Creator: Dan Erikson
Directors: Ben Stiller, Aoife McArdle
Writers: Dan Erickson, Andrew Colville, Kari Drake, Anna Ouyang Moench, Amanda Overton, Helen Leigh, CHris Black
Cast: Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken, John Turturro, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, Dichen Lachman
Cinematographer: Jessica Lee Gagné
Editor: Erica Freed Marker
Streaming on: Apple TV+
A wickedly inventive take on the idea of corporate America as mindless drones, Apple TV+ series Severance is scarily good, its biggest accomplishment stemming from how it translates a high-concept, radical sci-fi premise into the chilling natural extension of not having a life outside of work. The nine-episode show taps into the gnawing unease of what it means to spend one’s life in service of an uncaring corporation — a sentiment popularised by recent internet corners such as r/antiwork, but one that modern culture has long tried to suppress, normalise, or worse, fetishise as ‘the grind’. Anyone who’s ever dragged themselves to a dead-end job or been made to feel guilty for taking time off will not only find themselves seen, but also be prodded to interrogate their role in a system that conditions them to act against their own self interests.
The series unfolds at the mysterious Lumon Industries, where the employees on a single floor undergo a ‘severance’ procedure to separate their professional lives from their personal ones. Upon clocking in, an implant in their brain suppresses any memories of their homes, families or identity. On leaving for the day, they have no recollection of what they did back at work. What initially sounds like the ideal work-life balance scenario has more sinister implications as the employees’ work personas are effectively trapped in the drudgery of their daily job, unable to experience the rest, pleasure or companionship that their outside versions do. Sold an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) dream, they’re relegated to a tethered-from-Us (2019) nightmare. The sprawling production design of the Lumon offices heightens their sense of isolation. Endless identically white corridors reinforce the impression of the workers as lab rats in a maze, while also evoking the clinical sterility of a hospital. A slyly named Break Room exists only for the higher-ups to systematically break their workers’ spirits and grind them into submission. Good employees are infantalised and trained to accept juvenile rewards such as waffles and erasers for their work.
The writers deftly locate the dry humour in this bleak, Orwellian landscape, satirising corporate culture and mining the inane minutiae of workplace guidelines and mindless bureaucratic speak for laughs. “A handshake is available upon request,” supervisor Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) tells employee Mark Scout (Adam Scott) in one scene, her face devoid of expression as she notifies him that he’s been promoted. When he decides to take her up on her offer, the camera lingers on her as her composure briefly drops in shock. Mark’s status as a grieving widower initially justifies his reason for opting for the severance procedure, even as his defensiveness gradually makes it clear he hasn’t thought it through. For eight hours every day, he gets to escape the crushing weight of grief by forgetting he ever had a wife he loved and lost. For the rest of his day, he gets to block out the tedium of working as a macrodata refiner, a job that’s as mind-numbing as it sounds.
It takes the arrival of new hire Helly (Britt Lower), who instinctively chafes against the restraints of a life that’s all work, no play, to illustrate just how desensitised to their prison the other employees have become. Forced back into work everyday by an outside persona that cares little for her experiences — Why should she? She doesn’t share them — Helly’s desperation to escape lends each episode an undercurrent of fear. Unlike Mark, her outer persona appears in the show only fleetingly, a smart decision that offers viewers little visual respite from her office setting and reinforces her claustrophobia.
It’s immediately obvious that a company this insistent on its employees having no memory of their work must be up to no good, and a gripping mystery subplot becomes yet another strand of this skilfully knotted show. Sharp editing keeps viewers as in the dark as the severed characters’ halves at times, cutting away from an ominous office scene to the same employee enjoying life on the outside, reinforcing the separation of identities within the same body. A majority of the episodes end with heart-stopping cliffhangers that feel like an organic consequence of its premise, rather than just a narrative gimmick. The finale is one of the most thrilling 40 minutes in television history, though those looking for all the answers will have to bide their time till season 2.
The most frightening aspect of Severance, however, is the way it evokes a futuristic dystopia to cannily hold a mirror to the modern-day workforce. In one scene, the frustrated employees theorise about the work they’re doing, reassuring themselves it must be vital to life on Earth if their outer personas are willing to subject them to this hellscape. Their rationalisations are bound to resonate uncomfortably with anyone who’s questioned whether a job has ever been worth sacrificing their health or self respect for. As the show progresses, the workspace begins to assume a cult-like significance. Workers reverently reference the office handbook the way one would quote from scripture. Contraband material is referred to as ‘idolatrist texts’. But as hard as Lumon tries to dehumanise its workers, the writing works harder, making it impossible not to care for Mark, Helly and their teammates Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry), who embark on shy romances, get into petty squabbles and strive desperately to be seen as whole, rather than just a part to be programmed into service. Through Mark, Severance also reveals itself as a delicate tale of the necessity of acknowledging grief, instead of numbing oneself to it. He seems to exist in a perpetual winter, the setting of his home as cold and empty as his workspace. The show understands that burying the past was his way out, but makes it clear that it can’t be his way forward. Under its genre thrills, Severance contains a poignant message — forgetting may be a convenience, but remembering is a luxury.