My brother described Apple TV’s new sci-fi series Severance to me as a total mind-fuck. Six episodes in and I can confirm it has done me some mind-fucking.
Severance boasts a well-reputable cast, including Patricia Arquette, Adam Scott and John Turturro. It was created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller. Yes, Ben Stiller — you heard that right. But Severance is not reminiscent of Stiller’s innocuous, happy-go-lucky movies. The show instead leaves a decisively bitter taste in your mouth.
Scott, Arquette, and Britt Lower are some of Severance’s standout actors. Scott’s even-keeled nature is comforting — it abates the show’s eeriness. Arquette, as Scott’s nosy neighbor, perfectly embodies the show’s eeriness. Lower adds just the right amount of firepower to the show (literally and figuratively — being the cast’s only redhead).
Severance doesn’t skimp on its intro, and neither should you. I found it as cryptic and compelling as the series itself. It is downright disorienting, and dare I say, disturbing? Like the episodes themselves, it is laden with easter eggs.
While very alien in some ways, viewers can appreciate Severance’s absurd familiarity. Severance’s setting is familiar enough. There are no flying cars or robots (in the traditional sense anyway). The problem is familiar enough: how do companies create a perfect work-life balance for their employees? How do companies enable employees to leave their emotional baggage at the door?
Lumon Industry’s solution to this is severance, a surgical procedure that splits your consciousness in two and leaves your memories privy to spatiotemporal cues. All members of Lumon’s macro data refining department, headed by Mark (Adam Scott), have elected to undergo this procedure. The work version, the “innie,” has no memory of what happens when they leave Lumon. All the “innie” knows are Lumon’s septic white walls and the vague job of macro data refining to which they have been assigned. All the “outie” knows is what happens when they step out of Lumon’s doors. To them, work at Lumon is just that: work, and nothing more. An interesting aspect of the series is its abrupt tonal shifts that seem to mirror the sharp shifts in the characters’ consciousnesses, aided by a stellar soundtrack with certain sounds specific to certain settings. Part of the thrill of Severance is that at a moment’s notice, the tide can turn from humorous to horrifying, the music from jazzy to foreboding. This capriciousness keeps viewers on their toes.
Problems arise at Lumon when some of the “innies,” notably Helly (Britt Lower), realize they have been short-changed. Helly is forced to come to the realization that she is not the one calling the shots but rather is at the mercy of her supposedly more conscious “outie.”
Helly is quick to rebel and realize that escape is close to impossible. With each of her failed attempts, Lumon’s walls seem to close in on the viewer, creating a nightmare of captivity in which one never wakes. As a viewer, you are made to feel entrapped, to inherit the role of the “innie.”
Another shift occurs when Mark’s best friend at work Petey (Yul Vasquez) emerges to warn “outie” Mark of the dangers of severance and Lumon industries. More than this, Petey asserts that severance need not be permanent. From here, viewers see the two parts of Mark start to coalesce, enabling Mark, and the viewer, to attain a deeper version of consciousness.
Severance pokes at more than a few moral quandaries. Would we subject another version of ourselves to constant drudgery even if we are left totally unaffected by it? Do our memories define who/what we are? Does the act of avoiding emotional baggage exacerbate our problems? Do our jobs wield too much power over us?
Severance encourages us to think independently, without our employers in mind. The show communicates that our jobs need us more than we need them, and it is from here that our power arises. Most of all, Severance warns us that we cannot simply walk away from pain, or sadness — that this inevitably carries over.
Lena Thakor is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].