Zach Grenier

Devs (2020) s01e07

Lots of “surprises” this episode as far as how the show’s going to go into its final episode. Like three deaths surprises, as writer, director, and creator Alex Garland starts paring down the cast to something more manageable.

The funniest thing about the death scenes is how anticlimactic they all are. Everyone on “Devs” acting like a sociopath at the very least makes them not particularly sympathetic in their deaths, especially since the most “tragic” is also the silliest. Garland writes some really bad scenes to try to make things work this episode. Really bad scenes.

Including the “normal” scenes. We get to see Jin Ha and Sonoya Mizuno pretend they’re not hiding out in her apartment trying to stave off a determinist apocalypse but just having a normal day as a couple. Albeit one where Ha is sleeping in Mizuno’s recently deceased boyfriend’s bed, which in turn was once also his bed before Mizuno kicked him out. Layers.

Not.

It’s an incredibly uncomfortable scene because Mizuno’s flat affect doesn’t fit with her playing along.

What else.

Oh, the episode opens with cave people. The Devs team is now able to use the predictive algorithm to peep insights into cave people. It leads to Garland getting to do a big ol’ 2001 “homage.”

But it’s also the last day on Earth as far as Nick Offerman and Alison Pill understand it with “The Machine,” so there’s all this setup with Cailee Spaeny trying to get his job back from Pill and Stephen McKinley Henderson going nuts and standing in the hallway spouting Shakespeare. It’s unclear if Henderson’s actually lost it or if it’s part of his plan with Spaeny; Henderson’s got a great voice. Listening to him read Shakespeare or Yeats would be better than the show.

Anyway.

Then there’s Zach Grenier, who finally gets to find out what’s up with Jefferson Hall. Hall’s the guy experiencing homelessness and living on the street near Mizuno’s apartment and razzing Grenier whenever he creeps by. It’s predictable. Because Garland’s predictable.

Wait. I can’t forget.

Ha’s got this line about the people running tech companies thinking they’re messiahs and it’s the blandest, most overt thing in the show, which is really hard because Garland emphasizes obvious over all else. It’s so bad. Breaks the verisimilitude immediately.

It also gives Garland a chance to establish how Mizuno, despite working in tech and dating tech guys, thinks tech culture is insipid. I mean, sure, but wouldn’t we have seen this take expressed in the last six episodes not at just the right moment for Garland to score a point?

Devs (2020) s01e04

I believe the technical term for what writer, director, and show creator Alex Garland does with the “cold open.” Artsy-fartsy. I mean, it’s not bad or anything, it’s just blandly stylized. Though in a somewhat different way than usual. It doesn’t have that “compare it to Kubrick” desperation Garland fills the rest of the series with.

Anyway.

The show’s shaken out to have two storylines—the tramlines of determinism with Nick Offerman and Alison Pill and Sonoya Mizuno trying to escape Zach Grenier, who presents some kind of danger to her. Offerman and Pill have a big disagreement about what the Devs project should be used for, with Pill taking a pragmatic approach Offerman doesn’t endorse. But it turns out Pill knows Offerman better than he knows himself. Because she’s a de facto oracle… maybe. Fellow Devs dev Stephen McKinley Henderson is convinced Pill breaks the rules for “The Machine”—basically no porn and no prediction (the latter not the former)—and it’s a nice bit of character development and levity. Though Cailee Spaeny’s subplot about sound waves, which includes the closest the show’s come to explaining the “science” of the Devs project, albeit without any details to ground it in any reality, ours or the show’s, is disappointing.

And when’s the last time you wrote a four comma sentence.

The Spaeny subplot, which involves Offerman and Pill’s disagreement about the project goals, is kind of a narrative waste given Offerman immediately capitulates to Pill. So it wastes Spaeny, making her—okay, so we also find out Spaeny’s character’s pronouns are he/him, which means Garland had a trans character and didn’t cast a trans person but it’s also not a surprise because a lot of “Devs” feels like Garland low-key responding to complaints about inclusion and his last movie (though Janet Mock apparently wasn’t playing a trans character, which is great but also doesn’t seem like it makes up for casting a woman as a man). Not my lane but also not Garland’s so….

