Spoilers ahead through Episode 5
Devs, the new sci-fi series from up-and-coming paragon on the genre on the big and small screen Alex Garland, is poised to be the next big water-cooler drama in an era of post-water-cooler television. Episodes of the heady show are available to stream now thanks to the newly launched “FX on Hulu” streaming channel, but we’ve already got a ton of questions that we hope Devs will answer. Stay tuned to this post because we’ll be updating it with answers, more questions, and a validity check on our theories along the way.
Devs follows the story of a young software engineer, Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), who investigates the secretive development division of her employer which she believes is behind the murder of her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman). Devs also stars Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny and Alison Pill. The new limited series, produced by FX Productions, will attempt to do all this in just eight episodes. But first …
What Exactly Is the Devs Program?
Our entry point into the world of Devs is Sergei, a gifted programmer who finds himself in way over his head as he gains access to the highly secure and secretive Devs program within the company he works for, Amaya. Sergei’s exemplary work had to do with mapping the behavior of a simple nematode into a computer program, to the point that the A.I. was able to predict the creature’s behavior to nearly 100% … without any direct connections between the two to give feedback. The impressive feat was only hampered by the limitation of a 30-second predictive window, but that was good enough for Forest to invite Sergei into Devs.
However, that wasn’t good enough for security chief, Kenton (Grenier). His xenophobic paranoia proved to be correct since Sergei turned out to be a Russian spy tasked with recording whatever was going on in the Devs program. And what exactly that was, well, we still don’t know, but Sergei’s watch and phone captured enough footage of the code streaming across the Devs’ monitors to not only entice the Russians but to sign Sergei’s death warrant. It’s not long at all before Sergei is suffocated to death on the company’s campus by Kenton, with Forest and Katie (Pill) complicit in the murder. But why?
While waiting for Sergei to come home, Lily can be seen reading a copy of D.F. Jones‘ 1966 sci-fi novel “Colossus.” And that should be a big, big clue for just what’s going on beneath the surface here. The novel tells of the titular super-computer that is given oversight and control of the American nuclear missile armament. Colossus soon links up with a similar super-computer in the Soviet Union, but it’s using increasingly devious manipulations of human behavior to do so. In the end, Colossus and the super-computers rein supreme even as the humans attempt to subvert them in a multi-year plan, but it seems certain that the computers will out-last them. In the end, the computer’s final message suggests the futility of humankind’s efforts from here on out: “In time you will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.” Is the point of the Devs program actually a cold war arms race of sorts between humans and super-advanced A.I.? The Devs facility itself resembles a super-sized version of a computer processing unit, so the visuals and the narrative clues certainly point towards this possibility.
My colleague Adam Chitwood has his own theory on this one; it is as follows:
Another possible theory is that the Devs program has discovered that life on Earth is actually a simulation. When Sergei first reads the code, he is tremendously upset. Like, try-to-rip-your-eyes-out-of-your-skull-and-vomit upset. After Forest has Sergei killed, there’s a scene in which he and Katie are sitting outside Devs having a conversation. At first it seems like they’re just upset about having to kill Sergei, but the conversation is laced with something deeper. Even more troubling.
“What are we supposed to do? Unravel a lifetime of moral experience? Unlearn what has always seemed true?” Katie says to Forest. “These things, they run deep. It’s like whatever we know, the things we feel are still locked inside us.” She goes on to draw a parallel to an atheist whose child gets hurt and starts praying, which we learn later relates to Forest having lost his daughter. But could she be talking about how they’re finding it difficult to unlearn this “lifetime of moral experience” now that they know nothing matters because they’re in a simulation? Did they really kill Sergei if Sergei didn’t actually exist to begin with?
This thread continues when Forest is talking to Kenton about how he doesn’t care about money or the environment anymore. Again, if he knows they’re in a simulation, that would explain why these things don’t matter to him right now.
