SEVERANCE – Season One
Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives.
From the opening sequence, where Mark (Adam Scott) interviews Helly (Britt Lowe), you’ll be gripped by the unusual world of Severance. She wakes up splayed on an office table, with no memories of her past or who she is… she hears a voice over a speaker, testing her until she becomes angered… and when she runs away, she finds that all exits lead her back to that same room.
This nine-part drama on Apple TV+ is unusual and mysterious from the opening shot. Directed and co-produced by Ben Stiller, Severance explores how far people will go to get the perfect work/life balance. It feels especially timely considering we’ve spent the last few years working from home, struggling to separate the two things more than ever.
In Severance, a big corporation called Lumon have created a technology that can fully separate workers from their home lives, by forcing them to undergo a controversial procedure called ‘Severance’, where their work and home memories and personalities are surgically separated. In the outside world, it’s understandably a controversial policy, championed by the government and protested by the public.
We’re introduced to the horrors of this through the eyes of Helly, who’s a newcomer to Lumon who’s horrified by going through this procedure and having to watch a video of her past self explaining why she undertook the Severance. She tries to quit and escape her job, but all roads lead back to Lumon…
Although Helly is the audience’s eyes, Mark is our real protagonist; a man mourning the death of his wife, who weeps inside his car every morning and appears at work with red eyes. He’s a proponent of Severance, using it as a means to escape his grief during the eight-hour workday.
Scott gives a fantastic dual performance as two different versions of Mark. He’s one of the few characters we get to know both inside and outside of work. At home, he’s sardonic and unravelling, while at work he uses his sarcasm to efficiently manage his small team. Severance is smart to not make the two versions of Mark too extreme in their differences. The separation is a more realistic depiction of the work personas we all construct, to some extent, in order to fit into an environment.
Lumon itself is a terrifying blank space of an office. Mark’s bosses are all sinister and speak in brisk code, spouting corporate buzzwords that have little tangible meaning. Mark manages a little ‘macro data refinement’ team (formed by John Turturro’s Irving and Zach Cherry’s Dylan, alongside Lowe) who sit in tiny cubicles trying to spot “bad numbers.” The fact you never get an explanation of the company’s work and what data is being refined, only adds to the eeriness.
The Lumon set is a fantastically bizarre piece of production design, too. When they leave their office, they enter a world of identical, pastel-coloured labyrinths, where they’re forbidden from mixing in other departments. Anyone who doesn’t follow the strict and often non-sensical rules is sent to a ‘break room’ to consider their choices.
The concept of Severance is fully realised. Any questions audiences may have will likely be asked by Helly and answered by Mark. The entrance elevators can detect messages or written words, meaning you can’t interact with your so-called ‘outie’ self. The writers always seem to be one step ahead of the audience when it comes to making the lore work.
More and more horrors unravel as Helly starts bringing up more queries which cause Mark to dig deeper into what is really happening at Lumon. In the outside world, Mark is trying to date, is set to become an uncle, and is trying to bond with his overbearing neighbour… but this neighbour is actually his boss, Harmony (Patricia Arquette), who’s snooping on Mark over her concern his investigation into the company may reveal sordid secrets.
The central mystery behind Lumon and their procedure pulls you in deeper by each episode. The contrast of such bright imagery and such dark themes feels like it’s come from the mind of writer-director Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Things get weirder and weird, with Irving forming a relationship with Burt (Christopher Walken), who shows the macro data refiners a whole new part of Lumon and Zach getting ‘woken up’ at home by a senior manager.
Some episodes are a little too drawn out because too much time is spent on creating an otherworldly atmosphere rather than getting to know the characters better. The lack of information and backstory builds an eerie tension, but if you like fast-paced television you may struggle with this series.
Severance, which was co-written and created by Dan Erickson and Mohamad el Masri (Here and Now), achieves something all too rare in modern television: it feels unique and relevant. Director Stiller, alongside Aoife McArdle, who shot the other three episodes, create a realised and sinister world that anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment will recognise.
Although Severance impressively mixes thriller with horror and sci-fi, it never runs too far from the truth about everyone’s work/life balance. This show will make you reconsider how much of yourself and your personality you’ve given to a faceless business, and how much they truly care about your freedom.
USA | 2022 | 9 EPISODES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writers: Dan Erickson, Andrew Colville, Kari Drake, Anna Ouyang Moench, Amanda Overton, Helen Leigh & Chris Black.
directors: Ben Stiller & Aoife McArdle.
starring: Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, Jen Tullock, Zach Cherry, Tramell Tillman, Yul Vazquez, Dichen Lachman , Ethan Flower & Michael Chernus.