tv review

Prepare to Give Yourself Over to Severance

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Apple TV+

In 1953, in an early indication of the anti-capitalist, anti-authority themes that would define his work for decades to come, Philip K. Dick published the short story Paycheck. A man named Jennings wakes up with no memory of the past two years and no idea of the work he did in that time for Rethrick Construction. He agreed to have “his mind washed clean” after finishing the job, he acknowledges, but his current self doesn’t know why his previous self made that choice. Was it out of self-preservation or fear? Eventually, with no ability to communicate with the Jennings who was, the Jennings who is must acquiesce: “Maybe it wasn’t so bad, after all. Almost like being paid to sleep … It was like selling part of himself, part of his life. And life was worth plenty, these days.”

Dick’s nearly 70-year-old warning against corporate secrecy and the individual erasure that comes along with such corruption is given thrilling, disturbing new life in Severance, the first two episodes of which premiere on February 18 on Apple TV+. Creator and showrunner Dan Erickson hasn’t mentioned Paycheck in interviews about his series, but the prevailing discontent of Dick’s oeuvre has been consistently prescient, and to consider Severance as falling under the sci-fi icon’s long shadow is high praise. This is a confidently written, stylishly directed first season of television in which every well-paced episode fits into the overall puzzle, character arcs are thoughtfully conceived, and the oddities and eccentricities of the central mystery are given space to unfurl. The series’ dialogue and visual language combined with Erickson’s narrative — a pressure cooker of obfuscation and surveillance that pulls off nods to Michael Clayton, Mr. Robot, Ex Machina, and Eyes Wide Shut — create an overall tenor of violation against us by them, and the effect is one of immersive watchability.

The details of Severance’s time and place are purposefully vague, but that non-specificity is an asset for the sprawling world established in this first season. Big Bad corporation Lumon Industries could be anywhere because the conditions that make its abuse of workers and corresponding financial success possible are everywhere. The guiding tension here is twofold — between employee and employer and between present and former selves — and over the course of nine episodes, Severance builds dynamism in deliberate detail. How could the promise of a work-life balance be used against you? What would powerlessness drive you to do, and what would power?

For answers, look to Adam Scott’s face, alternately bemused and blank and furious and indignant as Lumon employee Mark, suddenly thrust into a management role in the season premiere. Scott’s work here is less Parks and Recreation, more Party Down: His good-natured handsomeness and that easy grin are a veil, separating a fraught, self-doubting interior from a genial, polite exterior. Nearly every actor involved is giving a dual performance, and Severance is galvanized by the moments of realization and recognition that allow the intrinsic who of these characters to break free. When the series begins, it’s Mark’s voice explaining to new co-worker Helly (Britt Lower) what she’s gotten herself into, crackling through a blue telecom speaker in a green-carpeted room (colors that art directors Angelica Borrero and Nick Francone and set decorator Andrew Baseman use as delineation points throughout the series). Helly, like Jennings in Paycheck, has no memory of accepting a job at Lumon Industries or agreeing to its requirement for employee “severance,” a procedure that divides work and personal memories in one’s brain.

The second episode shows that procedure in grotesque, A Clockwork Orange–esque detail: a slit in the scalp, a drill through the skull (the bone dust is a particularly jarring detail), and a chip inserted deep inside. Severance is spatially dictated, meaning one can’t access personal memories when at work or access work memories after they leave their floor at Lumon. Their “outie” version might have a family and hobbies, but their “innie” self can’t remember any of those details — nor can it remember ever leaving the Lumon Industries building. There is no conception of weekends, vacations, or time off. “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back,” Helly is told by Mark, who’s backed up by her other new co-workers: the vulgar and irreverent Dylan (Zach Cherry, building on his Succession persona) and the tightly wound, by-the-book Irving (John Turturro). And although Helly can’t believe it, a video from her outie confirms that severance was her choice and that her innie has to live with it.

“Am I dead?,” one of the first questions Helly asks Mark, looms over Severance. If the innie versions of their consciousness are stuck in their basement office, basically engineered to care only about work, that’s not really living. Yet Lumon Industries, with its patronizing “We’re all family here” talk, asks its employees to offer thanks for the opportunity at subjugation. It’s unclear what Mark, Dylan, Irving, and Helly actually do in the macrodata-refinement (MDR) department — one of the season’s funniest lines is Helly’s incredulous “My job is to scroll through the spreadsheet and look for numbers that are scary?” But they’re not allowed to talk with other departments about what they do, either. Maps of the compound, with its mid-century–meets–iMac G3–commercial aesthetic, are banned. Characters offhandedly mention loyalty tests (Turturro gives a bleakly amusing line reading of “Remember the spicy candy?”), and the “break room,” only reachable through a menacingly narrow hallway, is where employees are mentally tortured for stepping out of line.

The only comfort to be found is wellness director Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), who assuages innie employees’ work concerns by telling them how strong, powerful, and unique their outie counterparts are; the tree in her office is one of the few organic beings from the outside world that the innies will ever see. Overlooking all this strangeness is a faceless, voiceless Board, which speaks through girlboss representative Natalie (Sydney Cole Alexander, quite good); the zealous Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette, great), whose strange home life hints at an obsessive personality; and the nefariously cheery employee handler Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman, even better), who redefines the concept of a dance battle in one standout episode.

But what is all this for? The third episode metes out morsels of context about Kier Eagan, the mythic creator of Lumon who spoke of tempers within the body that needed to be tamed, who outlined nine core principles of how to live, and who basically transformed his pharma company into a gigantic cult with significant political juice. Otherwise, though, Severance — like the recent, also wonderful Yellowjackets — holds itself back from giving away too much. Erickson & Co. provide just enough information for rampant theorizing without letting the narrative fall down the rabbit hole; a series of paintings depicting different versions of an employee uprising, and how it suggests a malleable truth decided by the Lumon higher-ups, will definitely spawn a Reddit thread. Also up for discussion: all the analog technology, the room of creepy wax figures of Lumon CEOs past, the company’s snack choices for employee parties (deviled eggs and waffles), and the occult imagery sprinkled throughout Kier’s backstory.

Severance doesn’t exactly go in a horror direction, though, and that restraint is aided by director Ben Stiller and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, who gave the miniseries Escape at Dannemora such chilling, fraught tension. Through whip pans of the labyrinthine white hallways and warmly lit close-ups of characters’ faces during their agonizing reeducation, they build an atmosphere of oppressive righteousness that weighs upon Mark and the rest of the MDR crew. Yet when we follow the outie version of Mark and come to understand what inspired him to join Lumon, the outside world is no more welcoming; a shot of his dark home, illuminated only by the light of a computer screen, conveys a pervasive loneliness that no dialogue could.

“You must have had a reason,” someone says of Jennings’s memory wipe in Paycheck, and Severance is shaped by a similar sense of hindsight exploration: Why do we do what we do? The most patience-testing element of Severance is how measured it is in its presentation of helplessness as determined by the irreversibility of our past actions, and the most rewarding element of the series is its suggestion of ingenuity and hope as uncontainable, insuppressible qualities inherent to our humanity. If flaws must be found, the irony and dissonance of this kind of story airing on a tech-based streaming service (à la The Boys on Prime Video) can’t really be reconciled, and viewers looking for all the answers by season’s end will be disappointed. But put aside those qualms and the mercurial, affirming Severance is in contention for the best new series of 2022.

Prepare to Give Yourself Over to Severance