As this theory relates to the end of Episode 2, the “backward projection” project, are they trying to basically pull up a screengrab from an earlier experience from the simulation? We see them conjure a fuzzy image of Jesus of Nazareth being crucified. What if this isn’t a painting or a time travel device? What if it’s literally like the “highlights” section on a video game? – Adam Chitwood
But there’s another possibility. At one point, before Sergei’s demise, Forest asks him why he thinks his predictive program falls apart after 30 seconds. Sergei supposes that perhaps the calculations are just too great, that the numbers “literally go insane” after a certain point; Forest is on board with this theory. When Sergei suggests a separate hypothesis, that this might be a multi-verse problem in which the predicted behavior and the observed behavior actually line up perfectly, just not in this universe, Forest is more skeptical. However, this might be a misdirection. Garland talked about just what scientific concepts interested him in developing the Devs story:
In this case, it was about determinism, but it was specifically about quantum physics. It was about some elements and some implications of quantum physics, to do with interpretations of some strange things, like particles having super positions and one of those interpretations relating to many worlds. To me, those ideas are not dry scientific ideas. They’re rather poetic, philosophical ideas. As soon as you can get that, then suddenly, the story feels naturally a part of it.
So the whole thing might just be about quantum states after all. Forest comes clean to a senator in the third episode, saying they’re using their quantum system to develop a prediction algorithm of sorts, predicting the weather “and things like that.” Episode 4 confirms that they are indeed “watching the future”, with Forest questioning their meddling with it and Katie asserting that “the future is fixed”, at least as much as the past is.
Forest: Everything we do is predicated on the idea that we live in a physical universe, not a magical universe.
Katie: Are you doubting that?
Forest: Not the physical universe. But I am scared we might be magicians.
Katie also asserts that “In 48 hours, Lily will die. There’s no magic. Effectively, it’s already happened.” So … yikes for Lily!
Later, Lyndon discovers something in the code that appears to bring her great joy, which she first shares with Stewart and then the whole team.
Lyndon: We’re a prediction system based on ultra massive data. The data goes to subatomic level, so we’re fully in the the world of quantum mechanics, using a fully deterministic interpretation of which we use a version of de Broglie-Bohm, Pilot Wave. And it works … kind of.
When the team glimpsed Christ on the cross, it was through a static of variances. (And “the boss” doesn’t like variances; we’re assuming Forest is still “the boss.”) And therein lies the problem: A binary problem–total failure or total success–in a quantum system. Lyndon shares their work on sound waves; “inelegant, ugly, dropout” sounds which get exponentially worse the further back in time they go. Until she ditches the variables and hears, clearly for the first time, a projection of ancient Aramaic language being spoken 2,000 years ago: “It’s Jesus talking.” The success came by swapping in Hugh Everett‘s deterministic “many worlds” hypothesis for de Broglie-Bohm’s also-deterministic “guiding equation.” But Forest isn’t happy with the “everything that can happen will happen” idea. Essentially, when everything is possible, whatever results they get have no meaning, because they can come from one of any of the infinite universes. Forest fires Lyndon for undermining “everything he’s trying to do”; they get a nice $10 million severance pay, at least.
As we see in the beginning of Episode 5, Devs is either playing with multiple universes / realities or an eyepiece that can look across time and see multiple time periods playing out simultaneously. It’s hard to tell which angle of the story we’re looking at as Katie watches Lily’s relationship with both Sergei and Jamie: Is it a playback of the reel of Lily’s romances as they play out in order, or a kaleidoscopic approach of Lily’s life in different worlds? Episode 5 also revisits Katie’s college years in which she takes a professor (Liz Carr) to task for introducing undergrads to various interpretations of the double-slit experiment, including Roger Penrose‘s threshold-based approach, and von Neumann–Wigner’s interpretation that factors in human observers and their “consciousness”, which Katie calls “dualist bullshit” before defending Everett’s theory. As a reminder, that suggests that all possible realities can exist, infinite realities; that point is driven home visually as multiple Katies take up multiple positions in multiple realities as she leaves the lecture. Forest only runs after one of them, and that’s the Katie to whom he offers a life-changing job…
We also see the intermediate stage of the Devs device as it virtually reconstructs sugar cubes, dead mice, clocks, bird skulls, and conch shells perfectly, down to the molecular level at least. (It’s all a bit nonsensical, but it’s very stylishly done.) The team continues extrapolating outwards from the dead mouse until the project includes a recreation of the machine itself, of Forest watching through the window, and of the team beyond them; this is the beginning of the machine’s world, or even universe projection, and the first balm for Forest’s pain at the loss of his daughter. And we also see, in heartbreaking fashion, exactly how that happened… but also how it didn’t happen, how there’s at least one other reality in which Forest picks his daughter up from the backseat of his wife’s car and carries on like normal, or the many and varied ways that this scene could have played out.
Clearly there’s more going on than meets the eye here. And yet, the question remains …
Who’s Really in Charge of Amaya?
