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Lochlainn Heley | May 20, 2022

This review contains spoilers for Season 1. The show contains scenes of attempted suicide and cult systems.

When I started watching Severance on Apple TV+, I instantly realised it was a show that delighted in making the audience feel an absurd amount of restlessness. From its opening scene, we are positioned to navigate a fast-moving tunnel of questions. Who is the woman sprawled on the conference table? Why can she only remember that her name is Helly? Is this Limbo? Hell? Amazon HQ?

At its core, Severance is a sci-fi, workplace thriller exploring the inane corporate structures that separate us from our real selves. In this story, we are introduced to Lumon Industries, a mega-corporation that has implanted a brain chip into its workers, bifurcating their minds. Whenever the workers enter the ‘severed floor’, they become ‘innies’ who completely forget their home life. Once they leave, they return to their ‘outie’ selves, remembering nothing of their time at work. It’s the perfect work-life balance.

As we delve into the episodes, we begin to re-examine corporate drudgery and see it as a cruel and brutal thing. The infantilising nicknames and a stringent ban on outside communication are some of Lumon’s many cult behaviours used to confuse and disconnect the severed workers. In his podcast essay, sci-fi writer Daniel Walter describes Lumon’s senseless entrapment of the severed workers as “the violence of work”, an idea drawn from writers like Eugene Enciso, Samuel Becket, Orwell and other absurdists of the ’40s. “There must be a goal or motivation in a story, but the absurdists stripped that away, not to create comedy, but to show the absurdity of our lives and particularly of bureaucracy,” said Walter. Similarly, Severance strips away any sense or reason only to reveal the absurdity of our corporate lives.

The main plot follows Mark, portrayed by Adam Scott, a widower who has been working as a severed employee since his wife’s death. For the past two years he has been flipping between outie and innie to give himself eight hours of reprieve from the debilitating depression caused by his loss. However, after the mysterious disappearance of his manager and work friend, Petey, Mark is promoted as the new manager of his group, the Macro Data Refiners (even they don’t know what it means). Petey’s unexpected departure prompts Mark to question the powers that be at Lumon.  As Mark and his co-workers come to understand their oppressive environment, they rebel and attempt to find an escape.

To capture this wild and thrilling show, directors Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle employ skilful and fascinating cinematography.  As characters flip between their outie and innie selves, the camera work gives us a small moment of delicious tension. These scenes use a close-up dolly zoom shot, highlighting the violence in the act of flipping between multiple selves, while ensuring both the outie and innie selves are seen with intimate empathy in this chaotic world.

Stiller and McArdle also make it impossible to escape Lumon’s haunting presence as it dominates the characters in every space. Lighting is used to ensure the theme of entrapment is always present. I enjoyed the reoccurring motif of the long shots of the hallways with their harsh white light, conveying the feeling of exposure in a maze-like corporate machine. The costumes further enhance Lumon’s dominance of its workers: the combination of pastel work clothes against the neutral walls sucks characters into the background, rendering them one with the workspace.  In his Verge review Andrew Webster best described this articulation of Lumon as “Amazon [if it] was run by Scientologists”.

Credit: Apple TV+

Th idea of intrusive power becomes an essential thread in the script, written by Dan Erickson. One of the most confronting expressions of this appears in the performance by Patricia Arquette (who plays Mark’s boss) in the penultimate episode. Her character has been fired from her leadership position by the god-like board of directors; cast aside, she returns to her home that contains a candle-lit alter to the enigmatic founder of Lumon. In a fit of despair, she screams and demolishes the display. In anguish, the character realises her climb through Lumon was for nothing. She was, in fact, always as worthless as the severed workers she gaslit. The show manages to capture the unease felt when navigating the dominance and manipulation of corporate bodies.

Severance is an absurdist show that explores the roundabout warren of corporate structures and how the individual is rarely left with any answers. Its thoughtful yet sinister storytelling grips the audience from the get-go. Though I’m hopeful that the promise of Season 2 will see some of my questions answered, the exploration down this corporate labyrinth is so thrilling that one can enjoy being lost in the dark.

Severance is now available to stream on Apple TV+.

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Lochlainn Heley

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