusive, is a mix of many elements. On the surface, it is a science fiction drama about a near-future Silicon Valley firm that is developing some sort of top-secret technology. But it’s also a mystery that features dazzling visuals and is, at times, downright frightening. (For example, the giant girl statue that towers over the company gives me a serious case of the creeps.)
Parts of the two-part Devs premiere, directed and written by sci-fi powerhouse Alex Garland, reminded me of three other dramas that are favorites of mine: Mr. Robot (because of the hacking and mystery), Legion (for the incredible visuals and underlying creepiness), and even The Americans (there are Russian spies!).
I was quickly drawn in from the beginning of Episode 1 of Devs, and by the end of Episode 2, I was hooked.
Early on, we meet the couple Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman), who live together and work for the tech company Amaya. Working in the AI department, Sergei impresses the CEO of Amaya, Forest (brilliantly portrayed by Nick Offerman), and is asked to join the enigmatic “Devs” department.
We haven’t definitively learned in the first two episodes what Devs is or does. Forest said many of the Devs employees don’t even know what Devs does. The Devs building entrance is surrounded by tall golden posts. The building is slick, with odd angles and what looks like a layer of water on its roof, smooth as glass.
Forest describes to Sergei some of the basics: “A lead Faraday shield. A 13-yard-thick concrete shell. Then a gold mesh. Then an 8-yard vacuum seal, totally unbroken. Then the labs. And in the core, the machine.”
The inside of Devs is a pulsing heart of golden lights. A floating portable bridge brings passengers across the vacuum seal and electromagnetic fields. The scenes inside the Devs building were my favorite portions of the show thus far. The mood inside the golden cube—seriously aided by the music score—is tension-filled, but it’s also beautiful and wondrous. Sergei appears to feel similarly.
After seating Sergei at his workstation and activating his monitor, Forest tells him to just sit there and read the code on the screen. “Don’t worry you’re going to figure it out. I know you are,” Forest says. I feel like Forest may have been talking to the audience here as well.
We aren’t told or shown what exactly Sergei learns from the code. Whatever it is, it has a powerful effect on him as he races to the bathroom and becomes violently ill.
“This changes everything,” Sergei tells fellow Devs team member Katie (Alison Pill) after composing himself.
“No,” she says. “If it’s true it changes absolutely nothing. In a way, that’s the point.”
I have a feeling we in the audience will be kept mostly in the dark about what exactly Devs is or does. We’ll see if it’s taken to Mr. Robot-Whiterose’s-project levels of mystery.
After pointing his “James Bond wrist watch” at the code for a while, Sergei frantically exits the Devs building. He hurries through dark woods until Forest appears (wait for it…) among the trees, illuminated by these mesmerizing hula-hoop-looking lights.
“The universe is deterministic,” Forest says. He goes on to say that it is godless and neutral. He describes our lives following invisible tram lines, undeviating. Free will is an illusion. Forest accuses Sergei of stealing code from him, betraying him. We may think Sergei made this decision of betrayal. But Forest believes these “decisions” are basically predetermined.
Sergei bolts but Amaya super employee Kenton (Zach Grenier) wrestles him to the ground and then suffocates him with a plastic bag. We have to assume Sergei is killed here. However…
Lily, understandably worried when Sergei does not return home, goes to see Kenton in his Amaya office. Kenton shows her a video of Sergei wandering off the Amaya campus the previous night around 10 pm, walking like a zombie. His actions make little sense to Lily.
Episode 1 ends with a fire alarm going off near the giant Amaya statue. Lily is summoned to the offices, and is shown another video. This time, she sees Sergei dump gasoline over his head and then light himself on fire. To confirm what she saw, she races to the statue and sees a body burnt to a crisp.
The way I see it, there are three possibilities here: One, the video was fake, doctored somehow to show Sergei committing those acts. Second, the figure in the videos could have been a clone, perhaps created in the Devs building. The third explanation is that Sergei wasn’t killed by Kenton, and he instead removed the bag from Sergei’s face before he expired. And then the person in the video was in fact Sergei. This is the least likely explanation, in my mind.
I think, based on some of the things we see in the Devs building, that Forest was able to doctor the video footage to show a fake version of Sergei. This is something I truly worry about in the real world’s very near future—deepfake videos of people saying and doing things that aren’t real. These videos will cloud reality and likely make us question everything.
