AppleTV+’s unnerving series starts as corporate satire but ends up somewhere far sadder, stranger, and more spiritual.
Do you hate your work life infringing on your home life? Can you not stand having to deal with outside issues while at your desk? The Severance program just might be for you.
That’s the Lumon–the corporation at the center of Severance–sales pitch. Through the magic of a simple procedure, employees can escape their home baggage with a day at the office. Even better, they never have to worry about bringing work home, figuratively or literally. It’s the corporate dream of the undistracted worker. It’s the employee’s fantasy of never having to spend a moment thinking about work while not on the clock. The only thing unrealistic about it at all is a company truly only working you for eight hours.
For Mark (Adam Scott), Lumon felt like an opportunity to escape his grief. Unable to keep working as a teacher after his wife’s death, Mark needed some other kind of job. The Lumon way allowed him to earn a paycheck blissfully ignorant of his pain. Sure, the grief saturated every other part of his existence. However, as an innie—the term for the severeds’ work selves—he can just be the benign clown of the office.
Soon, however, circumstances upend his blank slate nine to five existence. It begins when his best work friend/leader of the office, Petey (Yul Vazquez), is unexpectedly let go. Mark takes his place, and new recruit Helly (Britt Lower) arrives to fill out the office quartet. Unfortunately, Helly makes Mark time in the new position an immediate nightmare. She lacks the other team members’—including true believer Irving (John Turturro) and perk motivated Dylan (Zach Cherry)—natural commitment to Lumon.
Severance plays out as an absurdist satire of corporate life in this early section. The employees are so disconnected from their purpose they can only vaguely describe how to do the job. Ask them what it’s all for and they have no answer. Perks include the kind of stuff one buys with tickets at a child’s arcade, a five-minute dance party, and a “waffle party” in which one person sits alone in a room eating a waffle.
Outtie life is similarly satirical. The meaning is clear. The severed leave their job in that grey underground bunker of a workplace. However, things topside have slowly embraced the saddest aspects of corporate life. The petty pedantry and the empty relationships. The “we’re here for you” condescension of higherups. The squabbling with your peers over too little while dutifully ignoring those with too much.
Mark’s brother-in-law Rickon (Michael Chernus) is the overly friendly acolyte of GOOP and naturalness we all must endure. Protestors calling for an end to Severance are right. Still, they can’t stop talking down to the very people they insist they’re trying to help. Mark’s interactions in his subdivision are all passive-aggressiveness. They’re attempts to negotiate for either rules upheld or a slightly sweeter deal than the person next door.
Then things take a turn.
There is no single moment where it happens, so it is hard to say when a viewer may notice it. But somewhere around the third or fourth episode, it becomes undeniable. Severance is about much more than satire. The world gets bigger, darker, and more complicated. Corporate lingo gives way to straight out religious fervor. Management transitions from overly invasive to Big Brother. Censure becomes synonymous with torture.
Not since Russian Doll has a show managed to explore the physical and the metaphysical with such complexity and assuredness.
Then the series adds in one more layer of analysis. The severance process becomes a metaphor for life and life after death. One side theorizes about what life must be like above. They tell themselves and each other tales of the perfection that awaits them every evening. The other side knows where they’ve been but cannot connect with that version of themselves. They cannot interact with the people they knew below. It’s a daily cycle of death and resurrection; drudgery leavened by an imagined place of perfection they go to but can never really know. Not since Russian Doll has a show managed to explore the physical and the metaphysical with such complexity and assuredness.
With his poorly chosen haircut and his off-the-rack suits, Scott seems only waxy at first. He gives off the vibes of a man wasting away underneath his skin. However, the worse his life gets at Lumon, the healthier he starts to seem. He’s almost like a reverse Renfield, a man pulling away from the thing that he pledged fidelity to while it sucked him dry.
The rest of the pod are good, too. Turturro especially stands out as someone losing the zeal of the converted. His role especially takes off when Burt (Christopher Walken), a character from another part of the Lumon’s labyrinthian office structure, shows up. They have a sweet hesitant chemistry aided by Walken’s warm, gentle performance.
The company’s representatives are strongly cast as well. Patricia Arquette plays the boss Harmony Cobel at just the right pitch. She’s the kind of supervisor who tricks you into thinking she’s on your side. Meanwhile, she’s patiently cutting your confidence to ribbons. Her second-in-command, Milchick (Tramell Tillman), is the iron fist in the velvet glove. He’s all cruise ship party coordinator energy until crossed. The way he can turn his placid voice into a weapon is chilling.
This is creator Dan Erickson’s first credited experience on television. Nonetheless, he seems to grasp the medium well, using its size and scope well to create the Lumon world. He also has excellent support from Executive Producer Ben Stiller who directs two-thirds of the episodes. Aoife McArdle, fresh off Brave New World, directs the other three. The two directors play well off each other. Severance definitely has a claustrophobic style, draped in the greys and blues of winter and depressional doldrums. McArdle and Stiller both make their marks, but neither violates the sense of shared space in favor of personal style.
Still, it all comes back to Scott. He’s never been better in a dramatic turn. To single out one example, watch how he responds to a rather silly self-help book. Full of clichés and purple prose, it could easily seem ridiculous. Instead, however, Scott as innie Mark sells its transformative power. There’s no over-the-top moment of transformation, but the way he protects it, how he repeats its couplets, makes an impression. It all quietly tells the story of someone realizing his worth.
New episodes of Severance clock in every Friday on AppleTV+.