Devs and Determinism

The Religious Overtones of Alex Garland’s Sci-Fi Series

CJ Green / 4.21.20

Devs is the kind of show that wants you to go in without knowing anything about it. That said, there are some minor, not major, spoilers below.

Halfway through the first episode of Devs, Ron Swanson says heavily, “The universe is deterministic.” He means that nothing happens without a prior cause: “The marble rolls because it was pushed.” This is the show’s central hypothesis, and testing it requires sleuthing, secret labs, Russian spies, and government cover-ups. There are moments when viewers are asked to suspend disbelief, to take the show’s high-stakes scenarios as elements in a parable, or a sci-fi fable. What is important is what hums beneath it all, questions about the future and free will, and what all this means for us, today.

Swanson/Offerman plays Forest, the founder of Amaya, a Google-esque tech giant with a big philosophy. Free will, Forest argues, is an illusion, part of the elaborate machinery of the universe. “Life is always on tramlines. We fall into the illusion of free will because the tramlines are invisible.” With enough data, one could render those lines visible, could even map the arc of history—past and present—because nothing happens that isn’t pre-determined. This is the project of Devs, Amaya’s most super-secret department.

To Forest, the universe is “godless, and neutral, and defined only by physical laws.” Even so, religion haunts the series, which was created by Alex Garland (Ex-Machina, Annihilation). The mood is almost Byzantine, with a thrumming choral soundtrack and shimmering brass set pieces. In Episode 2, the crucifixion of Jesus becomes a touchstone for the Devs project while the department itself strikingly resembles the Ka’aba, Islam’s most sacred shrine. There is talk of messiahs and false prophets. Notice Swanson’s Jesus beard and hair.

As James Poniewozik puts it, “Garland is essentially a religious storyteller. His religion just happens to be physical science; his incense, subatomic particles; his Holy Spirit, human consciousness.” You could point out that such replacements are as aggravatingly mysterious as their predecessors, if not more so. These so-called stand-ins say nothing about the essentially mysterious power of connection, love, humanity—the parts of any story that matter most.

If there’s one area where Devs really delivers, it’s the visuals. Halos illuminate Redwood trees, and over the hills of Northern California rises a giant statue of a child. Her hands are raised as if to hold up the air or the sky; or possibly she’s just dropped a ball, or something more valuable, breakable, as children so easily do. She represents innocence, ignorance, but most of all loss. Throughout the first episode, we wonder who she is.

Her face can be found on doors and in the hallways at Amaya. We soon learn that she is Amaya herself, Forest’s daughter, who died years ago in a car accident. His tech enterprise is a tribute to her, Devs in particular: if Forest can prove that the world is ultimately deterministic, then there was nothing he could have done to save her. But if he was free, he failed. His quest to code history is, in short, a quest for exoneration.

Forest’s lover-sidekick is Katie, a strict determinist: calmly she explains that everything happens for a reason: “I didn’t say a good reason. I said a reason.” The most random events are also results. Lightning: a static discharge. Leukemia: an aberration in DNA. Even our most arbitrary decisions are influenced by countless forces—unseen systems, genetics, past experiences.

Eventually Forest speaks the exact words predicted by his technology. He explains that “As the words come, I don’t feel as if I’m consciously repeating lines. They’re just the things that, at this moment, I feel I want to say.” This, I understand. There are times when I’m “going through the motions.” There are also times when I do the very thing I hate without knowing why. Still, one wishes these characters would read Martin Luther, who contributed significantly to the question on the will but adhered to neither of Devs’ presented extremes. To Luther, the will was not an illusion, but was bound by sin; humans could rebel and exert force but were incapable of choosing the ultimate good.

But what’s most interesting about Devs is not its conclusion about determinism and free will. And anyway, for creator Alex Garland, the question fizzled entirely. “Through it all,” he concedes, “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.”

Throughout Devs, Forest monologues repeatedly about the universe and the laws that govern it. His many speeches are heavy-handed, awkward, and only partially convincing. Yet his defining characteristic is not this burdensome intellect but guilt; grief. That unspeakable event from his past drives his quest for control. He wishes he could change it, but the hard truth is that no amount of money, technology, or intelligence can revive his daughter, nor expunge his pain; free will does not soften the sting of death; determinism is powerless beneath the weight of guilt.

A character named Stewart stands in defiance of Forest and constantly quotes poetry, perhaps to suggest that artistic expression might exist beyond the “system” of cause and effect. More important, though, is the moment Stewart recites, “Most things may never happen: this one will,” from a poem about death. (In the background of this show, billboards preach that “Wrinkles can now be optional.”)

Amidst all this, there is a touching moment — I believe it comes in Episode 5 — when a spiraling Forest is embraced by Katie. Having heard the condemning voice of his inner judge, she resolves to support him to the bitter end. She asserts herself as his “lawyer for the defense.” Her character’s creepiness makes this all the more beautiful. She is not a, uh, people person; still, she loves Forest, and that is just what he needs—it’s what all of us need. Incidentally, it’s also the promise of the Christian religion: not a grand theory about the world but a lawyer for the defense. A rescuer from judgment. A person, not a spirit, not a simulation.

Toward the end of the show, Forest begs someone to tell him the difference between reality and a simulation; though the characters gawk in response, the answer is easy. Any joe can tell you, the difference is reality. Concrete actions, confined by history and time and space. Comforting words, a hug, a warm body to take shelter with. That’s what it means when, on the third day, a man proceeded from his tomb, fully embodied, still bearing the scars of our anguish.