Even if you didn’t know this was the brainchild of a certain Alex Garland, known for ”Ex Machina” and ”Annihilation” just to name a few things, you might have guessed it. On the other hand; I will never know if I had, because that very fact was one of the things that piqued my interest to begin with. Apparently the guy is somewhat fascinated by the Brave New Digital World in general and Artificial Intelligence in particular.
– So many decisions are made about our future, by people who know so little about our past, complains a character involved in extremely advanced tech development.
But who can you trust in this day and age, if not the most ground-breaking, pioneering IT companies around? The ones who keep radically changing our entire worldview and our potential as a species? What could possibly go wrong?
The techno-conglomerate around which everything revolves in ”Devs” certainly has power and influence. Big buildings, impressive architecture surrounded by lush environment while harbouring a few secrets. One employee, recently recruited to the most secretive, prestigious department of all, suddenly dies. Suicide, according to the company itself, a version supported by a disturbing video which would convince most people. One notable exception being the dead guy’s girlfriend who also happens to be employed by them. Industrial espionage appears to be part of the story, but as the series moves along it becomes pretty clear that’s not the real point, rather a narrative device to get the plot going.
So, what is ”Devs” about, really? This is where it gets interesting for real. You have a traumatized but still determined young woman seeking the truth about a gruesome death, her ex-boyfriend reluctantly being brought in to help her in her quest; a likewise emotionally damaged tech visionary running experiments concerning the past, using advanced algorithms in his own quest to determine the future, and, well… There are other things going on here, but what makes this show special is the philosophical-existential inquiry. The plotting may be somewhat scattered and some details are simply there to make things happen, quite obviously so. But Garland and his team are on their own quest. The search for the truth about free will, maybe?
Remember the Tree of Knowledge, as described in The Book of Genesis: How much knowledge is too much? Is it a good idea to accomplish everything we can accomplish? Would it actually be possible in the near future to predict all human behaviour based on what happened before, as registered by powerful computers examining every pattern in history since the dawn of time? Then again, the idea of a Multiverse, where there might be different potential scenarios playing out simultaneously. There are competing views displayed here, regarding the idea of one given direction as opposed to multiple, parallel outcomes depending on where a certain simulation takes you. If I got this right. And I can’t say I’m 100 percent certain of anything even after watching the complete miniseries.
”Devs” in other words, deals openly and unashamedly with the why of everything. As a viewer though, of course you will notice how the showrunners make choices in terms of visual design and – not to be neglected – sound. Sometimes it’s all stunningly beautiful and the next moment permeated by everyday greyness, but there is a clear visual strategy. Garland and his accomplices are also fond of starting out and finishing episodes accompanied by minimalist yet suggestive and intriguing pieces of music, emphasizing dissonant harmonies and reinforcing that sense of uncertainty; the paradoxical qualities of a show that manages to be frightening, inspiring, surprising and soothing in almost equal measure. You could argue it’s moving at a snail’s pace at times before exploding and turning things we’ve seen so far on its head. It illustrates breathtaking concepts followed by mundane observations.
If someone tells you what you are going to do, how will it affect what you actually do? The question of free will and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy comes into play. It becomes increasingly obvious that the show asks you to deal with concepts like determinism and destiny. If there really is a choice or everything you do in life is the inevitable result of events and actions that took place before. When someone tells our heroine ’the sense that you were participating in life was only ever an illusion’ this might be where the plot was leading us all along. Or maybe there are conflicting worldviews here: one or the other could be confirmed, while another is discarded. Unless there are options and we are given the choice of deciding to which one we prefer to subscribe. Arguably, not all of the problems presented are resolved, simply because it’s kind of impossible. But ”Devs” does manage to maintain suspense and unpredictability all the way into the closing moments. Amen.