Devs — created, written, and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation, Sunshine) — launched within the first batch of original TV shows for the FX on Hulu content hub. Quite notably, Garland’s limited series showcases Nick Offerman as you’ve never seen him before in the role of Forest, an eccentric (and tortured) tech CEO whose devotion to determinism gradually revealed itself as the limited series careened toward an end. As always, Garland paired his story with a beautifully frightening aesthetic that helped bring a disturbing parable to life. In the end, Forest ended up inside the machine he pioneered, and we finally saw him in a peaceful state.
Garland previously spoke with us when the series launched about digging into the quantum mechanics of the story, the value of casting Offerman, and why he put the tech gods in his crosshairs. He was gracious enough to talk with us again about the finale, which aired in what feels like a completely different world than only a few months ago. Naturally, he and I briefly acknowledged the “surreal” aspects of how he penned 28 Days Later (the Danny Boyle-directed movie about an incurable rage virus), although Garland believes that Steven Soderberg’s Contagion was even more stunningly and “absolutely prescient.” With the pandemic talk behind us, we turned to Devs and how Garland feels that the finale can be viewed as an ultimately uplifting turn of events.
People have grown accustomed to seeing whole seasons land on streaming platforms. Was it part of the early conversation to stream Devs weekly?
No, when I was making it, I supposed I knew that in the long-term, well, I thought that it was going to be every week because I thought that it was going to be on normal FX, the linear channel. But I thought relatively soon that it would be shown as a block on some kind of streaming service because that’s just the way that things go on. In some ways, I did think of it as something that would be drip-fed on a week-by-week basis, but I also thought, “What would it be like if these stories were bumping right up against each other?” So the end of the music of each episode is designed to smash up against the music in the beginning of the next episode. I guess I was trying to cover both bases.
Was it a big shift for you to think of eight hours rather than two for a movie?
It was daunting, but I’ve watched a lot of TV, so that helps when you’re trying to do something completely new. And there are elements of working on TV that, on a personal level, reminded me of writing books years ago, where I began my working life as a novelist before I started writing screenplays. Novels and television have something connected, partly in the breadth and the width of a story, but also because chapters and episodes have a structural similarity. There are discrete episodes, but they’re part of the overarching narrative. It was both really alien and with areas where it felt familiar.
I always think of you first as a writer, but you are also now known for combining philosophical themes with really awe-inspiring visuals. Where does planning the aesthetics land in your story-crafting process?
In the script stage. I tried to write in quite a simple, blunt way but also quite a visual way. And I see a script as being like a blueprint, like architectural plans. So you have to imply the imagery sometimes, and then from that point, it becomes a kind-of organic conversation with all the people you’re working with. Because they then contribute and expand and mutate the ideas, and eventually, you’re sticking a camera on something.
Well, when you first introduced Forest, we saw the unusual visual of him gobbling a pile of mixed greens. Where did that come from?
That was Nick Offerman. That’s the kind of beautiful detail that actors offer up, and you’d better make sure you’re listening when they say it. I think in the script, he was eating a pastry, which I saw as being kind-of arrogant in a funny way. Like, you’ve got this kid who’s showing you a presentation that he cares so much about, and you’re just sitting there with a pastry and a coffee and treating it all over-casually. And then Nick — I don’t even know where it came from — he just said, “It should just be a salad, like a box of salad with no salad dressing or nothing. I just wanna be eating a box of salad.” I think Nick came up with it pretty early. It was in rehearsals. I thought it was so funny. I was so pleased when he suggested it.
It sort-of sets us up to think that he’s a granola-type character, and then we find out that’s not how he’s motivated. His motivations are more personal, right?
Yeah, totally. And it’s got that funny, sort-of Californian vibe with the relaxed living and the sneakers and the hoodies masking all the naked capitalism.
Let’s talk about Forest’s “private joke” from the finale. He revealed that the real spelling of “Devs” is actually “Deus.” How important was it for you to characterize that as a joke?
