Severance stands out in an age of binge-watching and television seasons that come out all at once. It’s a show you won’t want to watch all at once. Severance is an extraordinarily suspenseful sci-fi horror series that builds tension over the duration of the show’s nine episodes, despite its appearance as a mundane workplace drama. Each new chapter offers the opportunity to observe something even more messed up and to learn about the dark depths to which the capitalist machine is willing to fall. You’ll need some breathing room in between to let it all sink in – and maybe catch your breath.
This page includes spoilers for Severance’s first season.
Severance gets off to a sluggish start. The show revolves around a relatively new treatment known as severance, which divides a worker’s brain in half. This essentially permits people to skip work for eight hours a day and focus on their personal lives. Meanwhile, the work self (also known as “innies” and “outies”) is trapped in a life that revolves solely around work. Their entire existence revolves around the office. Memory may now be dictated spatially thanks to technology. Your life and memories are yours until you take the Lumon Industries elevator down to the severed floor and start working. Your time and memories become your innie’s — and Lumon’s — from that point on.
Mark is the one who introduces us to the concept (Adam Scott). Mark is grieving the loss of his wife on the outside, and he signed up to be severed in the hopes of ignoring those feelings for at least a portion of the day. He’s the cheerful department head of Lumon’s macrodata refinement division on the inside, where he and three other employees, Dylan (Zach Cherry), Helly (Britt Lower), and Irving (John Turturro), spend their days doing… something. It’s never obvious what their job entails, despite assurances that it’s obscure and vital. It primarily entails locating “scary” numbers on a perplexing grid.
It’s easy to see why severing is appealing at first. Work is a drag. Who wouldn’t want to eliminate the drudgery from their lives and concentrate on the positive aspects? However, it rapidly becomes evident that the solution is unworkable. It’s a complete nightmare for the innies. Their lives take place solely within the confines of Lumon’s basement. When they leave work, the first thing that comes to mind is the next day’s arrival. They are aware of the effects of sleep, but they have never experienced it. Collecting office baubles like Lumon-branded finger traps becomes a genuine motivation when things become really bad. A smuggled book of New Age philosophical nonsense arrives at the department, and the refiners treat it as if it were the most important work of literature ever produced. After all, anything would be better than an employee handbook when that’s all you’ve ever read.
As the show progresses, you gain a greater sense of unease — and, finally, utter horror — as you discover more about Lumon and what life is like in the basement. The corporation itself resembles Amazon if it were run by Scientologists, only far more nasty. We’ve been told it’s a pharmaceutical corporation with interests in a variety of industries. Many of the employees — at least those we see, including Mark’s supervisor, Patricia Arquette, who plays her role with unnerving passion – venerate the company’s creator like a religious figure, down to the continual recitation of dogma. A variation of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, portraying Lumon founder Kier Eagan peering out into the great unknown, can be found in the optics and design section, among other terrifying Romantic era-style paintings of interdepartmental warfare.
Severance thrives on the unknown. It’s a show that, like Lost and Yellowjackets, enjoys throwing viewers unexplainable curveballs that are sometimes explained, sometimes not. Strange turns are frequently the source of the progressively growing sense of dread in Severance. Some of this is due to the show’s aesthetics: the sliced floor appears like it belongs in another dimension. It’s almost like a 1960s cubicle farm, but with weird retrofuturistic computers, meandering halls meant for maximum perplexity, and a breakroom that doubles as a psychological torture chamber. Also, there’s a room full of baby goats. It’s the kind of show where a happy waffle party quickly devolves into something strange and unsettling.
The dual nature of the severed characters adds to the sense of mystery. Each actor is effectively portraying two distinct characters with opposing desires. However, due to the surgically altered nature of their brains, they only know half of the narrative. Outie Mark has no notion what goes on at work during the hours he’s there, and innie Mark has no concept what’s going on in the outside world or the implications of widespread severance pay. While you may be perplexed while watching, the characters in the show have it a lot worse. It’s also worth noting that the producers of Severance clearly enjoy artistic cliffhangers of the “Not Penny’s boat” sort. This extends to the finale, which, while answering some key concerns and delivering some shocking revelations, still leaves a lot of questions unanswered for Severance’s upcoming second season. When the credits roll, you may scream at your screen.
When you put it all together, you have a performance that presents the ugliest possible picture of how megacorporations view and treat their workers. We’ve all heard stories about what tech companies try to get away with in the real world; Severance imagines a future where employees willingly join up to be lab rats, allowing them to do absolutely anything in secret. No one will ever know about the goats or the breakroom if things go Lumon’s way. However, the suspense and dread are well worth it. Severance’s inaugural season is tense, but it’s also a lot more enjoyable than a Lumon-allocated Music Dance Experience.
Severance’s first season is now available to watch on Apple TV Plus.
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