HBO’s Westworld and FX’s Devs are two of the best sci-fi shows on television. But while they’re tackling similar themes, one is the clear winner. Read on to learn more.
Let’s clear the air for a second: Season 3 of HBO’s Westworld is actually pretty fun. Last Sunday, Episode 5, “Genre,” treated us to what could rightfully be considered shark-jumping. Aaron Paul’s Caleb was dosed with a drug that made his perception of reality shift between different movie genres, complete with bombastic soundtrack changes. There was a brief Trainspotting nod. For a moment, he thought he and Dolores were in a melodramatic romance. It was all very silly, but ultimately a good time.
The problem, if it can be called a problem, is that Westworld is now a very, very different show than it was back in Season 1, when it was laser-focused on the deadly serious, gut-wrenching plight of hosts suffering at the hands of their human creators and tormenters. Westworld was a show about free will and humanity, one that used drama, humor, and violence to raise complex questions and suggest intelligent, nuanced answers. Now, it’s a show where Flight of the Valkyrie plays Apocalypse Now-style as Aaron Paul blows up futuristic cars with a rocket launcher.
So, regardless of how fun Westworld might be this year, there’s a good chance there’s still a Westworld-shaped hole in your heart right now. Thankfully, we’ve found something to fill it. Enter FX (on Hulu)’s Devs.
At first glance, these two shows don’t seem to have much in common. Westworld is a prestige drama about a robot uprising, Devs is a miniseries about a Google-like tech company–not the kind building robots for an amusement park, the kind that makes cell phones and search algorithms. But it’s far from being apples-to-oranges. Beneath all the flash and artifice, removed from all the big set pieces and complicated, nesting-doll plotlines, both Devs and Westworld are asking the same core question: What does it actually mean to be human? It’s a sci-fi standby that has been fueling the genre for decades, but as real technology rapidly catches up to the realm of fantasy, the stories we tell about it have been forced to change and adapt in kind.
Westworld’s answer for this has become relatively simple: Freedom of choice is what makes a person a person. Seasons 1 and 2 followed Dolores on her meandering path through self-actualization and eventual deviation from her “narrative loop” within the park. Now, in Season 3, she’s escaped into the “real world,” but rapidly learned that freedom doesn’t exist for humans either–there’s a giant supercomputer named Rehoboam writing the destiny of every person on Earth. This puts her in the unique position of being one of the only genuinely “unscripted” people on the planet, an “anomaly” within the system; a total 180 from her old status quo.
That’s where Westworld’s major themes starts to falter. Season 3 is less interested in peeling back the layers of Dolores’s identity and her relationship to humanity, and more excited to continue ratcheting the dial up to 11 with shootouts, explosions, and spy games. It’s about uprising and war, us vs. them, the hosts against the humans; black hats against white hats and all the chaos that entails. Free will is real, it’s all just a matter of tearing down the systems impeding it with all the brute force Dolores can muster.
Devs takes an equal but opposite approach, opting to lean into the complexity of the questions posed and stalwartly refusing to file down any of their sharper edges in the service of flashy action. Devs answers the question of “what makes a person” with more questions: What if free will doesn’t exist at all and there is literally no such thing as an unscripted life? How do you define humanity once you realize every choice you’ve ever made was, in fact, predetermined?”
Sure, there are no robots, no one’s wearing a cowboy hat or brandishing a six-shooter, and there aren’t any nameless men-in-black hopscotching around a non-linear timeline for you to theorize about week-to-week–but that’s alright. What Devs brings to the table is worth more thought and introspection. And if the complicated questions of early Westworld are what hooked you, Devs can and will deliver on them in spades, with an easy-to-binge 8 episode run and the aesthetic sensibilities with which creator Alex Garland has made a name for himself in films like Ex Machina and Annihilation.
It might make your brain hurt a little (or more than a little), but it’s worth it, especially if the trickier, more cerebral parts of Westworld’s early days were the things that kept you invested in the world of robots and cowboys. Besides, Westworld Season 3 will be there waiting when you’re done questioning the nature of your own existence and whether or not you’ve ever actually made a real choice.
Devs is available in its entirety streaming on Hulu now.
Disclosure: ViacomCBS is GameSpot’s parent company
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