It was important because it was partly a joke. I didn’t want it to be this big, fanfare, trumpets-blaring reveal. The original idea of the story was that it was a companion piece to the Ex Machina film. The full phrase, of course, is “Deus Ex Machina,” and I saw the two stories as being cross-related, so in some respects, it was like a private joke. The two stories together complete the ideas I was trying to explore, so then it was the question of, “What’s the right way to present that?” And in a way, Forest speaks for the show, to an extent, but that’s often what he does.
I didn’t want to offend you by presumptuously connecting these two projects, so I’m glad that you did it. Is it correct to call Devs a spiritual successor?
Totally. Probably more explicit than that. The basic idea was this: in Ex Machina, you’ve got a man who acts as if he’s god by creating a completely new life form, which is a godlike act. And in Devs, you have a collection of people, but in particular, Katie and Forest, who are not acting like gods, but they’re creating a god. Because they’re creating something that is all-knowing and all-powerful. And that is often the description we give to a god or gods, and so in that respect, they’re companion pieces. They’re like two forms of the ambitions of science and technology.
Of course, Devs is a limited series, and you left Ex Machina open as far as where Ava goes. Do you ever want to explore that with a sequel?
No. My private sense of it, partly because in my mind, Ava was like the hero of the narrative, was that I hope she goes and prospers somewhere, but the story is completely over. And the same is true with Devs. I’ve got no interest and no intention of ever doing a sequel. But in some respects, but Devs is sort-of a version of a sequel because the two are so linked.
They also both nail their architectural feel. You chose a Norwegian hotel-spa location for the Ex Machina shoot. How did you settle upon the Devs location at UC Santa Cruz?
Actually, just by some of the normal processes of how you go about putting a production together. This was Mark Digby and Michelle Day, who are the production designers of the show. They went out scouting around and casting a wide net around San Francisco. As soon as they found that campus, we went through the photos and knew that was it. It was these strange… they’re not as elegant as the buildings in Ex Machina, they’re much more brutalist. And the surrounding landscape is slightly weirder. Redwood forests have a really strange vibe about them, and so basically, it just felt perfect.
At the end of the season and all the quantum mechanics, the story comes down to determinism and whether free will exists. And then Lily breaks the Devs system, so what’s the message there?
It’s not a message as much as the offering up of an argument. At that moment, does Lily act with free will, or is she just falling back into a new deterministic state which has been changed just by an extra bit of information? So it’s like a conversation to be had. And then there’s a secondary thing, which is about, “What are the personal implications for us about thinking that we may not have free will, or we may have it?” Or we may just live in one universe, one state, or we might be living in a massive number of parallel states, some of which are similar to each other, and some of which are wildly different. And how does that make us feel about what we are, and what we care about?
It’s a little scary, honestly. Is it okay if I admit that?
Yeah, in some ways, it is scary, but in some ways, it’s like there are reassurances in it. For me, the deterministic way of looking at things is actually very compassionate. It means that it doesn’t stop you from caring about anything. Lily and Jamie love each other equally, whether they’re in a deterministic state or not in a deterministic state. It means that actions become more forgivable, in a sense, because aren’t responsible for their actions in a way that we think they are. So what might seem like an act of casual indifference or cruelty which hurts us in a certain way can be unpacked, slightly differently. And maybe more easily.
How is this all wrapped up in the idea of big data?
I think that what it feels like, and what it is, is the arrival of big data that feels like it is stripping us of our agency.
At the end, Lily and Forest are in the system. Is that a happy ending for them, or should we see that as ambiguous?
To me, it’s a happy ending because the world that they exist in would be indistinguishable from the world that you and I are talking in now. And it has this other really wonderful dimension to it, which is that people who are dead don’t have to stay dead. And the hardest thing that we encounter is the death of people that we care about. And more than our own deaths. And this would remove that as a problem that we all have to deal with.
FX’s ‘Devs’ can now be streamed on Hulu in its entirety.