‘Severance’ is an Ominous and Ingenious Workplace Thriller

The excellent Apple TV+ series follows employees of a shady corporation who sever the connection between their work and home lives.
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Office jobs can numb the mind. Between the fluorescent lights, the uncomfortable business attire, and the tedious small talk, a cubicle environment can begin to feel like a vortex that could steal your soul if you let it. Luckily, most people are able to clock out at 5 pm. This is the jumping-off point for Severance, an audacious, sly, and smart new Apple TV+ series.

The people in Severance can’t simply clock out of work because their work is their life. Or, rather, their work is a perfectly bisected portion of their lives. The enigmatic series follows the lives of a pod of workers who are employed by Lumon Industries, a powerful company with a long and corporate cult-like history. Each of the series’ main characters willingly underwent a procedure called severance, which involves implanting a device in one’s brain that will wall off work memories while at home, and home memories while at work.

At first, this seems like a quaint premise that could be used for an easily digestible slice of social commentary, but it soon becomes clear that the series has built out every corner of its own freaky world. This isn’t just a neat trick to turn people into focused worker bees; it essentially turns them into two people. Characters in the show call them “innies” and “outies.” The “outies” don’t remember the classified work they do all day, but the “innies” have it much harder. They don’t remember if they have kids or partners. They don’t experience sleep, or know how to drive, or have any sense of whether or not their experiences at work are normal.

Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle direct the series, and their vision is one of a corporate world that’s as sinister as it is sterile. Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry) sit in a small, four-sided cubicle space within a massive white room, focused on computer screens displaying a series of numbers. The series is shot with a sometimes alienating precision, moving quickly between the outie memories and the innie experiences to communicate the disorientation of severance. As Lumon’s interests grow more confounding and menacing, the building starts to feel like an inescapable funhouse full of ever-twisting hallways.

At first, the group of employees is perfectly happy with their mundane days, passing the time with bland inside jokes and mildly interesting rewards–a fruit buffet, a dance break–for meeting quotas. Their equilibrium is shaken, though, when Helly (Britt Lower) joins the team and fails to acclimate to severed life. She seems as determined to get out of the program as her outie is to keep her in it, and as her desperation grows, so will viewers’ intrigue. Meanwhile, other figures in the company, including higher-up Harmony (Patricia Arquette) and adjoining department worker Burt (Christopher Walken), create ripples in the team’s once-placid work environment.

Mark is our protagonist. Inside Lumon, he’s a peppy middle-manager type, while outside, he’s a grieving widower who often slips into low-level unkindness. Our ability to see both sides of Mark makes our inability to see the other main characters’ outsides selves nearly unbearable. It’s a feeling the innies share, too. They sometimes attend a sort of corporate therapy session, where a soothing woman (Dichen Lachman) tells them facts about their outside lives to make them feel more at peace. Still, along with Mark, wise-cracking Dylan, rebellious Helly, and even regal rule-follower Irving seeks the rush of committing tiny infractions that might bring them closer to their outside selves.

Severance functions excellently as a thought experiment about the psychic pain of compartmentalization, but it’s also both grander and more specific than any one interpretation. Often, the innies remind me of the isolated cave-dwellers from Plato’s allegory of the cave, watching shadows projected on a wall without any idea about the world that creates them. When they finally catch wind of the fire that makes shadows, they become insatiable with a craving for further and deeper self-understanding. Other times, especially when the series zig-zags into mind-melting corporate thriller territory, it calls to mind the better parts of less focused shows about similar subjects, like Homecoming and Mr. Robot.

Severance is paced deliberately, but it offers a steady creep of dread and excitement that culminate in a pulse-pounding finale. So few sci-fi series truly manage to make viewers see the world through different eyes, but this one does. Many of its characters, after all, only exist for eight hours a day. As they awaken–in varying degrees–to the distorted reality around them, the innies become incredibly likable, and their pursuit of truth feels pure and anarchic in the best way.

The show has a lot on its mind. It seems imminently concerned by how we parcel off bits of our time–and our morals–in exchange for a liveable wage. Yet it seems equally interested in the unlikely bonds that form among the downtrodden, the ways in which no corporate structure can hold the human spirit down. Severance never once goes too broad with its observations, opting instead to deepen its specific world and let our own allegorical conclusions flow freely. By holding its disparate pieces loosely, the show becomes something even greater than the sum of its parts. Surprising, invigorating, and thoughtfully designed, Severance is well worth the time investment—which is just longer than one day of an innie’s life.

Severance debuts on Apple TV+ on February 18, 2022.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)