Meanwhile, Mizuno gets a full action sequence—and a surprisingly not good one, given how much effort Garland puts into the composition he apparently doesn’t have any thoughts on action—and gets to hang out with Jin Ha a bit, which is great because Ha’s in it and Ha’s amazing. He’s with Mizuno for the morning and then she comes back that night after her adventures. There’s also this weird thing where Mizuno and Ha argue about why they broke up years before and then the episode ends with Mizuno telling Ha he was right and she was wrong, even though she rightly pointed out neither of them actually knew how to navigate international industrial espionage drama.

But then when the cliffhanger hits, it’s so over-the-top—Garland bellowing, “Call me Kubrick”—I guess it doesn’t really matter because the characters are finally in real danger. High tension!

Devs (2020) s01e03

About three-quarters through this episode, when I was wondering if Alex Garland had indeed both written and directed this episode as well because it sure doesn’t have as much of the directorial flourish as the two previous episodes, I also realized the show’s closed its open questions. Three-quarters of the way through episode three of eight. And the new A plot Garland does introduce at the end of this episode doesn’t really seem like it’s going to get good mileage.

Of course, it turns out the sensational but entertaining open—albeit entirely ripped out of Timeline at this point—is going to be the episode high point. Unless you count a Janet Mock cameo as Nick Offerman’s favorite senator, who wants to know what he’s got cooking in the Devs department. Mock brings some energy.

Though, given we find out Devs workers Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson use “The Machine” for porn and it turns into a comedy thing with disapproving Alison Pill, this episode does have a lot of energy. But the main cast’s performances are still muted.

Except when lead Sonoya Mizuno has a panic attack in Zach Grenier’s office during a meeting where she tells Grenier all about dead boyfriend Karl Glusman being a spy and whatnot. It’s Mizuno’s best scene in the series so far. By far.

But then when Mizuno heads back to Jin Ha’s apartment to examine all the evidence she’s collected, they pretty quickly discover the answers to all Mizuno’s questions. They don’t have the motives and they don’t know what’s going in the Devs department, but Mizuno’s arc is basically done.

Though I’m still confused what the reversed security camera footage thing Garland does at the end (he’s seen Zodiac too, by the way). It either discounts Mizuno and Ha’s discoveries or it just turns out Offerman and Grenier are kind of dopes.

Devs (2020) s01e01

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a director more desperately want to be compared to Stanley Kubrick than “Devs” creator, writer, and director Alex Garland. The show’s a stylistic mash-up of 2001 and The Shining, maybe with some Eyes Wide Shut thrown in (for the street scenes).

It takes place in San Francisco at a Google-esque tech company, run by a mumblecore dramatic Nick Offerman (with a Stallman beard going, no toe cheese yet), and involves some young programmers. There’s Karl Glusman, a Russian guy who came to the States after undergrad, and his girlfriend, Sonoya Mizuno, who’s third generation Chinese-American. Why’s it important? Because when Glusman gets promoted to the corporation’s most elite project—Devs—security chief Zach Grenier (at his most Zach Grenier) doesn’t like the idea of a Russian and a Chinese person around.

Though it’s unclear when “Devs” takes place, is it present-day or near future, does Garland have some other kinds of sociopolitical situations in mind or are they “just” our own.

There’s a big bait and switch in the episode—followed by Garland trying to amp up the Kubrick with some Fincher thrown in—but it’s not a big enough one to distract from Garland not actually explaining the Devs department. It’s this mysterious bunker lab with a Phase IV garden outside—there are various “hints” at to what it’s going to be through references, like when Mizuno is reading Colossus (AI goes wild). Phase IV is hyper-intelligent ants. Is Offerman making hyper-intelligent ants?

Neat.

But we don’t find out this episode. Instead, we find out things are not what they seem at the company, which maybe should be obvious from the giant “statue” of a little girl, the company logo, towering over the campus like a less disquieting Palomar statue.

The best performance—oh, the cast also includes Alison Pill as Offerman’s sidekick—but the best performance is Jin Ha, as Mizuno’s ex-boyfriend. She goes to him for help when Glusman flips out post-first day in Devs.

Really good cinematography from Rob Hardy.

“Devs” looks great. It’s manipulative and basic (albeit in 20th century sci-fi deep cuts), but it does look great.

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