Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old.
With his feature film Ex Machina, writer/director Alex Garland plays with the concept of AI. Oscar Isaac plays a scientist and entrepreneur who creates androids with artificial intelligence, and in the end, one of those robots manages to leave the confinement of her creator’s home to go out into the real world. Garland’s limited series Devs — or Deus, as it’s ultimately revealed to be (truly? additionally?) called — gives us the inverse. The eight-episode program (available from FX and on Hulu) features Nick Offerman as a scientist and entrepreneur who creates a supercomputer, and in the end, he leaves the real world and enters the confinement of a simulation program.
The fact that the true title, Deus, fits so well with the title of Ex Machina is no accident. Garland admits, “I did think of this in some respects as a companion piece,” though he also, like Offerman’s character’s claim about his company being actually named Deus, says, “It actually began privately as a sort of joke.” But AI and mind uploading are connected sciences and both of Garland’s works deal with a similar pairing of gods and their creations where these terms can be reversed. The scientists are playing god, but that which they’ve created is ultimately more godlike in its power and knowledge. It’s also interesting that Ex Machina ends so similarly to TRON: Legacy when Devs ends with essentially TRON‘s premise.
Of course, there’s a lot more going on with Garland’s series than computer simulations and depicting basically the Matrix as a sort of Heavenly afterlife for two of its main characters. Devs is slow-moving at first as it seems to be, on a superficial level, about corporate espionage and a groundbreaking development in time-travel, at least in an optical manner, and the consideration of predestination versus the many-worlds theory. The former, we learn, is what Forest (Offerman) wants to prove in order to shed guilt about the car crash that killed his wife and daughter (anyone else reminded of Kingpin’s grief-ridden plan in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse?). The latter, though, would allow for another timeline in which Forest’s wife and daughter are still alive, yet that means he made a wrong choice in this one.
For those most interested in the surface story — the one in which it’s way too easy to predict that the homeless guy is a secret agent yet still satisfying to see him show up as an almost deus ex machina kind of plot contrivance and kill off Kenton — being able to comprehend the Everett interpretation and all the other quantum theory stuff is not essential. That’s mostly window dressing anyway, while the primary explanation of the ending of Devs does not have to do with these specific characters and plot nor with scientific and philosophical debates. It’s a Biblical reference, and that’s not surprising given the religious stuff seen in the series so far, most explicitly with the projections of Jesus on the cross.
The climax of Devs contemplates the paradox of God and Eve in the Book of Genesis. In the series’ narrative, the supercomputer is God and Lily (played by Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) is the original woman who committed the original sin of disobedience in the Garden of Eden by taking the forbidden fruit. “You have a sense of God who’s fundamentally presented as omniscient, all-knowing, all-powerful,” Garland explains. “And then you have Eve, who is punished for an act of free will. And the problem is: If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, he knew at the moment he created her that this is what he would do. Or Eve has free will, and is being punished for making a bad decision, in which case God is not all-knowing and all-powerful.”
In the context of Devs, the supercomputer is God because it’s all-knowing with regards to the past and future. The computer has shown that LIly will show up at the Devs building with a gun and kill Forest, which causes her own death and seemingly the destruction of the whole machine. But even after watching the projection herself, Lily makes an alternate choice, tossing the gun aside. She and Forest are still killed anyway, but the timeline has still split from what the computer showed. Therefore, it’s either not an all-knowing computer or it’s known Lily’s choice would happen among the many variations that occur simultaneously across the multiverse but Forest and Katie (Alison Pill) had only been seeing the one version.
Further consideration of the ending has already sparked additional theories about how the whole series was a simulation rather than the “real” world. The fact that Lily awakens at the very spot she’s in at the beginning of the show hints at the possibility that this is happening again, only this time she and Forest have landed in a simulation of the/a timeline in which he can be with his wife and daughter (who should be older than she is here, I think, but no need to go nitpicking). But why wouldn’t she have been conscious of it the first time? Was Forest? And if she wasn’t, wouldn’t that mean she’d been part of the simulation of the series and so the Lily given awareness of the simulation at the end wasn’t real anyway?
Just considering the different depths of a series like Devs is what makes it more interesting, even if not every idea holds up. Maybe Lily awakens in the spot we see at the start of the show because she’s a character in a TV show and it’s all a narrative simulation of life created by the gods involved in its production, primarily Garland (isn’t it funny how the Devs computer is so well-directed in its screening of events?). That’s just how stories work, not necessarily in literal loops but repeated constructs through which to make points visually with familiar sequences and settings. Written characters have no free will, but the filmmaking process does allow for variation. Garland knows that, as well, and he shot the “real” version of the end instead of just using footage from the prophecy projection in order to capture that.
As for what’s going on at the very end of Devs/Deus, literally Forest and Lily have died and their mind and/or consciousness has been uploaded to a computer program, one in which they’re also part of the simulation (in mind uploading, it’s still unclear if the uploaded self is the real self or copy) and nobody else knows they’re just bots, and we know it’s physically so, rather than metaphysically so, because of Katie’s plea to keep the machine on to maintain that life for them. But for me, I still see it as related to the idea of the afterlife being a dream state, not unlike our nightly dreams. To be with a simulation of his daughter, like a mental projection of her as he remembered her (hence she’s not older), is more dream than reality in the Heavenly sense since it’s not a true reunion with the actual post-life Amaya.
And for me, like Garland an atheist who probably doesn’t believe in “Heaven,” that’s as happy an ending for this show and for life as can be. To finish, here’s Garland on why he believes it’s a happy ending, to TV Guide:
“Is it a happy ending? For me it is. It’s not just the free will aspect. It’s not that. It’s actually about love. In this very, very strange world, the underlying physics give rise to complicated philosophical problems. But we have to live in it, and there’s a huge dissonance often between the way we intuitively think the world runs or the way in which we are overtly told that the world runs, in comparison to how it really runs. And we bump up against these things a lot, and it’s difficult, and it’s disturbing, and it unsettles people…Through it all, what we end up with is love… It’s love of friendships and romance and parenthood, in the midst of all these incredibly complicated and sometimes disturbing things, that is what we end up being.”