NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T wenty-six hundred years. That’s how long the question (the Question) of determinism vs. free will has been the subject of conjecture and debate by philosophers, poets, scientists, and artists from Heraclitus to Brooklyn’s barstool philosophers. Maybe longer. (It certainly feels longer if you’re stuck on the next barstool.) Once you’re made aware of it, should you choose to dwell on it, the Question pervades your mind, filling the air around you until obsession leads you, inevitably, to fatalism.
No wonder we don’t dwell on it.
But Alex Garland has, in his near-masterpiece of a limited series, Devs, which has for a couple of months now been buried in unmerciful obscurity on “FX on Hulu” (so, Hulu). In just his third directorial outing, Garland has more run time to work with than in his previous sci-fi efforts (2014’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation). The result is what you might expect: a bit of bloat over eight episodes, but also more time to marinate in and reflect on the Question.
The story follows Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a computer programmer working for Amaya, a San Francisco tech behemoth led by Forest (Nick Offerman). Lily’s boyfriend, a fellow employee named Sergei (Karl Glusman), is invited to work in Devs, where he finds that things aren’t at all what he expected. The extremely secret research at Devs turns out to be . . . actually, I’ll not spoil that for you, as it’s one of the central delights of the show. Sergei disappears after an extremely short time at Devs, and Lily’s determination to seek justice for what happens to him drives the plot over the remainder of the series.
“The universe is deterministic,” Sergei is told in the first episode, just before the groundwork for the story is laid with an act of violence excused by its perpetrators as simply “predetermined.” Choice, you see, is an illusion. We aren’t true agents; we’re simply observant passengers on the fixed tram line of History. Sergei’s fate was sealed long before his ancestors ever painted a cave wall.
In a very Garlandesque way, the plot is only a backdrop for the Question to take center stage. Are the characters acting of their own accord? Or has the relentless chain of cause and effect rendered their every action inevitable?
On the one hand, this is the capital-q Question. If we want to believe that we are agents unto ourselves, that the choices we make matter, that we can grow and change and become better people, the only way that’s possible is through free will. But if the universe is deterministic, then we cannot improve; indeed, we cannot even choose. We are and always will be whatever destiny makes of us. “The sense that you were participating in life was only ever an illusion. Life is just something we watch unfold, like pictures on a screen,” Lily is told.
On the other hand, the Question is nothing more than an academic exercise, and so there’s not much point in pursuing an answer. The illusion of choice, if it is such, is so powerful as to be effectively a reality. Going through life blaming fate for every poor choice or consequence is no way to live. We feel this in our bones, no matter what the hard data might tell us.
Whether we choose to invest everything in the Question or ignore it entirely, it remains the basis for every other metaphysical inquiry we care to make. Is there a God? What is God’s nature? Why am I alive? What will happen to me after I die? All are undergirded by the Question. If the answer to the Question is free will, then the answers to the other questions matter. If determinism is the law of the universe, then nothing matters. If there is no choice, there is no real existence. Not an existence of any meaning, anyway.
Heady stuff for a week’s binge worth of television. Of course, Alex Garland hasn’t shied away from this sort of question over the course of his relatively new directorial career. In Ex Machina, he tackled questions of human nature. In Annihilation, it was our tendency toward self-destruction. In each case, Garland probes these questions with the sure hand of a filmmaker with . . . what’s that thing so many directors lack? Oh right . . . style.
Garland’s style is unmistakable, and is best described as “lush.” The golden hues of tree haloes and the Devs facility itself offset the rich greens of the forest in which the facility is set. The pulsing lights in Devs make no functional sense, but they create an impression of the facility as a living, breathing thing. The central computer is technological nonsense, but it’s made to resemble nothing so much as a church organ, a fitting reminder of the type of issues being addressed at Devs.
And it’s a good thing his aesthetic is so beautiful, because we need something to distract us from what he’s actually doing. In Devs, Alex Garland takes the Question that always hovered, blurred, at the edge of our vision, and forces it to center stage. There’s a reason we tend to look at this question from angles, to keep it at the edge of our vision. If we confront the Question head on, we are immediately confronted with a harsh reality: Every piece of data, every scientific or philosophical effort to find an answer, leads to determinism. Everything except the evidence of our own lived experience. We make choices, we face possibilities, we shape and affect the world around us according to our decisions.
I called Devs “nearly-masterful” because ultimately it doesn’t quite stick the landing, doesn’t quite give us a satisfactory answer to the Question. But in Garland’s defense, there is no sticking this landing. The thing about staring down the barrel of the Question is that you quickly realize there is no satisfactory answer — there is no great way to end a story like this, though Garland gets as close as he can by tip-toeing the line between saccharine and melancholy.
The universe leads Lily inexorably to the conclusion, where she makes a final choice. Or does she? And if she does, does the universe even care? The tram of History must follow the lines. But don’t worry. You can imagine hopping off at any time.