Note: This recap is for the first two episodes of Devs so spoilers beware.
As Nick Offerman’s bob haircut and wilderness beard fill up the screen, you can’t help but be excited for what Alex Garland’s new FX show has to offer. Devs follows Forest (Offerman), an Elon Musk / Mark Zuckerberg type, as the CEO of a Silicon Valley tech company called Amaya. The story focuses on two Amaya employees, Sergei (Karl Glusman) and Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a couple working in the encryption and AI wings of the secretive company. With the slogan “Your Quantum Future” bannered across the screen as the workers drive onto Amaya’s campus, Garland’s newest bears resemblance to many Bay Area hubs.
After Sergei gives a presentation predicting the movement of a living organism to Forest and his right-hand woman Katie (Alison Pill), the boss asks the Russian employee to join Devs, the secret arm of Amaya, one that lives deep in the surrounding forests. Sergei obliges, and the two walk toward the headquarters of Devs the following day, coming to a building that looks like it’s completely covered in gold, but actually is blanketed by electromagnetic fields. Garland’s series thus far is confusing. Episodes 1 and 2 don’t make it easy to understand Devs’ business practices, their motives, or even their research. Like Sergei and the rest of Amaya’s workforce, and like the outer society, the audience doesn’t have any clue what Devs does or why they do it.
Forest gives Sergei the rundown in terms of working with Devs: no closed doors, no set hours, no weekends, nothing in, and certainly nothing out. Understandably, Sergei asks, “What am I actually doing here?” Forest replies, “I’m not going to tell you. I don’t need to.” That response feels like a larger encapsulation of the series as a whole, one made by Garland. He’s not going to give us all of the answers or make this a nice and tidy experience. Devs exists in the grey areas, in the places of confusion. Oh, and did I mention that Nick Offerman has a bob haircut?
Only a few minutes into his Devs tenure, Sergei breaks down, saying that “if this is true, it literally changes everything” after looking at lines of code. He throws up and runs into the forest away from the building, running into Forest along the way. Sergei stole the code, and immediately betrayed the CEO. Despite Forest giving him absolution in the form of larger life questions aimed at free will, he enlists the help of his Head of Security Kenton (Zach Grenier) to subdue and suffocate the young programmer. During this encounter though, Forest talks of big-picture ideas, about the determinism of life, about our illusion of free will, and about the invisible tram lines that make up our everyday choices. Thirty minutes of Devs may hit you harder than any show or movie you’ve seen thus far in 2020.
A worried Lily heads into work, watches Sergei walk out of Devs and off the Amaya campus through CCTV footage, while Forest and Kenton report him missing. The young Russian employee is next seen on a camera going up to the giant, little girl statue on campus, dousing himself in gasoline, and lighting himself on fire, charring him to a crisp.
This sense of loss and unbelievability flow into episode 2, where Lily gets her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to crack a Sudoku app on Sergei’s phone, which is revealed to be a secret messaging app for him to contact the Russian government. You guessed it. Sergei lived as a Russian spy. Lily takes it one step further, clearly morphing into a character that will do the unexpected in nearly every situation, contacting the Russian handlers and meeting up with them to discuss her now-deceased boyfriend. He confirms her belief: that Sergei was murdered. As Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc might say, “I suspect foul play.”
Offerman’s portrayal of the millionaire (maybe billionaire) CEO remains a fascinating aspect of Garland’s sci-fi thriller of a series. Forest looks to be shaken up by his role in Sergei’s death, and he still doesn’t seem to be over his own daughter’s passing. He can hardly handle his own team’s progress, when he’s called in to see that Devs has recreated an image that looks like a biblical Jesus on the cross. They talk about how it’s a 2,0000 year projection, and though the science stays mostly misunderstood, you still internalize the magnitude of these massive advances.
Through two episodes, Devs has more than lived up to Alex Garland’s growing mastery of creating worthwhile art in the realm of science-fiction. The entire cast commits to the series with subtle performances matched against the impending technological background, with Offerman specifically offering some of his best work to date. Through two hours of screen-time, Devs scares you, not because of the murder or espionage, but with its commitment to showing the immense impact big tech can have on everday life.
Devs airs Thursday on FX and on Hulu. Check back for our weekly recaps of the eight-episode limited series.
Michael Frank is a film critic and journalist based in Brooklyn. He thinks the Before trilogy should be in the Louvre and once bumped into John Oliver at brunch. He has bylines in RogerEbert, Film Inquiry, The Playlist, and AwardsWatch. You can find him on Twitter @peachfuzzcritic.