Why you should be watching Severance
Ivan Radford | On 11, Mar 2022
Episodes 1 and 2 premiere on 18th February, with the remaining 7 episodes arriving weekly. This review is based on the first three episodes.
“Am I livestock? Did you grow me for food?” Those are the words of Helly (Britt Lower), a newcomer to Lumen Industries, a gigantic tech firm that specialises in – well, nobody really knows. In a world of corporate security and advanced technology, Lumen has developed a radical technique that all its employees undergo: severance, the separation of one’s mind inside and outside of the office.
If that sounds sinister, you’re already on the right wavelength for Apple TV+’s brain-bending drama, which dives head-on into the toxic nature of modern society’s work-life balance. Two years of people working from home has only added to the simmering tension between the personal and the professional, with entire generations of young people increasingly taught to expect to monetise their hobbies and work towards building their own personal brand. Severance raises questions about all these issues, while also asking questions about who we are at work, who we are at home and how they both add up to who we are as people.
Helly rapidly discovers the disorienting consequences of severance, as as she realises that she can’t remember anything about herself in the outside world once she’s entered the Lumen building. That we experience her fear and anger through the lens of Mark (Adam Scott), the new manager on her team, gives you an idea of how complicated the ensuing ensemble drama is. Given a script to read through with her, he soon loses his way and tries to personalise things, only to make the situation worse.
Adam Scott has always excelled at bringing a nervous edge to his comedy and it’s striking to see him here shaun of his usual witty, chirpy demeanour, delivering a downbeat turn that becomes more intense the more time he spends at work. A data inputter who sorts code based on how “scary” the numbers on his computer screen feel, we meet him as he’s missing his old colleague, Petey (Yul Vasquez), but also mourning the loss of his wife – for him, severance is a bittersweet way to leave that grief at the door and get on with his life.
In between Helly and Mark are an intriguing assortment of workplace oddballs, from John Turturro as the buttoned-up Irving, who likes things by the book and strictly controlled, and Christopher Walken as the weary Burt, to Zach Cherry as the playful Dylan and the flawless Tramell Tillman as the unsettling, smiling Mr Milchick. All the while, Patricia Arquette brings bucketloads of sinister knowledge as the mysterious boss, Harmony, who’s keeping a close eye on her newly promoted employee.
It’s a slow-moving, almost stagnant affair, but that stationary surface is as calculated as it is misleading, as the sanitised awkwardness of the company’s forced fun tilts this observational dissection of capitalism into something deliciously dark and Kafkaesque. If you can’t remember what you do at work, or what your company does, how culpable are you? If you can’t make that moral judgement, do you have any free will? Creator and writer Dan Erickson (The Good Fight) lets these concerns spin round our heads, while director Ben Stiller dizzyingly positions each plate for maximum discomfort, without losing the sensitive humanity required to keep us invested in the first place – even if that’s just so we can continue to get lost in this chilling maze of black mirrors. The result is a unique and unnerving piece of world-building, and one of the most worryingly pertinent TV shows of 2022.