Devs series premiere recap: The sinister side of Silicon Valley
Given writer-director Alex Garland's penchant for crafting visually-arresting, mind-bending science fiction cinema (Ex Machina, Annihilation) the opening moments of his new limited series seem comparatively unassuming.
Devs begins in the modest apartment of Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman). They awake, enjoy a pleasant conversation over breakfast, then head off to start their workday. They carefully step over a homeless man — who they seem well-acquainted with — and take a shuttle through what appears to be contemporary San Francisco.
The transport's operated by their employer, Amaya – a Google-like tech giant located in Silicon Valley – where Lily works in encryption and Sergei in AI. As their bus approaches the campus, a towering, somewhat unsettling statue of a little girl peeks over the tree line. Okay, maybe this isn't current-day NorCal after all.
It's a big day for Sergei. He's giving a presentation to Amaya's CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman, looking a lot like Robert Redford from the “Nodding Guy” meme.) Sporting a flannel shirt and shoveling baby spinach into his maw with his bare hands, the eccentric head honcho is impressed with Sergei's work. “I love it.” In fact, the project – a predictive AI algorithm that projects a living organism's movements before they actually happen – earns the ambitious coder a promotion.
With tears of happiness in his eyes, Sergei accepts the move to “Devs,” Amaya's super-top-secret development department. Before starting his new gig, however, he must pass a rigorous security screening. On top of the standard optical scans and DNA swabs, the process involves a sit-down with Kenton (Zach Grenier). The company's security chief wears an Amaya polo shirt and an absolutely-no-nonsense face. His questions quickly get personal, digging into everything from Sergei's relationship with Lily to his religious beliefs.
Upon passing the screening, the enthusiastic employee is escorted to the Devs building by Forest himself. A proud Lily looks on from her office window: “He's going in.” The cryptic department – which Sergei isn't allowed to discuss with anyone, including Lily – is located in the woods beyond the main campus. Unusual rings surround the trees near the building, while equally odd gold pillars stand just outside its entrance. The facility, protected by a 13-yard thick concrete shell and a vacuum seal, looks like a doom's day bunker. Inside, it's all gold-plating and glass...and a horizontal elevator that travels (floats?) over electromagnetic energy.
Sergei ogles the elaborate central computer – “It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen” – while Forest explains the rules: No set work schedule, no passwords, nothing comes in or out of Devs. What the CEO doesn't share, though, is Segei's specific role or duties. “You're going to figure it out. I know you are.” Some of his surrounding co-workers – Devs other chosen few – give him a knowing glance.
At his new work station, Sergei stares at a screen filled with windows, each running endless lines of code. He gets a sick look on his face, heads for the restroom, and grabs at his head in anguish. He vomits, fiddles with his watch, then quickly composes himself before heading back to his desk. Amaya's second in command, Katie (Alison Pill) brings him a bottle of water. Sergei asks her if the code he's seeing is real. “If it's true, it literally changes every single thing,” he says. “No,” she replies, “If it's true, it changes absolutely nothing.”
Later that night, he leaves his station, takes the sci-fi elevator to the exit, and hauls hide into the woods. The rings circling the trees illuminate like glowing halos, throwing their light on Forest, who's waiting for Sergei. He accuses his star employee of stealing his code – on his “James Bond wristwatch” – but explains it's not his fault. “The universe is deterministic. You could only have done what you did.” While he stresses free will is only an illusion, he's not about to forgive the infraction. Totally freaked by his boss philosophizing in the woods, Sergei bolts, but is tackled by Kenton.
The security head forces a plastic bag over Sergei's face, suffocating him. Forest and Katie watch on indifferently, as the victim fruitlessly gasps for life. Back at their apartment, Lily begins to worry about her boyfriend's whereabouts. The next morning she heads right to security, where Kenton convincingly tells her he'll get to the bottom of Sergei's disappearance. He shows her CCTV footage of him leaving campus and heading to the freeway. Forest enters the office and puts on an even more convincing act. He instructs Kenton to call the police, just “to be safe” and assures Lily “Everything's gonna be fine.”
After telling a co-worker Sergei looked like a zombie in the security footage, Lily takes the rest of the day off. At home, she uploads his cloud storage to a spare smartphone. She discovers a Sudoku app – a game her boyfriend hates – protected by a password. Failing to access the game three times will result in a total data wipe, so she recruits her ex-partner, Jamie (Jin Ha) to crack it. Still bitter about their sudden breakup, he's baffled by her request. He refuses and blows her off.
Meanwhile, Forest sits outside Devs, his back against one of the gold pillars. He seems distraught over having his employee brutally executed. Katie joins her boss, tries to comfort him with words that seem eerily tied to those he'd spoken to Sergei about determinism. “I know, it's really hard,” she says. “It really shouldn't be,” he responds. “What are we supposed to do, unravel a lifetime of moral experience?" she asks. "Unlearn what has always seemed true?”
The next morning, things only get worse for Lily. She's summoned to Amaya early to view fresh CCTV footage. As Forest puts a comforting hand on her shoulder, Kenton plays the video. It shows Sergei in the company's courtyard, carrying a can of gasoline. He douses himself with the liquid before setting himself ablaze and falling to the ground. “It's definitely him,” says a somber Forest.
