Sitting on the floor of the office break room, tucked away from the prying eyes of his malevolent employers and even his fellow workers, Mark S. cracks open a book. With the face of a man named Dr. Ricken Lazlo Hale, PhD — author of My Own Petard and The Life of An American Gadfly — emblazoned on its cover looking like a New Age version of that classic 40-Year-Old Virgin poster refashioned for self-help warmth, the wise words of The You You Are spill out onto the screen.
“What does ‘camaraderie’ mean?” Dr. Ricken’s voice intones. “Most linguists agree it comes from the Latin ‘camera,’ which means ‘a device used to take a photograph.’ And of course, the best photographs are not of individuals, but of groups of happy friends, who love each other deeply.”
That passage neatly encapsulates what Apple TV+’s new science-fiction office satire Severance, which concluded its first season last week, is all about. Precisely visualized to match its equally precise, if boldly silly, sense of humor, the show nonetheless achieves that touch of common wisdom that sees pathos always bursting through to the surface. Dr. Ricken doesn’t stop there, though. “But I think camaraderie is more than smiling together in photos,” he says, with the typical manner of a California shaman. “It’s standing together in hard times. It’s recognizing a common struggle in another person, and reaching out to offer them a loving hand."
In Severance, Mark S., played by the new century’s most burdened-looking everyman Adam Scott, is a so-called “severed” employee of Lumon Industries. He has gone through a procedure known as severance, in which a chip implanted in his brain splits his mind quite literally in two, between his work life and home life. Walking into work each morning, his other self, Mark Scout, steps into an elevator and a switch is flipped. As he enters his office he is now simply Mark S., having no memory or knowledge of the world outside or his life there. When his day is done, he steps back into the elevator and comes out the other end as Mark Scout once again, without a clue what he’s been doing all day.
Mark S. exists apart from his other self, stuck in a never-ending loop of workdays, punching away at a computer on a task that remains a complete mystery to him, surrounded by bright white but entirely nondescript interiors, without a view of the outside world and only his fellow keyboard punchers and their bosses to keep him company. And, of course, the impenetrable layers of corporate policy and bureaucracy designed to keep him in his place.
It’s in this context that Dr. Ricken’s book reaches Mark S., serendipitously, from the outside, its profound stupidity revealing itself to be stupidly profound. In a world with nothing but The Company, governed by literal religious reverence for the glorious lineage of CEOs and the holy Handbook, The You You Are stands apart as a kind of radical text. Its exceedingly simplistic worldview transformed into something matching the power of Marx. The following scene sees Mark S. and his comrades Dylan G., Helly R. and Irving B., sitting down for some good old fashioned organizing, forming a plan to find and build solidarity with other severed workers in the labyrinthine halls of Lumon, to take back power over their work and their lives with common cause and brotherhood.
Episode by episode, Severance only gets better, stronger, more clear-eyed, more surprising, even as its mysteries compound.
There is more to Severance than just this. Part workplace comedy, part philosophical mind-bender, part Lost-style mystery box, both emotional drama and tense conspiracy thriller. Created by Dan Erickson and largely directed by Ben Stiller, Severance is the epitome of what you could want — and should want — from television. And I would emphasize television here. What might have been a solid if familiarly constructed premise for a feature film — think Brazil and The Trial and Office Space and what have you — is instead elevated by its chosen medium into a constantly evolving and expanding world with cliffhangers to spare and a pull to dig deeper and deeper.
Episode by episode, Severance only gets better, stronger, more clear-eyed, more surprising, even as its mysteries compound. The firecracker of a season finale — taut like the finest edge-of-your-seat thriller — finds the four core employees of the series pulling off a coup. They’ve devised a plan to use what they’ve discovered is an “overtime contingency” at the company to wake their work selves (known as innies) on the outside and attempt to reach help. Left behind is Dylan G., played by Zach Cherry, who first uncovered the contingency — along with the fact that he has a son — and is now standing in a locked-off control room, his arms stretched out to their breaking point for what might be minutes but feels like hours, holding onto to two switches meant to be turned by two people simultaneously. He does this because he believes in his comrades. He is bolstered by a glass rendering of a photograph, taken by a camera, of the four of them together, smiling. Their common struggle, as Dr. Ricken so vacuously and eloquently put it, made real.
It’s also a long way from the scene that opens the show, a terrifying scenario in which Helly R., played by Britt Lower, is woken up as her innie self for the first time, lying on a large conference table, facing a small intercom and the disembodied voice of Mark S., who unsuccessfully attempts to lead her through her discombobulating birth. Whatever he tries, it doesn’t stick. Through multiple, escalating escape attempts, Helly R. bumps up against the strictures of Lumon’s offices, as well as her own outie self. That outie self, whose identity remains a mystery until the finale, appears as obstinate as her innie; a battle of wills within one mind. After threatening to chop off her own fingers with a paper trimmer, Helly R. is sent a video message from her outie, whose direct threat of continued existential torture is dwarfed by her declaration: “you are not a person.”
This is the world envisioned for the innie. A void of humanity, dominated by the needs of corporate structures and the whims of managers, executives, board members and all-powerful CEOs. Lumon is a family company, passed down for generations from the 19th century, through to the show’s unspecified today. An alternate present perhaps, or some near-future. It’s hard to tell. On the inside, the technology reeks of the 1970s, with old CRT displays and analogue tapes. On the outside, smartphones exist but the cars apparently haven’t advanced beyond 1983. The outside, too, seems dominated by Lumon and the unending influence of corporate power and monied vapidity. It’s a world in need of revolution: of labor, of politics, of social relations and of the mind itself. In this world, real humanity exists on the margins of the expected. It’s there in Mark Scout’s loving relationship with his sister Devon, and his mourning for his dead wife. It’s there in the dark and beautiful paintings by Irving Bailiff, in a remarkable turn from John Turturro, whose innie’s budding romance with an art producer and curator from another department, played by Christopher Walken, in many ways serves as the season’s real emotional centre.
It’s even there in the caustic rage of Ms. Harmony Cobel, the core foursome’s boss and Mark Scout’s spying next-door neighbor, in maybe the most fun and frightening performance of Patricia Arquette’s career so far. The people pulling the strings, they don’t need explanation. They’re the wealthy and grotesque, after all. But Ms. Cobel is an odd creature, whose own torment at the hands of the shadowy Lumon board is matched only by the suffering she inflicts on her employees. So to, the delightfully deranged severed floor supervisor Mr. Milchick, played to star-making perfection by actor Tramell Tillman. These are people whose motivations, whose buy-in to the system of corporate enslavement and torture appears to be tearing them apart at the seams. What do they get out of it? A salary? Constantly conditional acceptance by the elites? The perversion is evident regardless, the interior rot palpable in every facial twitch.
Baby goats, mouth walls, waffle parties and paintings of savagely blood-soaked departmental officer wars fill out the series’ myriad mysterious absurdities. In the middle of it all, a group of friends, comrades, who love each other deeply, standing together in hard times, united by a common struggle, a sense of freedom and justice and a deep belief in their shared humanity, inside the workplace and out. All that, and a finale that leaves the viewer at once on a total high and angry as hell at the gods of TV for making us wait another year to see what happens next. The possibilities genuinely seem limitless for Severance’s future, and for our own. As Dr. Ricken would say, “Our job is to taste free air. Your so-called boss may own the clock that taunts you from the wall, but my friends, the hour is yours.”
Corey Atad is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Esquire, Hazlitt and The Baffler and he has an unhealthy obsession with Air Bud.