Major spoilers ahead for the entirety of Devs, Alex Garland‘s ‘FX on Hulu’ sci-fi limited series.
We’ve been following along with Garland’s newest project Devs for its eight-episode run, tracking the techno-speak, quantum-computing conversations, and positing our own theories as to just WTF was going on. Now that the series finale is here, we finally have our answers and we totally, absolutely, 100% understand everything that happened … more or less. So we’re here to break it down for you if you still have difficulty sussing out the differences between de Broglie-Bohm pilot wave theory and Hugh Everett‘s deterministic “many worlds” hypothesis.
Honestly, Devs does a really good job of delivering just enough exposition to explain what’s going on without getting bogged down into the theoretical physics or brain-melting mathematic equations that form a core understanding of computer science, quantum mechanics, and the areas where they overlap. If you want to go down the rabbit hole of the tech put on display in Devs, you absolutely can. If you’d rather luxuriate in the very human stories that are at the heart of the plot, there is more than enough here to keep you interested. And if you have been looking for an all-new techno-religion to convert to, well, Garland’s take on deities, determinism, and the afterlife may just be for you!
Devs can briefly be summed up as follows: Forest (Nick Offerman), a tech company icon, has cornered the market on quantum computing but has also suffered a terrible personal tragedy. He uses every asset as his disposal to find a way to correct that wrong, to return to the life he prefers rather than remain on the path that has been set out before him. And he’s willing to do anything and everything he must in order to achieve that dream, even if it means taking that same dream from others.
Except, as Forest explains in the finale, he never really took anything from anyone; it was merely the way things were destined to play out. Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) has plenty of reason to take issue with that statement; not only was Forest complicit in the murder of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), he can now add Jamie’s (Jin Ha) murder to his list of sins. The entirety of Devs plays with the conflict between destiny and free will, whether we’re living life on rails and merely have the illusion of choice, or whether choice itself can actually change the future. Ultimately, it’s Lily’s choice to diverge from the path laid out before her (having seen it in the projection of her predicted behavior that showed her how things would play out) that threw a wrench into the machinery of the Devs computer; it simply couldn’t account for free will. Katie (Alison Pill) and Forest saw Lily’s predicted behavior crash the system time and time again, killing both Forest and Lily herself, but Lily’s decision to buck that trend caused uncertainty in the prediction, resulting in a display of only static.
Garland’s argument could have ended here, but instead, it gets muddled a little bit by what happens next: When Lily successfully goes off the rails, Stewart acts to get them back on track. Lily’s predicted behavior would have broken the facility’s vacuum seal and caused it to fail; her actual behavior would have prevented that. So it’s Stewart’s intentional deactivation of the system that forced a return to the predicted series of events. Even if the steps along the way were changed slightly, the end result is the same: Devs fails, the floating transport crashes, Forest and Lily die.
Except death in this world is not necessarily the end. Forest, now resurrected within the Devs system–revealed to actually be called Deus, substituting the Roman “v”, or “u”, for the anglicized “v” … yeah–has a final chat with Katie back in the visualization chamber. They reach an understanding, that the Devs / Deus system only works with Lyndon’s principle of “many worlds.” On Forest’s orders, Katie uses data compiled by Devs / Deus on both Forest and Lily to reinsert them into the simulation a few days earlier than that present moment. This world, one of many, is Forest’s version of paradise that allows him to maintain his messianic status of Amaya but, more importantly, rejoin his wife and daughter in a world where they yet live. He also drags Lily into his paradise which allows her to attempt to save Sergei from his fate but also gives her an opportunity to reconnect with Jamie before that tragedy inevitably plays out.
It’s a fitting end of the arc for Forest, having achieved what he’s wanted (and spent untold billions on) since the beginning, but it’s a strange ending for Lily: She has no agency in the decision to either die (that was Stewart’s doing, in a futile attempt to prevent the Devs / Deus system from continuing) or to live again (that was Forest’s “gift”, to bring her back to “life” in a simulated world populated by simulated beings, from microbes on up.) She seems to give up on Sergei far too quickly and too easily, and not necessarily in a romantic sense, but in the sense that she could have explicitly warned him against spying on Devs for the Russians. And while Lily rekindling her relationship with Jamie is a sweet moment in this story, having gone through so much with him in the days leading up to his untimely death, it’s a bit overshadowed by Lily’s sudden lack of spirit and fight having been essentially resurrected against her will.
