'Devs': How Alex Garland's Chilling Thriller Series Serves as an Argument for Compassion

The Hollywood Reporter speaks with the 'Ex Machina' and 'Annihilation' filmmaker about his tech-driven FX on Hulu limited series: "One way or another, it's going to pay off."
Courtesy of Miya Mizuno/FX

In the climactic final scene of its second hour, creator Alex Garland's Devs forces viewers to watch in unflinching detail as two spies fight for their lives. One wins and one loses, slowly and badly, his head pushed against a car tire with such force until it breaks the man's neck. Through it all, there's the sneering red-faced victor, Zach Grenier's nightmarish fixer Kenton, himself bleeding out from the battle, triumphant all the same. Low's "Congregation" serves as the score for the scene, a haunting underline beneath the brutally slow fight to the death:

"Sometimes, the congregation takes the other side;
An inquisition of familiar lies;
A grave distraction from a quiet rise."

The first two installments of the FX on Hulu limited series were made available simultaneously, first arriving on March 5. (New episodes air on the streaming service on Thursdays, with the finale slated for April 16.)

The violent final scene of the second episode was one of a handful of staggering examples of chilling violence; Karl Glusman's Sergei being suffocated to death by Kenton also comes to mind. In that scene, Kenton's act of violence comes with an audience: cool-as-a-cucumber tech overlord Forest (Nick Offerman), a man driven by what often oscillates between deep acceptance and tired resignation.

Forest carries the weight of the world, and indeed, he knows the way of the world — its past, its present and its future, down to the details, his own eventual end included. While there are reasons to question some of his methods (see: Kenton, the veritable attack dog Forest employs at his tech company Amaya), it's all in service of the idea at the heart of his "Devs" computer program: the world is a deterministic one, operating on "tram lines," with all the universe's players helpless to collide in any way other than the one.

Based on those descriptions alone, Devs not only sounds violent and bleak but even a bit "dry and cold," by Garland's own admission. But beyond that veil, the Ex Machina and Annihilation filmmaker, making his TV debut as writer-director on all episodes of Devs, believes there's something quite different humming under the hood of his series. Ahead, Garland speaks with The Hollywood Reporter about Devs, a love story disguised as a thriller.

Within the world of Devs, the titular Devs program is top secret in nature. The premise of the series was similarly shrouded in secrecy prior to the premiere. How would you pitch the show for someone sight unseen?

It's a thriller that attempts to deal explicitly with some elements of technology, some elements of science and some philosophical issues that are thrown up from that. It might sound dry and cold, but actually these are the things that we have to encounter and deal with in our day-to-day life, and these sorts of philosophical problems are not really distant and cold. They're actually quite super-heated. They're to do with love, and they're to do with loss, and they're to do with how we cope with that and how we process it. It's about guilt, where guilt is located and the way in which guilt can be a distorting prism of the world and how we seek to release ourselves from it. At the end of Devs, really what it is is a set of love stories between many different people, and some of it is romantic love, some of it is the love we can have for friends and colleagues. And in the end, all of that science and all of that philosophy just folds into something as simple as that.

Having written in prose and worked in film, what made television the right vehicle for this story?

I'd been working in film for a long time by the time I started working on this, and I was very used to the extreme economies of film — not so much financial economies, although that is also a factor, but screen time: how much time you spend with characters, how much you can explore the number of different angles on a theme that you can present.

Predating the period of time I worked in film, I'd worked briefly as a novelist and I knew that there were things in long-form narrative that you could get that you couldn't quite compress into a movie. I didn't see any way that this story could possibly be told as a single two-hour movie. It felt like the right story for the medium, and I had been looking for the right story, which would allow me to work in television. This just felt like everything coming together.

The series is anchored by Nick Offerman as Forest, the Amaya founder dealing with grief and pushing ahead on the Devs project, as well as Sonoya Mizuno as Lily, the engineer trying to solve the mystery of her boyfriend's death, sinking deeper into Forest's plot. Can you talk about working with these two actors: Offerman for the first time and Mizuno as someone you have worked with previously [on both Ex Machina and Annihilation]?

I think in some ways Nick and Sonoya have something particular in common, which is that there's something that they immediately appear to be and then that is subverted by something in their character and in their personality and then that also means in their acting. In the case of Nick, it's that he's a genuinely warm, big-hearted, good-natured man and there is also something very soulful about him that could almost feel like melancholy, sitting completely alongside the genial side, the genial aspect. That made him very right for Forest, and I guess that would be Nick.

In the case of Sonoya, she has something else, which is that she presents a certain way to the world, but there's something unexpected about her. The thing I notice about Sonoya, and the thing that felt exactly right where Lily was concerned, is that as an actor there doesn't seem to be any part of her that is trying to be solicitous to the audience. Very often actors are involved in a kind of seduction of the audience via the camera lens, and that can be rooted in all sorts of things. It could be rooted in something as simple as just the desire to be liked or the desire to be admired, and Sonoya just doesn't seem interested in that. So what you get is a very different energy than you might otherwise have in a leading actor. The strangeness of that energy made her particularly suitable for Lily, particularly if you see where Lily ends up in terms of what is odd about her and what is different about her.

