It seems like everyone is talking about The Last of Us, and with good reason. Since the latest episode has tongues wagging about how talented Nick Offerman is, I want to remind people that he has always been this good. What follows is two articles I wrote for This Couch Thing when Devs first dropped.
"I have no need of that hypothesis: Devs and Philosophy on Television "
I very nearly skipped Devs. It sounds weird to say it. This show should have called out to me. It’s written and directed by Alex Garland, and I am a fan of his work as a writer and director. He made Ex Machina and Annihilation. He also wrote the screenplays for Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and 28 Days Later. Add to that the trailer, which is weird and dreamlike, interspersed with surreal images and a hard science fiction backbone and you have something that I should very much want to see. And yet, TV is just too much these days. There’s so damn much of it, and it’s all such a commitment just to be let down in the end. I almost skipped it.
I am so glad that I didn’t.
Before we go any farther, this is your warning that there will be spoilers here. Turn back now, or forever hold your peace.
Devs is presented as a mystery. At the start of the show we meet Lilly (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman), a young couple who both work for a large tech company called Amaya. Lilly works in encryption and Sergei works in A.I. Sergei is given a large promotion, the chance to work in a division called ‘Devs”. We learn that Devs is very secretive. No one knows what they do there. Sergei is led to Devs by Forest ( Nick Offerman), the CEO of Amaya.
Sergei is brought into s strange facility. It’s surrounded by a faraday cage and a vacuum field. The entire thing is very futuristic, quite lovely, and exceedingly strange. Once inside, he is placed at a computer and told to take his time reading code. Forest assures him that he will come to understand what is required of him.
Sergei is shocked by the code that he reads. He secretly records it using his watch. Forest confronts him. He tells Sergei that he understands that he had no choice, and that he absolves him. Forest then has the head of security kill the young man.
Lily begins to worry when Sergei doesn’t return home. This sets up the mystery that, I assume, will serve as the spine of the show. It isn’t what it’s about, though. For what the show is about, you have to listen to Forest. He tells Sergei, just before Sergei is suffocated with a plastic bag, that free will is a myth. That life is “on tram rails”. That belief seems to be at the center of this tale.
Over the course of the first two episodes we get glimpses and hints of what is going on at Devs, what they are creating (but not the why of it – that will have to wait, although I have a hypothesis). They seem to be constructing Laplace’s Demon. A thing that can, though sheer computing power, predict every action and reaction of the entire universe. Determinism posits that as all things are governed by physics, and as cause and effect can be formulated, a being with enough raw computing power and perfect knowledge of the initial conditions of the universe should be able to predict every event that has or will occur. That seems to be what Devs is doing.
We see them creating “backwards projections” of the past. This would be the sensible way to test the program. Since we know certain past events with certainty, you run the program backwards to see if it predicts those events. This confirms that it works correctly before you use it to look into the future.
This is heady stuff for television. Philosophy isn’t really something you expect from what is been called The Idiot Box, but then I guess that times are changing. TheGood Place (which featured a lovely cameo from Nick Offerman) just finished it’s near perfect run, and that show was about Ethics as much as anything else. So, maybe peak TV has brought us into the land of philosophical TV as well.
Two episodes in, Devs is very exciting. It has Russian spies, a Mystery story, a tale of grief, and slightly futuristic technology, beautifully imagined and designed sets, and strong cast performing at the top of their game. It has a lot to commend.
I have no idea if it can maintain this quality, but I very much hope it can. Laplace’s Demon could tell us how it’s going to end.
"We only look back: Devs episode 3"
"We don’t look forward, we only look back. We don’t invade privacy"
Episode 3 of Devs opens with the programmers watching Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller having sex. This is against the rules. We learn that the only rules are that they cannot look into the future or invade anyone's privacy. Both of these seem strange, given what we know about tech companies in the real world.
This scene seems to exist as world building more than anything else.
Most of the episode is about Lily. She pulls off a ruse in order to steal the security footage from the night that Sergei died.
She does something very clever. She fakes schizophrenia, and panic attack and a suicide attempt. In doing so she creates a diversion so that her friend can get the footage. Possibly more importantly, in planting the belief that she is mentally ill, she lays the groundwork for ensuring that she will be underestimated.
She may also be saving her own life, although it isn't clear exactly how much danger she's in at this point.
While all of this is going on Forest is meeting with a Senator who wants to bring Amaya's technology under government control, or at least determine what that technology is. It seems like this plot thread could be important in future episodes.
To a large extent this episode is all convective tissue. The plot doesn't move very far. What we do get is some wonderful character development, especially from Lily. Sonoya Mizuno is marvelous in this episode. She shows great range and really holds the story together.
Nick Offerman playing Forest brings some interesting nuance to his internal conflict. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite actors.
This episode doesn't add much to the underlying philosophical themes of the show, but one assumes that we'll get to that soon enough.
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