Devs Episodes 1 and 2 Review

Alex Garland challenges long-held beliefs and asks for just a little faith at the start of his sci-fi thriller miniseries.

Devs Episode 1
Karl Glusman as Segei. Photo: Miya Mizuno/FX

This Devs review contains spoilers.

Devs Episode 1 and Episode 2

The moment on which the first two episodes of Devs, Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller-slash-existential meditation ministries for FX on Hulu, hinges comes near the end of the pilot. Tech millionaire Forest (Nick Offerman) confronts Sergei (Karl Glusman), the newest (and soon to be shortest-lived) employee of Devs, the super-secret division of Forest’s quantum computing company Amaya. Even though Sergei has stolen Devs’ intensely sensitive code, Forest isn’t mad, he’s disappointed: “This is forgiveness. This is absolution. You could only have done what you did.

After this moment there will be Russian spies and exes and an honest-to-God vision of Jesus Christ. Before this moment there will be Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), Sergei’s software engineer girlfriend. But this exchange is key because it sums up what drives Devs, and Devs: Forest’s theory that the universe is deterministic, that every effect must follow a cause and that free will is an illusion. This is what brings Sergei to Devs, and what ends his career and his life one night under redwoods ringed by strange lights that seem to block out their roots and their tops, trapping viewers in this moment.

OK, that’s enough of that. Let’s project back to some of the causes that led up to this effect. Sergei and Lily work at Amaya, a Silicon Valley quantum computing company that is making strides in search engines, encryption, and artificial intelligence. But lest you think that Amaya is some next-level AI like Ava in Ex Machina, she’s not–the face of the company, yes, but more accurately the company seems to be some sort of monument to her. The face of Forest’s daughter, arrested in chubby-cheeked, curious youth, plays on loop on nearly every screen on Amaya’s massive campus. Not to mention the giant statue of her, arms extended, waiting to catch or present something, that stands over the courtyard. Her omnipresence seems to imply that the company’s motto, rather than “Your Quantum Future,” is “All This We Do For Her.” Do what, exactly?

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When Sergei and his team manage to create an algorithm that can predict the movement of an organism ten seconds into the future, he secures a spot at Devs. His work is as unconventional as his new colleagues: wunderkind Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) and smooth-talking Boomer Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson). But even though Forest’s second-in-command Katie (Alison Pill) tells Sergei to take his time in discovering Devs’ purpose, he seems to quickly stumble upon a revelation that has him vomiting and shaking… and capturing on his “James Bond wristwatch” to share with Russian intelligence.

Because what initially seems like xenophobic paranoia from head of security Kenton (Zach Grenier) turns out to be rooted in truth: Sergei is a spy, and he’s been made. Devs treats Sergei’s death the way that Forest and Katie do: as something unpleasant that nonetheless needed to happen–in this case, at the hands of the stoic Kenton. What’s interesting, however, is the lengths to which they go to to hide this from Lily: presenting her with CCTV footage of Sergei supposedly lighting himself on fire, and a charred corpse sprawled beneath the statue of Amaya.

But this brilliant cryptologist isn’t ready to just believe what her eyes see, and hacks into Sergei’s Sudoku app that hides a password-protected messaging service with his Russian handler. Of course, she can’t do this without bringing in her poor ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha), who she split with shortly after starting at Amaya. While Lily leans on him for support, pragmatically promising that they can sort through their baggage after she finds out what really happened to her partner, it is Lily alone who meets with handler Anton (Brian d’Arcy James) and ultimately refuses to go undercover to continue Sergei’s mission. Fortunately/unfortunately for her, Kenton gets to Anton before he can see her answer.

Already a quarter through its eight-episode miniseries, Devs throws out and rejects potential directions this story can go. This will not be a contemporary The Americans, nor will it be The Office replacing paper with an impossible machine. Though the device, protected through layers of Faraday machine and electromagnetic vacuum seal, is the heart of the story.

At this point we don’t know much about what the machine can do, but the one utterly shocking visual provided will feed many a guess. Under Katie’s watch, Stewart and Lyndon access a projection of sorts: Jesus Christ on the cross, blurry yet unmistakable. Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Alex Garland, you cheeky bastard, I never expected you to take on religion (and possibly history?) in so audacious a manner, but I have to know more. Is this a manifestation of cultural belief? An objective window into the past that unequivocally proves his existence? Can it be reached, or only observed? Katie and Forest seem to know more than their handsomely-compensated employees, but they won’t say.

There are actually two projections, but the other is less shocking: after the crucifix success, Forest watches an indistinct vision of Amaya, blowing on a dandelion like any of the company screensavers. But this is different; this is real, yet seemingly unreachable.

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Despite the others’ excitement, Forest is adamant: their experiment must entirely succeed, or not at all. He does not define success, but it would seem to imply some degree of impact on what they’re seeing–perhaps time travel, to a time before Amaya was “taken” from him? Yet even as the others watch him warily, Forest insists that he’s not holding on to the past: “rather, I’m letting it go.”

While we wait for answers, what is clear is that this series poses questions about worship. It’s in the intense, sometimes discordant, hymns and chanting that aurally bookend the episodes. It’s Amaya-as-martyr overseeing all. It’s the layers of gold surrounding the machine as if it were some holy relic locked away in a distant temple.

Yet the overall tone is still difficult to pin down. Episode 2’s cold open replaces the chanting monks with indie rock band Low crooning over an inscrutable montage of characters staring at something we can’t yet perceive… and Kenton brutally dispatching of the Russian threat. There’s a surprising amount of violence already, from that (admittedly impressive) fight to little moments of cruelty visited upon Pete (Jefferson Hall). The homeless guy who occupies the doorway of Lily’s apartment is harmless and even sweet, yet both Sergei and Jamie disdain wasting even a minute on him. Turns out they have something in common–aside, of course, from their love of Lily.

The series’ protagonist is her own human puzzle box. Amaya and Sergei seem to make up the majority of her life, yet she has lost one and is on her way to losing faith in the other. Sergei and Jamie both commend her brilliance and her willingness to do that which others wouldn’t even dare; and while meeting Anton undeniably took balls, there is still something off about the supposed heroine mostly just being told how amazing she is.

Lily has time to fulfill these prophecies about her, but for now the burning question is what Katie means when she tells Sergei of the machine that “if it’s true, then it changes absolutely nothing. In a way, that’s the point.” What do you think is the secret of Devs’ creation, and what might it mean for the world of this series?

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4 out of 5