Sci-fi writer/director Alex Garland has some strong feelings about modern science and technology. If you haven’t yet seen his visually stunning and ideologically complex films, Ex-Machina and Annihilation, let’s just say he holds some skepticism about things that evolve beyond human control. But Garland evidently also has some feelings about dealing with film studios and production companies (many of which may not fancy the unflinching outcomes of his stories). So for his latest idea, he turned to the mini-series masters at FX to make his TV debut: Devs, an eight-part miniseries that seems to take Garland’s emerging mythos and apply it to the tech/research industry itself.
A quantum leap
Devs boils down to the story of an individual against an organization. Software engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno, the actor behind Kyoko in Ex-Machina here again working with Garland) works at Amaya, an ambiguous but clearly industry-leading quantum-computing company. CEO Forest (Nick Offerman, Parks & Recreation) started Amaya with a clear vision unbeknownst to most employees after the death of his young daughter (hence the company name), and now he employs the best talent he can find no matter the cost or the unorthodoxy involved. Staff includes folks like former political-security-vet-turned-chief-of-security Kenton (Zach Grenier), devs both young and old like teen-ish Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) and maybe-old-boomer Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson), and Lily’s talented Russian boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman).
Things get moving when Sergei gets some big news. After demonstrating an algorithm able to predict the movements of a simple living organism several seconds into the future, he’s promoted immediately to Amaya’s devs team. Most Silicon Valley companies have a devs team, of course, but at Amaya this is the absolute cream of the crop—and the team remains a mystery to all unworthy of the office. Whereas most of Amaya sits in modern architecture among a beautiful Northern Californian forest, the devs’ facility is a decent distance from the rest of the campus. Its foreboding, highly secured design makes it look like a hybrid of Fort Knox and the Parthenon. (The production design of this facility is a highlight; it’s over-the-top, indulgent, and looks like a temple, which subtly emphasizes the importance of what’s happening and how team members should revere this project.) When Sergei gets invited, he immediately accepts—but he can’t tell anyone anything about the process or work, including Lily.
That lack of communication comes at an inopportune time: Sergei goes missing within the first 24 hours of joining Amaya’s devs team. When he doesn’t turn up, Amaya has an explanation and evidence ready to show the world. At the same time, the company offers Lily whatever support she’ll need. Lily, however, isn’t interested in what her employer has to say. Instead, she’d like the truth.
Series is still Dev-eloping
Based on its trailer or the general premise you can find through FX, you’d think Devs might unfold like a whodunnit. Yet Devs resembles other major Garland projects by letting the audience in on the reality early on. With that out of the way, you’re left following and wondering how each side of this individual-versus-organization conflict can either stay a step ahead or catch up.
The sides, however, have not been made equal. Being the individual here lessens Lily’s odds at the outset, but the series’ first episodes don’t yet seem to know what to do with her, which can be frustrating given she’s ostensibly the story’s hero. On one hand, she’s a capable security engineer at a gargantuan Silicon Valley firm, and her instincts prove to be right in some pretty big situations (she questions what happened to her boyfriend despite compelling-enough initial evidence; she knows to think of Amaya more like a mob and less like a tech company). Lily even proves savvy enough to pull one over on Amaya during episode three, perhaps the strongest hour of the first four. But those traits and actions work in contrast to how she abruptly shows back up in her ex-boyfriend’s life for help. Despite being in security research at this industry leader, she needs him because he’s a more capable hacker outside of professional realms. Or when push comes to shove, as Amaya demonstrates its extensive reach and capabilities to contain something sinister, Lily ultimately doesn’t follow her own instincts—seemingly to her detriment. But we’ll see where the series’ second half takes things.
As for the Amaya corporation, Garland does well to sell audiences on this being an Ama-oogle-pple behemoth with unlimited resources and mind-warping capabilities. Devs will probably end up as the TV drama that uses the word “qubit” the most, but all you really need to know is that Amaya 1) specializes in quantum computing and 2) has a CEO in Forest who deeply believes that life is deterministic. As Garland himself hinted at New York Comic Con last fall, “If you are at a computer powerful enough, you could use determinism to predict the future and understand the past,” he said. “And if you unravel everything about you, about the specifics of why you prefer a cup of coffee to tea… then five seconds before you said you’d like to have a cup of coffee, one would be able to predict you’d ask for it.” Forest comes off as a nebulous individual early on; while his reasons for creating Amaya and its technology become clear, his endgame is still a mystery. But given the attention his company has been getting from the government, the strict confidentiality employees willingly stick to, and the small early demos depicted, Amaya is clearly not to be trifled with.
Adding to the company’s strength may be one of my favorite TV villains in recent memory: Kenton, Amaya’s head of security. As played by Zach Grenier, he’s strong, silent, and capable—extreme power and anger and frustration are always lurking just beneath his steely demeanor. Through the first four installments, Kenton repeatedly showcases a workman-like approach to what boils down to fixer work, and Grenier’s portrayal really sells it (because, on paper, Kenton continues to have to react, instead of being proactive, throughout the early season). If Gus Fring and Mike Erhmantraut are your type of foils, Kenton will power you through a lot of Devs. He’s more sinister, though.
Listing image by Raymond Liu/FX