Russian Spies…or Something
When Sergei first goes missing, Lily pulls out a phone from her apartment, performs a factory reset, and then downloads Sergei’s data onto the phone. At first I thought this was maybe Sergei’s phone, but that wouldn’t make sense—he would have had his phone on him when he was murdered. I’m still not exactly clear on whose phone this was; Lily seemed to pull it out from a random cabinet. Lily is an encryptor, after all, so maybe she has a spare phone or two lying around.
While poking around the apps on the phone, Lily comes across a Sudoku app, which she finds puzzling because apparently Sergei hated Sudoku. The app is password-protected, with three failed attempts threatening to wipe the phone data completely. To circumvent this inconvenience, Lily enlists her ex-boyfriend (awkward) to help crack the password. Jamie (Jin Ha) eventually agrees, once he hears about Sergei’s death, and he discovers the Sudoku app is actually a Russian messaging app.
Scrolling through the messages, Lily uncovers the apparent truth that Sergei was indeed working for someone in the Russian government. Nothing is what it initially appears to be on Devs, it seems.
Lily can’t help herself from using the app to contact Sergei’s handler. Anton (if that is his real name) assures Lily that even though Sergei happened to work for Russian intelligence officials, he loved Lily. For real, he’s not lying! Two episodes into Devs, I’m already finding myself distrusting pretty much every character. Anton is sure that Sergei was murdered, and he now wants Lily to continue the job and infiltrate Devs.
Kenton has been eavesdropping on the conversation, however, and later follows Anton into a parking garage. While the two battled, I found myself wondering who I should be rooting for: the nefarious tech company employee who murdered Sergei…or the Russian spy. The scene effectively remained unpredictable until ending with Kenton brutally snapping Anton’s neck underneath a parked car’s tire. I quickly realized the guy I was rooting for came out victorious.
We know that Forest was aware of Sergei’s intentions before he invited him to Devs. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s the case.) The question is why. Forest doesn’t appear to benefit in a specific way from having Sergei pop in to the Devs offices for a day, before suffocating him with a plastic bag. Perhaps it’s all a plot to get closer to Lily? Forest does appear to display a connection to Lily, knowing that they’ve both suffered loss.
What Is Devs?
Other than Sergei’s scenes within Devs, the only other peek behind the curtain we get is when Katie, Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) sit in a side room with a large screen. The screen appears to be random static, hyper specs of light bouncing off each other.
As the characters rib each other, finally Katie announces something is forming. Projected on the screen appears to be an image of Jesus Christ on a cross. In a later post-mortem meeting, Stewart exclaims they produced a 2,000-year backward projection, and he’s very excited about it. But Forest and Katie tamp down the excitement, stating that it was a fuzzy projection that was unreliable. They did not achieve total accuracy.
Forest asks the others to leave the room and a new projection appears on the screen. This appears to be a young girl blowing bubbles, most likely Forest’s daughter, who he has lost (under which circumstances we’re not sure of yet).
So is the purpose of Devs to create real projections of events that occurred in the past? I think that’s possible, although it would seem like there has to be much more to it. Maybe this is only one segment of what Devs does. This is only one side room within the cube, after all. It looks like there are many other areas of the lab.
Whatever is behind Devs, I have a feeling it has something to do with religion. Aside from the obvious projection of Jesus Christ, religion popped up a few other times throughout the first two episodes. During Sergei’s security interview before getting into Devs, Kenton asked if he was religious. (He said no, not at all.)
During Forest’s final confrontation with Sergei before he is killed, Forest speaks of “forgiveness” and “absolution.”
And then after Sergei’s murder, Forest and Katie have a conversation outside of the Devs building, in which Katie says, “Human beings are hard-wired magical thinkers.” She says that you could have the most rational person in the world, but then if their kid gets hurt they’ll start praying.
We know that Forest believes in the universe being deterministic, that natural occurrences are determined by preceding events. He thinks free will is an illusion. Is Devs trying to prove or disprove the existence of God, perhaps? Forest did state that the universe is godless. Maybe he just wants to know for sure.
The Devs premiere was exhilarating. It presented mysteries, action, and spectacular visuals. It also had a killer soundtrack. Of the many new shows I’ve checked out in the past year, I think Devs has the opportunity to be something truly special. I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey, as new episodes will be up on FX on Hulu every Thursday for the next six weeks.