“The problem with the people who run tech companies … they become fanatics … and end up thinking they’re messiahs.” ~ Lily
Forest is the CEO of Amaya and the lead for the Devs program, but he often feels as if he’s resigned to being led along his own “invisible tram line” rather than fighting against it. For all his quirky charm, he seems very human, vulnerably so. He’s got a visual style that shares much more in common with Pete, the homeless man who lives on Lily and Sergei’s apartment steps, than any of his employees or colleagues. He drives an outdated, ecologically insulting car; he lives in a rather pedestrian home that belies just how much he’s worth; and he holds onto his traumatic past despite his protests to the contrary. He seems constantly unsure of himself, of what to do next, of what to say, for fear of giving away too much or revealing that, perhaps, he doesn’t really know what’s going on himself.
There’s a scene between Forest and Katie, after the murder of Sergei, in which he tells her that she’s not just smarter than he is, she’s wiser, too. (It may be worth mentioning that Katie is often reflected in one of the gold columns in this scene while Forest is seen in the “real” world.) Later, security chief Kenton checks in on Forest and updates him on the cover-up of Sergei’s murder. Kenton shows concern for his own health as he smokes a cigarette and says he should quit, while also showing concern for Forest and his mental state. Forest, however, seems cynically apathetic about both of these things, saying that they simply aren’t worthy of concern anymore. That lends some more credence to Adam’s theory. These interactions also paint Forest as an emotional, somewhat irrational, and irreducible man, while Katie and Kenton are, by comparison, rather cold, distant, and calculating, as if they’re trying to understand Forest’s motivations … or control them. For what purpose? Forest’s own well-being or the success of the Devs program, whatever that may be?
In the backward projections, we get glimpses of Forest’s daughter Amaya blowing bubbles, the crucifixion of Jesus, the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake, a primitive person leaving a handprint on a cave wall, a shot of the pyramids under construction, a medieval army on the march, a sexual dalliance between Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and even Lily’s latest act of rebellion against those who are watching her. But what does it all mean? And what’s the purpose of it all?
In Episode 4, Katie takes Forest to task for “breaking the rule” and watching the future on the big screen. However, Forest also fires Lyndon after what feels like a big break in the research, but which he sees as them undermining his actual research. Katie tries to stop him from firing “her most talented engineer” but Forest snaps at her; is this an act of human defiance against an oppressive force, an attempt to regain control, or just another sign of Forest’s progressive breakdown? Regardless, it seems that Forest is searching for one specific answer, not all possible answers. Forest says, “If it’s not our Jesus, it’s not my Amaya. And does every hair on her head matter? Yes, it does.” But Katie takes Lyndon’s solution and applies it to light waves, giving Forest a clear, colorful picture of his daughter blowing bubbles in her bedroom. It’s enough to reduce him to tears
Meanwhile, Kenton goes looking for Lily and has a curious conversation with Pete, the homeless guy who bums a smoke from him. Their exchange was as follows:
Pete: I’m not afraid of you, man.
Kenton: Yeah, I can see that. Just trying to figure out why.
Maybe Pete sees something we don’t, is clued into something we aren’t, or he’s just far enough out of the system to know when it’s not acting in his friends’ best interests. He’s probably not wrong since the psychiatrist who interviews Lily tells Kenton literally everything, despite any kind of doctor-patient privilege. Rather than take Lily home, Kenton tries to kidnap her and spirit her off to places unknown, but he’s apparently not prepared for her to take the wheel and cause an accident… seems like he probably should have been. And he seems pretty hurt for a security program… but when Lily reaches out to the police to report Sergei’s murder, instead, she’s arrested for causing the crash, and the psychiatrist arrives to facilitate Lily being put under “involuntary psychiatric hold.” At this point, Kenton assaults Jamie in his own apartment,
presumably killing him. (Notice, however, that the shelf that fell off the wall in his apartment is now back on the wall, its shattered contents now restored and whole once more…)
In Episode 5, Kenton makes it very clear who he is and what his function is as he assaults Jamie physically and psychologically. Kenton tells a tale from his time in the CIA when the Chinese government literally rolled over their political opposition, thus crushing an uprising and cementing their power. In this scenario, Kenton is the tank and Jamie is the dissident. But all of his bravado and bluster doesn’t hold up when he talks with Katie and Forest; he’s worried about going to prison. Katie says something curious, not that Kenton “lacks the ability” to kill Lily, whom he still regards as a threat, but that “it’s not in [his] power.” Curious indeed.