You describe Devs as a love story, and many people who maybe don't know your work and only read those words will be surprised at how deeply unsettling the series often becomes, such as the end of episode two. There's so much tension built into Devs. What were you aiming for tonally, and how did you want to advance your own relationship with building cinematic tension?

One of the things I aim for is actually to do with the relationship between the story and the viewer. And part of the training I'd had previously allowed me to push that quite far I think in this particular series in as much as that it has an enormous amount of space in the audience and the viewer's willingness to step forward into the narrative as opposed to just having it fed to them. Personally, I think that the tension that you describe is probably substantially 50/50 provided by you, actually, in terms of your willingness to access the story. I think if you are going to sit back, then I think the story might feel quite cold and empty. But if you step into it, then suddenly it will get stranger and richer and a good deal more tense.

On some level, drama is often about tension. It's about tension between characters and it's about tension about their predicament and the fierceness of that tension being the thing that then makes us inspect ourselves on its most simple level. In Devs it's to do with discovering the strange parallels in the lives of these characters that you as the viewer might have yourselves and some of the strange thoughts that are presented in the narrative that might lead one to question stuff.

What made you want to explore the big-picture ideas of Devs, the tension between free will and determinism?

Partly because I feel like it's relevant. It's not just a sort of airy philosophical concept. If [determinism] is true, then one has to look at the world in quite a different way, and it would actually change the way we live.

The example I tend to suggest when thinking about those things is the way we deal with crime and punishment, which centrally has at its heart an idea of free will because we are being punished when we commit a crime for having done something wrong, for having decided to do something wrong. If you have a 16-year-old mugger who sticks someone up with a knife, if you end the narrative at that point, then you say the 16-year-old did something dangerous, did something wrong, and now we're going to punish them for having done something wrong, or we're going to put them in prison. That all is a natural sequence of events and sequence of thoughts.

If, however, you say no, this young person may not have had free will because, for example, maybe both their parents were drug addicts and they were addicted by the time they were 12 and they grew up in a very ethically impoverished background and also maybe a financially impoverished background … suddenly the behavior of the 16-year-old is much grayer in terms of decisions that they've made, and you might quickly start to feel they didn't make many decisions at all. Under those circumstances, you'd be much better off rehabilitating the 16-year-old rather than punishing them.

To me, that's a very reasonable argument. It's certainly reasonable enough to deserve debate. So what seems like a dry philosophical argument actually has … a benefit, because it could lead you to a position where having rehabilitated someone, they then go on a different path and stop committing the same crime.

It's a very blunt argument I'm making, but it could also deal with smaller interactions one has in the world: feeling hurt by the actions of a friend or one's partner or whatever it happens to be. It seems to me like an interesting and valid process. It looks initially as if losing free will means that morality disappears along with it, but I actually think — and I think one of the points Devs is making — is morality doesn't necessarily disappear along with it. In fact the rehabilitation would be a moral decision.

Watching Devs, which is often quite violent, it struck me that the series is pleading for empathy, that our stories and lives are interconnected.

I strongly agree with that. I very strongly agree with what you just said. The underlying thing behind all of this is compassion, and that hopefully is played out in all sorts of ways, even separate to the sort of philosophical positions.

You have this young man played by Jin Ha, the character of Jamie, who helps Lily, but he does it in a completely nontransactional way. He's not thinking to himself, "If I help her I will then get this in reward." Once he's gotten over some initial things, he just basically does it out of decency and does it out of compassion, and compassion comes from empathy. So I strongly agree with what you're saying.

There are eight episodes in Devs, and that's it. Is there a story beyond episode eight?

It's absolutely a story from start to finish. When episode eight ends, that's it. That's the end of it. Part of that is because I think there are some people who are supernaturally skillful at the long-form version of the long-form narrative, seasons that go on and on and on and on. But people who are less good it — and I could easily fall into that category — I think what starts to happen is that the viewer starts to detect that this story is being strung out, or things are arriving into it really just as a way of extending the run time or the number of episodes or the number of seasons. Whenever you feel that, it's always kind of disappointing, I think. You suddenly [pull] away from your involvement with the characters because you start to see the structures behind the characters, that this is in part a huge moneymaking exercise rather than the fierce investment in the predicaments of the people you care about.

The Sopranos is a perfect example of a show that [exists for multiple seasons] brilliantly well. The people who manage to do that I think are probably very few and very far between. I certainly had no confidence that I would be one of them. That aside, there's something about stories that you know have an ending, and you know that the ending is coming in six, five, four, three, two, one episodes. That creates its own kind of tension. You can feel escalation. You know, one way or another, it's going to pay off.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.