The timing was almost suspicious. Just as workers started heading back to the office at the end of the Omicron surge, Apple TV+ released a show that seemed to capture all of these heightened tensions about our relationship with work and play, and which of the two takes primacy and then condenses them into one highly consumable product. The big resignation, the pre-fatigue, the silent abandonment: Severance seemed to anticipate fate with such alarming clarity that you wondered if the masterminds behind the show – creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller – had access to some sort of of future-predicting device, possibly one created by the show’s infamous company, Lumon Industries.
OK, there’s a more likely explanation for all this prescience: the themes at the heart of Severance have pretty much always been relevant. Television has long been fascinated by humanity’s fragile relationship with work, from the days when Lucille Ball stuffed conveyor belt chocolates into her mouth to avoid getting fired. But what Severance has done is infuse these perennial concerns with very modern concerns: corporate malfeasance, data collection, bodily autonomy. The result was a mysterious paranoid thriller that recalled the strongest moments of Lost.
The premise of Severance is almost impossibly lofty: what would life be like if you could split your brain so that your work memories are separate from the non-work related ones? Lumon Industries employees opt for a process where they are essentially split in two: an “innie” and an “outie”. The innie has no memories of life outside of work, the outie remembers nothing outside of his leisure hours. A tantalizing prospect, you might think – but only if you’re the outie. The innie is essentially trapped in 24/7 servitude, knowing only the stark, lit walls of an office.
Severance protagonist Mark (Adam Scott), who offers himself as one of those innie/outie guinea pigs, thinks this bifurcated lifestyle might help him get over the death of his wife. Mark’s innie Mark S works in the nebulously titled department of macro data refinement alongside Dylan G (Zach Cherry), fussy businessman Irving B (John Turturro) and Helly R (Britt Lower ), who, despite being new to the business, is already showing signs of boredom. The team’s day’s work involves placing a series of numbers into digital ‘bins’. They have no idea of the larger purpose of this task and are not allowed to communicate with themselves by, for example, taking a piece of paper with them when they leave for the day. Understandably, however, they begin to chafe at the constraints of their jobs, while outie Mark begins to investigate the company he’s donated half his brains to.
Confuses? Fair enough! Yet, at a time when so many shows are guilty of holding hands, Severance should be commended for its outright refusal to do so. This is a series that wants you to play detective and examine every detail for clues as to what is really going on in Lumon. What is the company actually marketing? Why does the team seem to be working in an office from 1975, while the rest of the world of Severance is set in the present day? What’s wrong with L Ron Hubbard-esque founder of Lumon, Kier Eagan? Why does Irving keep dreaming of being immersed in black mud? Why is there a room in the office full of baby goats?
For all its curious qualities, Severance never feels less than captivating. It’s thanks to the performances, which fill the barren halls of Lumon with warmth and pathos. Lower stands out as Helly R, agonizing over her own futile, office-bound existence, while Scott is impressive playing two subtly different versions of the same character, and Turturro strikes up a heartbreaking and surely doomed relationship with the boss. another department, played by Christopher Walken.
Yes, Christopher Walken. Oh, and Patricia Arquette too, having a ton of fun as Harmony Cobel, Lumon’s Ratched nurse. The severance package is stacked with big names, a sign of the financial clout of the company that backed it. But Apple’s money has been well spent: it looks stunning, in terms of its clean mid-century decor and beautiful symmetrical cinematography. And in Stiller, he’s got one of the most interesting directors working on television right now, perfectly in tune with the show’s singularly eerie vibe, which at times – like the four-minute office dance sequence on the “defiant jazz” soundtrack – is as funny as it is unsettling.
It all culminates in a season finale that showrunners should be studying for years; a sudden burst of satisfying revelations that leaves you desperate for more. There’s a danger that with all his questions unanswered, Severance will write checks that he won’t be able to cash in the end. But that’s a problem for another day. For now, we should be glad that such an original and inventive drama exists. Turn on your brain – or half of it, at least – and enjoy.