Garland commented on that ending earlier this year in a chat with TV Guide, saying:
“Is it a happy ending? For me it is. It’s not just the free will aspect. It’s not that. It’s actually about love. In this very, very strange world, the underlying physics give rise to complicated philosophical problems. But we have to live in it, and there’s a huge dissonance often between the way we intuitively think the world runs or the way in which we are overtly told that the world runs, in comparison to how it really runs. And we bump up against these things a lot, and it’s difficult, and it’s disturbing, and it unsettles people…Through it all, what we end up with is love… It’s love of friendships and romance and parenthood, in the midst of all these incredibly complicated and sometimes disturbing things, that is what we end up being.”
So if you were expecting some hard sci-fi here, Devs comes up just a little bit short. It’s more style than substance, though there’s plenty of both to be found here. And for both a crash course in existential philosophy and a thumping soundtrack for your mental wanderings, you could do much worse than this show. In the last few episodes alone, Garland folds in Plato’s allegory of the cave, Steve Reich‘s 1966 phase-shifted piece “Come Out”, a partial recitation of Philip Larkin‘s 1980 poem “Aubade”, a performance of John Martyn‘s 1987 song “Sweet Little Mystery”, and a dramatic reading of William Butler Yeats‘ century-old poem, “The Second Coming.” Factor in the haunting vocalizations throughout the series and you’ve basically got yourself an honorary college credit if you research all of the many pop culture icons Garland includes.
After viewing the finale, I’d advise going back to watch the first episode again. (I noticed Lily wearing an infinity symbol on her necklace for the first time in the finale though it’s there from Episode 1.) You’ll notice that where Lily “wakes up” upon reinsertion into the timeline in the finale is exactly where we first meet her in the premiere; anytime a character “wakes up”, especially in a semi-lucid or sleepwalking state, by way of introduction, is a clue that something more is going on here. In the case of Lily and Devs / Deus, it’s possible she’s not just in an experiential loop, but likely an iteration of the Devs / Deus system itself. You could argue that Forest and Katie may have ran any number of iterations before finally landing Forest in the world that he wanted, or perhaps this really was the first time they’ve done so. But while Katie looks over Devs / Deus in the “real world”, securing support from Senator Laine to keep the program running (and essentially keep Forest “alive”), more iterations are playing out with the simulation’s version of the system itself. It’s the “Uh-oh” moment that Stewart and the others experienced in Episode 7. Is Lily’s current iteration–one that she and Forest have full knowledge of, including their shared past and awareness of another world that supersedes their own–the final one that she’s stuck in, or merely one of many that she can now travel to? What’s to stop her from going through the same motions again with the intent of inserting herself in another possible world constructed by Devs / Deus? Can she go double-Inception? Quadruple, even? And is the “real world” as we know it actually the real one or simply another simulation previously constructed by another version of the quantum computer?
It’s a head-scratcher, for sure, but that’s the fun of shows like these. The only limitation in stories like these is that the characters are but players on a stage; they’re restricted in their own free will by Garland and other writers, destined to speak the words and perform the actions that are written on the pages of their script. That’s something that always frustrates me when it comes to shows like Devs that tackle free will vs destiny; we are destined to follow the path that the director/showrunner/writer prefers, not reality, not what the characters might choose to do at any given moment. TV and film productions are, of course, 2D projections created by 3D humans; everything we watch is a simulation and dramatization of the real world. The real mind-bender isn’t when you begin to look deeper into that projection–you could go down and down and down into the rabbit hole of nested simulations, like the “box within a box” in Devs itself–but when you look up and out instead. It’s that moment when a character on the screen breaks the fourth wall, that feeling of being suddenly small, that little mind-tingle that tells you, “Oh, something is different here. Something is breaching the rules of the universe that we’ve established.” It’s one thing that philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists have searched for, and continue to search for, for millennia.
Call it the meaning of life, creation, the rules of existence, the quest for something “beyond”; it’s a unifying search that connects all humans, no matter what their belief system. Devs certainly attempts to explore these ideas, just in a modern tech-focused approach to an age-old idea; it’s an extension of the “Do we live in a simulation?” question that has delighted many modern philosophers, computer-savvy folks, and late-night dorm-dwellers. The execution of Garland’s ideas in Devs may not convert people to techno-religion, but the exploration of them is a fantastic mental exercise nonetheless.
But perhaps I should give Garland a chance to get a word in here, as provided by an interview with Engadget:
“Whether or not you or I have free will, both of us could identify lots of things that we care about. There are lots of things that we enjoy or don’t enjoy. Or things that we’re scared of, or we anticipate. And all of that remains. It’s not remotely affected by whether we’ve got free will or not. What might be affected is, I think, our capacity to be forgiving in some respects. And so, certain kinds of anti-social or criminal behavior, you would start to think about in terms of rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Because then, in a way, there’s no point punishing someone for something they didn’t decide to do.”
As Garland himself also summed up in his chat with TV Guide, “whether we know we have free will or not, whether it’s an illusion or not, we still care.”