by Andrew Wyatt on May 6, 2020

Note: This post contains spoilers for the first episode of Devs.

Although it is not unusual for directors to make the jump from feature films to episodic television – and vice versa – it is not often the case that cinematic auteurs have the opportunity to craft whole shows in accordance with their distinctive visions. Over the past decade, only a handful of filmmakers have lent their authorial stamp to an entire season or miniseries. David Lynch and Mark Frost were famously allowed total creative control over Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), Cary Fukunaga occupied the director’s chair for the entirety of Maniac (2018) and the first season of True Detective (2014), and Jane Campion co-wrote or directed (or both) every episode of Top of the Lake (2013-17).

Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) is the sort of director who seems like a natural fit for this relatively exclusive club. The filmmaker’s multimedia success – first as a wunderkind Gen X novelist, then a sought-after screenwriter, then a sci-fi feature auteur in his own right – would seem to position him well for such a transition. Moreover, his two directorial efforts to date reflect a moody, cerebral, and stylized approach to the genre that dovetails neatly with recent science-fiction shows such as Dark, Legion, Undone, and Watchmen. If one were to name the contemporary sci-fi filmmakers who could do memorable things with the episodic television format, Garland would undoubtedly be high on that list.

Fortunately, Devs – Garland’s new eight-episode limited series on Hulu – turns out to be exactly the sort of vivid, mind-bending science-fiction television that one would expect from the filmmaker. Like all of Garland’s best work, it feels at once aesthetically enthralling and philosophically dense. On the one hand, Devs exhibits a bold, heady style that is somewhat unexpected for a show about quantum computing and corporate skullduggery in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, the show’s thematic ambitions are just as thrilling as its look and feel. Through Devs, Garland engages in an ambitious – and yet easily digestible – thought experiment about the problems of certainty and causation, problems that continue to challenge philosophers to this day.

Devs follows Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), an encryption engineer at the Silicon Valley tech giant Amaya. Lily’s live-in boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman), is also employed at Amaya and has recently been promoted to the team working on a shadowy quantum-computing project known as Devs. Unfortunately, Sergei never returns from his first day in his new position. After learning exactly what Devs is up to in its shielded, vacuum-sealed laboratory, he surreptitiously captures some images of the team’s code – or so he believes. For this betrayal, Sergei is murdered on his way out the door by Amaya’s CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman), and the company’s head of security, Kenton (Zach Grenier). A high-tech coverup is swiftly implemented, and a distraught Lily is shown doctored surveillance footage of Sergei burning himself alive on the Amaya campus during the night.

Despite this video evidence, Lily is not convinced that Sergei’s death was a suicide, so she enlists her lovelorn hacker ex-boyfriend, Jamie (Jin Ha), to help her unearth the truth. Sergei, it turns out, was not completely honest with Lily about his background, and soon enough she and Jamie are wading into a world of Russian-backed industrial espionage. Meanwhile, the engineers at Devs achieve a series of stunning breakthroughs, although the team is sharply divided on the utility and implications of these advances. Forest is a twinkle-eyed dreamer with a god complex that makes him somewhat unapproachable, obliging chief designer Katie (Alison Pill) to serve as the team’s hard-nosed manager and big-picture theoretician. They alone seem to understand the endgame of the Devs project, and as Lily’s vendetta against the company unfolds, they alone seem to appreciate that she will have a critical role to play.

The most immediately striking thing about Devs is that it looks and sounds like no other show on television right now, recalling other idiosyncratic series such as Brian Fuller’s deliciously deranged Hannibal (2013-15) and Noah Hawley’s psychedelic X-Men spinoff, Legion (2017-19). Garland and series cinematographer Rob Hardy – who lensed both of the director’s features – render the Bay Area as a hazy otherworld. Familiar sights such as the Golden Gate, the Victorian row houses, and the towering redwoods become freshly uncanny, suffused with amber light and clinging fog. The Amaya campus, meanwhile, embodies the Silicon Valley tech headquarters at its reductio ad absurdum extreme. It’s a glass-walled theme park of severe modern lines, chic furniture, and oppressively “disruptive” spaces, all overseen by a towering (and vaguely creepy) statue of the company’s namesake, Forest’s late daughter, Amaya.