Additionally, Katie takes Forest to task for his ultimate reason for the Devs program: A personal trial. If it works, determinism outranks free will, so he’s absolved; if not, he’s “guilty” of making the wrong choices, whether he knew what they were or not. Katie sees herself as “a lawyer for the defense.”
Is Everyone Who They Appear to Be?
Here’s where we get a little more Westworld with the whole thing.
The somewhat bloody and quietly brutal fight between Kenton and his Russian counterpart Anton ends with the latter’s spine-crunching death. The scene itself also puts a wrinkle in our theory that perhaps Kenton is an artificial human in synthetic flesh, so to speak, since he appeared to be wounded and vulnerable in a very human sense. Perhaps, owing to Adam’s theory, Kenton is actually a security program who is responsible for the integrity of the system and will occasionally have to clash with either rogue programs or invading threats like Anton. Put more simply, perhaps Kenton is the system’s anti-virus software.
Katie feels like something different entirely. Or at least she did, up until the third episode. If she’s a program, she’s a rather human one. “‘Don’t break the rules?’ Coming from her?” asks Stewart, incredulously, after Katie catches them watching a very expensive version of nostalgia porn. But Katie is a no-nonsense, by-the-book exec, willing to accept and allow the murder of a spy if it means preserving the integrity of their project. The question remains, however: Is Katie a solid right-hand woman to Forest, just as Kenton is his right-hand man? Or is she actually in charge of more than we’re being led to believe?
In Episode 4, there’s a discussion of the Devs facility being built on a known active fault line, a fact that disturbs Stewart since the building’s EM fields could fail in an earthquake, causing the mostly glass building to fall and shatter with them inside it. But Katie isn’t bothered. She says it’s because she knows the tolerances of the facility, but maybe there’s more to it than that.
In Episode 5, Katie is seen watching quite a few realities through her once-fuzzy projection device. She watches as Kenton breaks down Jamie, as Lily breaks up with Jamie (poor Jamie) and falls for Sergei, and all the little moments in between, a bit voyeuristically. She’s even able to go back to a young Lily’s teenage years as she plays a game of Go against her father, impressing him by not only thinking three moves ahead but by trusting her instincts for what “feels like” a “strong” position. Later, teenage Lily sits at her father’s bedside in the hospital. He says, “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” explaining that it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. She ponders this ancient Greek saying alone after he’s gone. Katie watches in the present as Jamie rescues Lily from the psychiatric facility, and curiouser still, Katie smiles at seeing them escape.
Will ‘Devs’ Tie into ‘Ex Machina’ at All?
Garland’s feature debut Ex Machina explored a number of interesting sci-fi themes: Artificial intelligence and whether or not it’s detectably different from human intelligence at the highest levels, the possibilities and dangers of said A.I., and what a civilization of humans living alongside android A.I. might just look like. It’s a showcase of Garland’s interests and curiosity at its core; Devs is the evolution of that exploration.
The end of Ex Machina was open-ended: The advanced A.I. unit known as Ava manages to disguise herself convincingly as a human and merges into an unknown city. In our timeline, that was back in 2014, but neither Ex Machina nor Devs has a hard date for its storyline. Could Ava be not just the scaffolding that Amaya was based on but the literal entity behind the scenes of the whole thing?
We’re thrown into Devs in the midst of Amaya’s cutting-edge research without much backstory on just how they got to be where they are. We’ve already posited that Katie, Kenton, and the like might be more than meets the eye. It’s entirely possible that Garland’s Ava will be the Eve to this next generation of synthetic humans. It just remains to be seen whether or not Garland and FX want to go that route and tie the two titles into a shared universe. After three episodes, we’re not holding our breath for this one, but we are hoping for a brain-twisting reveal that the people we see and the world they live in is much more than it appears so far.
Or maybe Devs will skew towards Garland’s adapted exploration of the story central to Jeff VanderMeer‘s Annihilation, one that finds an accomplished scientist venturing into the unknown (amidst pressure from a shady government organization) to seek answers as to her husband’s worsening health and to a mysterious and alien environment known as the Shimmer. There are definitely parallels here. Episode 4 suggests that Devs might be headed more in this direction than that of Ex Machina, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sort of blending of the two idea sets and the emergence of something new. Fingers crossed!
We’ll be updating this article as the season rolls on, but feel free to share your theories and questions below! And in the meantime…