There’s a scene in the first episode of Severance in which Adam Scott winds his way through a labyrinth of white, joyless, sterile hallways for a full 87 seconds. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t emote. He just walks. In a pop-culture landscape that has primed us to expect often fast-paced, Sorkin-esque walk-and-talks to provide exposition for our protagonists wherever they go, this interlude is inviting our collective brains to take a beat.
Welcome to the world of Severance, a show that invites you to wonder, think, and interrogate the maddening insistence that we all must strive for “work-life balance” at all costs.
One of the first great shows of 2022, Severance is a new series from Apple TV+, a streamer that is becoming known for taking risks on unique and wild narratives. Severance comes from the mind of writer Dan Erickson, and six of the nine episodes are deftly directed by Ben Stiller. With an all-star cast that boasts dynamite performances from Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken, John Turturro, Britt Lower, and Adam Scott — playing not one but two versions of his character — the series is worth watching for its pedigree alone. Thankfully, it also has a gripping and cerebral plot.
In the dystopian world of Severance, Mark Scout (Adam Scott) is a man who works at an eerie conglomerate called Lumon Industries. He clocks in every day, pops his L. L. Bean duck boots and fancy watch into an industrial locker and then heads down to his job on a “severed” floor of the building. You see, Mark has chosen to go through a process called severance in which he has elected to have his work memories separated from those of his everyday life.
As we come to find in the “real world,” the severance process is mired in ethical, moral, and legal debate, but Mark doesn’t care about all that. He’s simply using it as an attempted escape from his cataclysmic grief over losing his beloved wife, Gemma, in a car crash a few years back.
But severed Mark seems to have a droopy aura of sadness about him too. Or maybe he’s just hungover. As we shadow Mark for a day of work in the premier episode, it’s pretty clear that he’s in over his (severed) head. When his work bestie Petey goes MIA, Mark gets a promotion. Upper management is represented by Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tilman), who appears to be a faithful overseer of operations, and Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who seems to be quite the boss from hell. It’s questionable whether either of these characters are severed like Mark, but they both make formidable impressions.
Fortunately, this oppressive (and supremely weird) duo is balanced by the darkly humorous repartee between the severed coworkers. Irv (John Turturro) seems to have been there the longest, as we hear him recall the good old days when the company incentivized coffee creamer. And Dylan (Zach Cherry) is laser-focused on his work, dreaming of one of Lumon’s new perks, a coveted waffle party.
And newcomer Helly R. (Britt Lower)? Well, to say she’s having a hard time would be an understatement.
As Helly wakes up on top of a conference table, Mark greets her with text from the Lumon manual: “Who are you? Who are you?” he asks, over and over again. Of course she goes ballistic. I mean, wouldn’t you? I would! Girl just had brain surgery and a disembodied voice rudely rouses her by demanding answers to one of the most fundamentally existential human questions in history. Who is she?! She’s woozy! She’s confused! She’s fucking furious!
Mark tries — and mostly fails — to orient Helly to her new reality. She clocks him in the head hard with the speaker and then demands to leave. But she can’t. When Mark leads her to the stairwell that serves as a severed boundary, she continually finds herself spinning right back into the blaring white hallway. Her severed consciousness doesn’t extend past the door, so something — or someone — keeps nudging her back.
Once she gives up, she walks back to Mark. Shellshocked, she asks, “Am I dead? This isn’t like hell or something?” Mark laughs her off with an obvious work laugh and says that it’s not. But maybe it is. At one point, Ms. Cobel shares with Mark some good news about hell (hey, that’s the name of this episode!), which is that it’s a construct made up by overactive human imaginations. BUT. But humans can generally create anything they can dream up, so.
The world-building within Lumon is impressive. Stiller’s thoughtful framing creates a world rife with loneliness. His generous use of lingering overhead angles in the premiere not only establishes the hellish Big Brother anxiety of working for a large conglomerate like Lumon but also vividly conveys the aching loneliness and claustrophobia that can accompany dragging oneself to a thankless cubicle gig day after day after day. Only the severed workers don’t actually have to do the dragging; it’s the “real life” counterparts that do that particular dirty work.
Just like Mark’s brain, the premier episode is neatly split in half between his work life and home life. Balance!
Unfortunately, Mark’s off-the-clock antics aren’t quite as interesting as his Lumon escapades. He strives to click his brain into the “off” position at home as well, zoning out to TV in the dark, getting into trash-day arguments with his dotty neighbor, Mrs. Selvig, and attempting to self-medicate his unchecked grief with wine and beer. His one saving grace is his sister, Devon (Jen Tullock), with whom he seems to have a genuine and deep connection with.
So it’s for the love of Devon that Mark finds himself at a foodless dinner party, which may actually be the true version of hell on earth. If the absence of actual dinner at a dinner party is bad, the insufferable guests make things even worse, especially when Devon’s husband Ricken (Michael Chernus) turns the conversation to Mark’s severed brain. They liken the procedure to “trapping” the work version of Mark in the Lumon basement, which obviously frustrates him. Later, Devon gently mentions to her brother that checking out for eight hours a day doesn’t seem to be the same as healing from his grief, and she’s spot on. But Mark isn’t ready to have that conversation yet.
Mark returns to his humdrum life. He wraps up his weekend by staring out at the bleak winter landscape while cleaning his gutters. Fun. Then he heads to Pip’s to redeem the mysterious voucher he got for being whacked in the head by Helly … er, slipping on a projector slide in the office. There, he finds a friend.
It’s Petey. And he wants to know what’s for dinner. Mark is naturally confused by the work reference, but Petey (Yul Vazquez) quickly gets him up to speed. He chats for a few minutes and then scoots out of there, leaving Mark with a cryptic letter in a red envelope.
In his note, Petey wonders whether he and his other severed brethren are monsters for choosing to undergo such a process. In the end, he concludes, “We’re not monsters, Mark. Not real ones.” And he’s right. Sometimes we make poor choices based on trying to protect a vulnerable part of ourselves, but this doesn’t make us bad people.
At least most of us are not bad people. The jury’s still out on Ms. Cobel, who turns out to be Mark’s neighbor, Mrs. Selvig, the entire time. Gasp!
It looks like it’s time for my staggered exit, so I’m going to go grab the elevator. Until next time …
• As someone who lives in the Northeast, I truly appreciate that this series takes place in the dead of winter. As winter drags on, it can feel so oppressive and bleak, and Severance takes full advantage of this feeling. A weird perk for people who live in colder climates? Maybe, but I sure enjoyed it.
• Did anyone else get the Who’s “Who Are You” stuck in their head after watching this episode? Just me?
• There’s not much blue sky between the names “Adam Scott” and “Mark Scout.” I hope this choice was intentional.
• For dealing with such dark material, this show is often laugh-out-loud hilarious. Two of the funniest lines in this episode? “I had to drown out the memory of Mom and Dad switching out our beds when we were kids” and “I’m sure you would make a fucking awesome niece.”
• When Irv talked about Lumon incentivizing coffee creamer, I remembered that this was an actual storyline in the excellent yet short-lived ABC sitcom Better Off Ted. What I think I’m saying here is that if you like Severance, you may enjoy Better Off Ted. (Currently available for streaming on Hulu.)