In recent years, corporations (tech companies in particular) have gotten very good at devising “perks” for employees that are really insidious methods of extracting more labor at a lower cost. Offering workers “unlimited time off” actually discourages vacations. An incentivized company wellness program might provide an employer with an excuse to drop you from their health insurance. Severance, the new streaming series from creator Dan Erickson, producer/director Ben Stiller, and (of all places) AppleTV+ posits that employers might one day offer what seems like the ultimate perk — the ability to completely separate your work and home lives — but actually condemn you to an inescapable hell of endless, mindless toil.
Mark Scout (Adam Scott, Parks & Recreation) is an office worker at Lumon, one of those massive tech corporations that used to do one thing and now does All Things. Like the rest of the workers in his department, Mark has undergone an invasive and supposedly irreversible brain surgery called severance, which essentially splits him into two different people with two different sets of memories, one for work and one for the rest of his life. One Mark takes the elevator down to work each morning and then takes it back up again that evening with no memory of what has transpired in between. The other Mark only exists at work, has no knowledge of his life beyond the sterile, labyrinthine basement office in which he grinds away at his computer.
The idea that one could essentially black out for their working hours and not have to care about them for the rest of the day is appealing at a glance, but Severance wastes no time in demonstrating what a monstrous proposition this would actually be. As new hire Helly (Britt Lower, High Maintenance) quickly discovers, the versions of the Lumon staff who exist inside the office, colloquially known as “innies,” have no agency over their lives. They have no identity other than what the company allows them. They can’t quit, only their “outie” counterparts can, and they have no way to communicate with their other selves. Since they have no knowledge of the outside world apart from what little they need for their work, they don’t even know whether or not it’s any better than the box in which they live. And, since innies only form memories while inside the physical office space, leaving for good is essentially the same as death.
Severance is a thriller that maintains a delicate, precarious tone that feels like it could tip all the way into either horror or comedy at any time. And there are a few laughs, either at the expense of the innies’ ignorance or the cultish corporate culture which, like any good satire, is only a slight exaggeration of the real thing. More pervasive, though, is the feeling of dread that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever worked an unfulfilling job from which there seemed to be no escape. Who among us hasn’t checked our watch or our phone six hours into a workday and wondered, “Is this all there is? Is this how I’m going to spend the rest of my life?” For the innies, these questions have a concrete answer, and it’s “Yes.” The fact that their job is something so laughably simple that most people would find it preferable to whatever it is they do for a living is immaterial. They never go home.
Each of the first two episodes that premiere this week, “Good News About Hell” and “Half Loop,” is itself bifurcated between life in the office and life up above in the “real world.” “Good News About Hell” spends about a half hour setting up the premise before following Mark back up the elevator and exploring what might motivate a person to volunteer for this life. Innie Mark is unburdened, contently resigned to the corporate hell in which he lives. Outie Mark is a deeply depressed recent widower. His only friend is his sister Devon (Jen Tillock, Perry Mason), and he drinks himself to sleep most nights. To him, severance offers the solace that, for eight hours a day, some version of him isn’t miserable. He doesn’t get to enjoy those hours, but to someone who barely wants to be alive, just existing for less time out of the day is a relief. Adam Scott does a fine job of separating the two Marks into distinct characters. That Innie Mark is so endearing and Outie Mark is so empty and borderline unlikable complicates the moral quandary of the show in an interesting way.
The half of each episode spent in the office is used to explore the characters residing there, both Mark’s colleagues in the “Macrodata Refinement” department and the middle managers who pull their strings. Irvine (the great John Turturro) is the team’s elder statesman, settled in and attached to the rules of the office. Dylan (Zach Cheery, You) is committed to creating a sense of accomplishment in his work, hoarding what meager trophies innies are permitted to mark their achievements while their outies enjoy their paychecks. Helly is the new arrival who is still looking for a way to escape, and who asks questions on behalf of the audience as to how this system could possibly function. And there are a lot of questions, so many that I wondered at the end of the first episode whether or not they could even have satisfying answers, but the office portions of “Half Loop” expand on the world of Lumon in ways that only enhance the intrigue.
At the center of that intrigue is Mark’s boss, Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette, Medium), who answers only to the unseen company board. Cobel is an enigmatic figure so far, overshadowed somewhat by office manager Mr. Milchik (Tramell Tillman, Godfather of Harlem). Tillman nails the too-gentle, passive-aggressive voice of a corporate tool whose job it is to convince you that your company is your family and that you owe them your loyalty and gratitude as well as your labor. He’s a menace with a mustache and a smile, a personification of the tone of Severance as a whole: almost funny, but definitely scary. The second episode briefly introduces company therapist Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman, Altered Carbon) and Burt from the art department (Christopher Walken), of whom we’ll certainly be seeing more down the road.
While the underground office half of Severance already has its hooks in me, the “outie” half has yet to make a strong impression. This is the setting for the show’s mystery plot, in which Outie Mark encounters Petey (Yul Vasquez, Russian Doll), his innie’s best friend who has somehow escaped Lumon’s watch and reintegrated his memories. This is clearly what is going to drive the ongoing plot of the season, but the office segments have so much more style and character that the real world becomes, ironically enough, forgettable. This will hopefully not be the case as Outie Mark digs deeper into the dark purpose behind his work for Lumon.
Severance isn’t exactly a groundbreaking work of fiction: The premise of a company wiping an employee’s memory to maintain secrecy goes back at least as far as Philip K. Dick’s 1958 novelette Paycheck. The Lumon office’s mid-century retro-future aesthetic is similar to what appeared last year on the Marvel series Loki. And, certainly, the topic of corporate dehumanization is the subject of a great deal of modern screen media, like Black Mirror and Boots Riley’s pitch-perfect satire Sorry to Bother You. Severance is nevertheless a very stimulating head trip of a social sci-fi that’s willing to plumb its poignant premise for as much eerie intrigue as possible, and I’d highly recommend jumping on board.