Lily recoils in horror, then runs from Kenton's office to the scene of her boyfriend's apparent suicide. Not far from the enormous feet of the massive statue of the little girl lies a charred body, surrounded by law enforcement securing the area and collecting evidence. As Lily breaks down, screaming and crying, the scene shifts to Forest, who's staring out his office window at the face of the statue.
The back half of Devs' two-episode season premiere picks up pretty much where we left off. Having just seen Sergei's severely burned body with her own eyes, Lily is shaken. Thankfully, Mr. Eccentric CEO is there to comfort her. Sitting by her side, Forest attempts to empathize with her, sharing how he felt in the aftermath of his daughter's death.
While he philosophizes about two concurrent, contradictory states he experienced following her death, we learn his company was named after his little girl, Amaya. Presumably, the towering, unsettling statue stands as a tribute to her as well. As tears stream down Lily's face, Forest encourages her to take as much time as she needs, promising that her employment and income won't be affected by her absence.
Lily immediately takes him up on the generous offer and asks to go home. Forest follows suit, hopping into his Subaru Outback and calling it a day. His home is modest, considering he “has more money than God,” as Kenton later puts it. Inside, we get a quick glimpse of Amaya's room, which looks untouched, as if the girl still lives there.
Later that evening, Kenton arrives at his boss' house. Sitting on the porch, he puts out a cigarette, then brings Forest up to speed on the situation. The police are convinced Sergei's death was a suicide. “This is over.” Still, he concedes it's not over for Lily, who'll continue to struggle emotionally. Forest says her sorrow will pass. In a lighter moment, the security heavy talks of kicking his smoking habit, to which Forest replies: “Don't bother, it won't make a difference.” While it plays as a joke between the two, the exchange hints at the series' larger, determinism-focused secret.
Meanwhile, Lily's taking another crack at Sergei's password-protected Sudoku game. With two chances left before a total data wipe, she takes a desperate shot. She fails. Frustrated, she again turns to ex-boyfriend Jamie. Upon climbing his fire escape – and interrupting his PlayStation time– she pleads with him to put their personal issues on the back-burner and help her access whatever intel Sergei was hiding. He agrees.
With pen, paper, and two laptops, he works his hacker magic. The Sudoku game, it turns out, is actually a front for a Russian state messaging app. He quickly deduces Lily's man was a spy involved in some serious “industrial espionage.” Lilly gives Jamie a hug, then heads back to her place to read the exchanges between Sergei and his handler. The messages are brief, but clearly show a long, on-going conversation that ends around the time he was promoted to Amaya's Devs department.
Lily impulsively picks up the text-based exchange where Sergei left off, agreeing to meet the man on the other side of the covert conversation. A clandestine rendezvous by the Golden Gate Bridge sees her cautiously approaching a man in a suit. His name his Anton. He's Russian intelligence. He confirms Sergei's spy status but assures Lily his feelings for her were real, despite him leading a double life.
Anton also suggests her boyfriend was not suicidal but was murdered when his infiltration of Devs was discovered. He tries to recruit her to get more answers. She refuses, for now, but is given the option to reach out to Anton later by signaling him with a sign in her bedroom window. As the two-part ways, the camera pans to Kenton, who's secretly watching their meeting from afar.
Back at the Devs office, employees Lyndon and Stewart are burning the midnight oil. As Katie watches them work, the two fiddle with tablets, using them to dial in the accuracy of an unfocused image displayed on a giant screen. As they casually bicker with each other, they continue tinkering, eventually improving the clarity of the picture they're trying to piece together. While still fuzzy, the massive monitor depicts what appears to be a live feed of Christ after he was crucified. Katie and her two charges look at the screen in awe.
Stewart wants to celebrate the achievement, even calling for a champagne bath. But Forest, who's dropped in to check out the “breakthrough,” isn't as impressed. While they've successfully made a “2000 year backward projection,” using quantum computing, the boss calls for more accuracy/zero variance. Despite his disappointment, he asks for a moment alone, before using one of the devices to dial in a fuzzy image of his daughter blowing bubbles in her bedroom.
As Lily arrives back home, she finds Jamie waiting for her. He's been thinking, he's concerned she'll try to make contact with the mysterious man behind the app. She doesn't tell him it's too late but instead agrees such an action would be reckless and dumb. She thanks him and tells him he's got nothing to worry about.
On the streets of San Francisco, Anton's out for a drive. He's being followed...by Kenton. He turns into a parking garage. Kenton's still behind him. They both exit their vehicles, Amaya's security chief approaches the Russian intelligence officer. “I just wanted to have a no bulls--- conversation with you if that's okay.”
Kenton tells Anton he shut down Sergei's game, and he'll do the same to Lily. Things escalate quickly and Anton responds with a knife to Kenton's gut. What follows is an absolutely brutal, slo-mo throw-down. And while Amaya's top security man frequently looks like he's about to check out, he ultimately breaks his adversary's neck – with a sickening crack – against a parked car's tire.
Too bad, because Lily's back home writing Anton a message he'll never receive. She takes pen to paper, then posts the note on her bedroom window, per his instructions. The message? An all-caps “F--- YOU.