Severance Season 1 (Apple TV+)
Written by Dan Erickson, Andrew Coville, Kari Drake, Anna Ouyang Moench, Amanda Overton, Helen Leigh, and Chris Black
Directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle
So Apple TV+ officially has its first great show. I was curious about the streaming platform at its launch in 2019 but didn’t find any of that initial batch of programs worth keeping up with. They weren’t terrible, just nothing that caught my attention. We watched the first and second seasons of Servant, but I haven’t found myself interested enough to watch the latest one. Then I started seeing a solid buzz about Severance, a show whose title seems so generic. I’d seen Adam Scott’s face in the marketing materials and thought it was just some workplace comedy I wouldn’t be interested in. Oh, how wrong I was. By the time we got to the final episode of the first season, I was fully convinced this is approaching Twin Peaks levels of good. In the same way, Lynch & Frost were using the tropes of the primetime soap opera, Severance has taken the workplace comedy and turned it completely on its head.
Lumon Industries has revolutionized the work-home dynamic with a simple outpatient operation. This is used primarily for a company division dealing with sensitive data. The workers have a small device implanted in their brains that creates a split persona. This severed person only experiences life inside the office, so at the end of the day, their trip to the elevator results in the doors opening on their next day of work. Referred to as “innies,” they have no idea about the life and relationships their body experiences with their “outie.” Mark (Adam Scott) took the job as a means to escape his profound grief over his wife’s death. He works alongside other severed people who have adapted to this form of existence in various ways. For some, the office and their job have taken on a spiritual capacity, it is the only existence they know, and they have imbued it with profound mysticism. Lumon uses this yearning for spiritual fulfillment to its advantage, turning department goals and associated awards into an overwhelming ritual. The newest recruit, Helly (Britt Lower), wants nothing to do with this, but she can’t quit because her “outie” possesses all legal rights to determine whether she stays or leaves. But Helly’s arrival signals the beginning of a significant change and possibly the end of Lumon and the severed program.
Working in America is a horrific experience, despite how sitcoms play into the “family” angle and try to find warmth in a brutal & violent system. Severance, at its core, is an exploration of how sick & twisted capitalism is and how it cruelly exploits people to control their thoughts and movements for the sake of profit. The severed are never viewed as human beings by Lumon management, played brilliantly by Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman. Instead, they are company assets with which new means of punishment have been developed to deal with them. Severed undergo intense psychological torture if they step out of line numerous times, and it’s through Helly’s attempts at rebellion we come to see how far Lumon will go.
On the surface, severing sounds like a dream. You can wake up, go to work, not remember any of it, and come to onboard the elevator on the way home. Never having to live through the daily grind of labor feels like a great relief to the psyche. However, for the innie, you have damned them to Hell. They will never experience genuine relationships or take in the beauty of the world beyond the office walls. Knowing this, Lumon supplements natural beauty and experience with artificial corporate crap. There’s a wing of the office dedicated to the Founders, the extended family line of owners presented as mythic, saint-like figures. Irving (John Turturro), the studious and faithful worker, can quote sections from the Lumon bible, the collected writings of the company founder. A tiered system of rewards results in worthless knick-knacks being added to a worker’s desk or a waffle party for the MVP of the month. There’s also a strange orgy involving masks and costumes for that worker.
Severance manages to explore perspective as one of its major themes, that the same thing viewed by two different psyches can have entirely different meanings. A self-help book full of eye-rollingly dense advice finds its way into the building and into the hands of the innies. For you or I, we could immediately identify the shallow pop-psychology of such a text, but for an innie who has no frame of reference for such a thing, it becomes hallowed. I found this one of the most impressive magic tricks the show pulls off, making us feel overwhelming emotion through a character reading this book. It shouldn’t work, but the confident direction of Ben Stiller completely sells it.
Severance doesn’t exist in a vacuum, though, and it clearly has been influenced by other television programs. The mixture of religion & corporate culture feels somewhat like the Dharma Initiative from Lost. There’s so much mystery here and so many things set up for future seasons that I felt that tinge of excitement I used to feel watching Lost and trying to piece everything together. I get the sense from these first nine episodes that there is a clear answer that won’t have to be delayed because the network orders 20+ episode seasons. As previously mentioned, I felt some spiritual kinship with Twin Peaks in that Severance is playing with familiar tropes and putting a horrific spin on them. There’s also some similar storytelling in Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, another show about the malleability of memory. But one of the strongest influences I felt while watching this first season was The Prisoner. The bowels of Lumon feel like the island from that wild British head trip of a series, and Mark’s struggle with being reduced to a corporate tool is similar to the fight of Number Six against the labyrinthine conspiracy he was embroiled in.
I foresee Severance topping my favorite television of 2022 list come December. It’s a show that is so spectacularly good that it will be hard to beat. Every piece of the program, from the filmmaking technique to the performances to the scripts, is perfectly done. At a time when labor in America is reaching a type of fever-pitch in terms of brutality on the worker, Severance examines how twisted our relationship with our employers has really become. Hopefully, our innies will find a way out of this nightmare, but the question of how two minds can exist in one body remains unanswered.