In short, Devs’ setting manages to feel both grounded and alien, like a parallel-universe version of San Francisco. The landmarks, the panhandlers, and the nods to the city’s Aquarian past are all there – “Oh I Wept,” the 1970 track from British blues-rock band Free, is memorably featured on the soundtrack – but something feels unaccountably off. Garland often intersperses the show’s action with establishing shots of the city that linger ominously as the ambient score swells and recedes, as though an inhuman intelligence were coldly regarding our species’ small-minded works. (Shades of Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Bay Area version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers there.) Indeed, the dreamy prog-rock- score – which draws inspiration from iconic film soundtracks such as Thief (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) – goes a long way to heightening the series’ dissociative sensibility.

It’s a fitting mood for a show that’s absorbed with the question of free will, evoking as it does the queasy, out-of-body sensation of paradigmatic upheaval. Granted, the speculative technology showcased in Devs is not remotely realistic, as it is evidently both implausible and unrelated to real-world quantum computing. However, Garland deftly and resonantly employs the show’s imaginative leaps to engage with the concept of hard determinism: the view that the universe is bound by causality and that free will is therefore impossible. It’s a challenging idea that humans tend to recoil from instinctively, not to mention a notion that may or may not be supported by theoretical physics, depending on which interpretation of quantum mechanics is the correct one. However, Devs accepts hard determinism as a given and then uses it to probe incisively at the resulting implications for human thought, beliefs, and behavior. What does it mean for our species if there is no free will, if every subatomic interaction since the Big Bang has been ordained by a prior interaction?

It’s dizzying stuff, but what separates Devs from other sci-fi media with comparable thematic ambitions – looking at you, Westworld – is the vibrant yet straightforward way its ideas are expressed through plot. The series’ fundamental conflicts might be rooted in philosophical claims and quantum-mechanical models, but it still feels like a character-driven, slow-boil paranoid thriller at bottom. This is one of Garland’s key strengths as a storyteller: his evasion of the disconnection that can sometimes afflict science-fiction tales that attempt to indulge in dorm-room philosophizing and pop spectacle simultaneously. The Matrix series, for all its successes, never perfectly blended its cyberpunk conception of the Cartesian demon with its over-cranked martial-arts action, for example.

As Lily navigates the maze of deceit that surrounds the Devs project – sometimes brilliantly outwitting Forest and his minions, and sometimes being outwitted herself, with terrifying consequences – she draws closer to an inevitable confrontation with the real-world fallout from the system’s trillion-fold calculations. There is no airy abstraction to the series’ clashes: Lily’s journey eventually becomes a bloody, agonizing crawl of defiance, an indignant stand against the cool certainty of self-appointed masters of the universe like Forest. (If Devs has a secondary preoccupation, it is undoubtedly the frightening ego and power of tech billionaires.)

Although Devs' most conspicuous components are Garland’s superb writing and direction and the series’ eerie production design, the performances are perhaps its secret weapon. Mizuno is the show’s weakest link in terms of showy acting chops, but she capably imbues Lily with reserves of confusion, sadness, and anger beneath the poker face she’s often obliged to wear. Offerman does some of his career-best work playing against type as a soft-spoken, flannel-wearing antagonist who fancies himself a world-straddling visionary but is hopelessly mired in the past. Ha provides a crucial dose of human ache and deadpan humor that offsets the show’s often chilly pall. The supporting players are likewise excellent, from Grenier’s superbly menacing ex-intelligence leg-breaker to Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Speaney as a pair of eccentric Devs engineers with an unlikely friendship.

The series MVP, however, is clearly Pill, who in Katie creates a character who is at once aloof, arrogant, impassioned, and tender. It’s in the series’ pivotal sixth episode that Pill gets her Emmy-nomination scene, nimbly guiding Lily (and the viewer) through the show’s Big Ideas with spooky calmness and a vital note of melancholy. It’s one of the best marriages of actor and writing in Garland’s filmography to date, and the moment when Devs goes from good television to a well-deserved entry in the sci-fi canon of the 21st century.

Rating: A-

Further Viewing: Until the End of the World (1991), 12 Monkeys (1995), Pi (1998), Donnie Darko (2001), Minority Report (2002), Primer (2004), A Scanner Darkly (2006), Timecrimes (2007), Mister Nobody (2009), Silicon Valley (2014-19), Mr. Robot (2015-19).

Devs is now available to stream from Hulu and to purchase from other major online platforms.