This is a review of season 1. You can find detailed episode recaps at the tag HERE.
Severance is an AppleTV+ series created by Dan Erickson and executive produced and directed by Ben Stiller. Season 1 consists of 9 episodes. Production has already begun on season 2, which will be 10 episodes (if IMDB is correct). This review was written after viewing the first 5 episodes, but only includes minimal spoilers for the first episode.
Adam Scott stars as Mark Scout, a widower who takes a job on the “severed” floor of Lumon Industries, a giant corporation with a cult-like following. Yes, it’s on the streamer brought to you by the cult of Steve Jobs. Sometimes, Apple is shameless. I say this as the parent of one of their lifelong devotees, while typing on a Macbook. Full disclosure- my laptops have all been Macbooks. I am also a fringe member of a corporate cult or two.
Because Mark’s work involves corporate secrets, he agrees to go through the severance medical procedure, in which a chip will be implanted into his brain, bifurcating his memories into two separate personas: one that can only access his time at work and another that only surfaces outside of his job. In addition to benefitting the corporation, the procedure will supposedly improve Mark’s work-life balance.
This has unforeseen consequences.
Severance is a cerebral science fiction dark comedy that, like its main character, has two personas. Much of the show takes place at the Lumon offices, on the windowless “severed” floor, located deep in the basement. This side of the show is a surreal, retrofuturistic psychological horror-thriller filled with characters who only know the world of the Lumon offices, which they aren’t allowed to leave, because they are “severed” personas, the Winter Soldiers of office drones. The walls are bright white, the fluorescent lights are always on and the hallways seem to go on forever, with only a few doors. Other than white, the main colors are the artificial turf green of the carpets and the blue of the men’s suits.
It’s stunningly but subliminally oppressive, in the way the clinical feel of the dentists’ offices of my youth let me know there was no point in resisting what was about to happen there.
Outside of work, in the corporate town of Kier, where Mark and the other employees live, the other half of the show is a Scandinavian noir, where it’s almost never daylight, rooms are barely lit and often paneled with dark wood. People can leave and they seem to do so with an alarming frequency, but it’s rarely fully voluntary. Often they die, disappear or forget their commitments. The environment is harsh and takes its toll.
Red seeps into the outside world, though it’s not an overwhelming presence the way green, blue and white are in the offices. Rather, the real difference is in atmosphere. In the basement offices, where it should be dark, it’s brightly lit and Mark is rarely alone. There is no privacy and the tone is artificial. The outside world is natural, but it’s snowy, bleak and cold. Mark spends most of his nights alone, drowning his sorrows in alcohol. This appears to be his current authentic self, but he’s isolated, even in a room full of people, and others often lack authenticity. Mark’s sister, Devon, is the only person he connects to with warmth and love, though he also cares for his brother-in-law, Ricken, and his neighbor, Mrs Selvig, both of whom go out of their way to reach out to him.
At work, Mark is easygoing and upbeat, though not ambitious, with a dark undercurrent he keeps under wraps. The story begins when his best work friend, Petey, leaves his job and Mark is promoted to department manager, taking Petey’s place. Within minutes Mark is sent to train his own replacement, Helly R (as in hellraiser), who’s lying unconscious on top of a conference room table when we meet her and seems to have almost complete amnesia when she wakes up.
We’re immediately shown how vulnerable the work personas are- how many of them will have thought through the extent of the memory erasure beforehand and understood that they’d be blank slates, in some ways children, since the experiences that adults use to help make personal, moral and ethical decisions have been removed from their equations?
It’s fascinating to see the differences between Mark’s two personalities, but it’s also terrifying to see him imprisoned in a corporate hellscape. While it’s tempting to think the Lumon persona is Mark’s true, innocent self, in fact, the severed employees are carefully manipulated from the moment they regain consciousness after the severance procedure. Mark has been in the basement long enough to create a facade that covers up his real reactions and shows his employers what he thinks they want to see.
When she has trouble settling in at Lumon, Helly acts as a catalyst for office Mark, waking him up to the corporate mysteries Petey was trying to solve before he disappeared. Then Petey finds Mark outside of work and reintroduces himself, having discovered a way to reintegrate his severed memories. He wants outside Mark to help him to solve Lumon’s mysteries. As is typical with Scandinavian and Nordic noirs, almost everyone is a bit sinister and mysterious and the questions keep piling up, from wondering whether Petey is trustworthy and how Mark’s wife really died to asking if all of the characters are already dead and we’re watching the afterlife.
Severance has thematic similarities to shows like Russian Doll, Maniac, The Good Place, The Truman Show and Palm Springs, which use pop culture comedy combined with science/speculative fiction, horror, mystery and psychological thriller settings to explore philosophical ideas. Its visuals take us back to the actual 1960s and Stanley Kubrick’s work in 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, as well as later psychological mindbenders such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and various dystopian retrofuturism/cassette futurism works, such as Blade Runner 2049, Space Station 76 and Maniac.
Lumon Industries is many things, one of which is a very clear reference to IBM, also known as Big Blue, a reference to the company’s signature color. Employees were known for their blue suits and even today, the web site favors blue. From the IBM design language page on color: “Balancing mankind and machine, the colors are harmonious with nature, yet chosen for their luminous quality in the digital world.” Deep Blue was IBM’s successful chess playing AI. There was a rumor back in the company’s heyday that even loading dock workers had to wear blue suits to work before changing into coveralls once inside the facility. An old joke had it that IBM workers removed their own brains when they got to work and put in their IBM brains.
As a child of the 1960s whose father was a career engineer at General Electric, I find it very amusing that the nightmares of the past 10-20 years involve being locked in the utopian dreams of the mid 20th century, at least as presented in our screen media. The middle management office job that paid well, had good benefits and lasted until retirement is apparently not just disappearing, but also a filmmaker’s worst nightmare, even with space/internet age perks. My husband is a software engineer who’s worked at home since 2009, when the company he worked for used the recession as an excuse to get rid of rent payments on their office. He’s negotiated work at home status with each new job since then, including in his current job with 3M, maker of tapes and masks, which is another multinational corporation that’s well over a century old.
Some aging corporate behemoths are able to change with the times and some become dinosaurs. Which one Lumon is remains to be seen. So far, we’ve been shown their secretive office culture located in an isolated company town, like the fictional Eureka and the real Los Alamos, NM, both hubs for scientific innovation and unethical experimentation. Isolation and groupthink could also indicate the company has gone into decline and become more cult than corporation, as Apple started to do in the 90s before they brought back founder Steve Jobs to continue innovating (ironically) and as IBM has struggled with for decades. Some companies that appear successful on paper are only able to do so because they use the modern equivalents of smoke and mirrors to goose profits, such as stock buy backs, frequent lay offs, exploiting workers (otherwise known as increasing productivity) and reducing the quality of their products over time, which cuts material costs.
Lumon and its employees are hiding behind the severance procedure. The first line of the pilot is, “Who are you?” I have a feeling that’s the central mystery of the series.
“Severance” reunites Emmy and DGA Award winner Ben Stiller with Academy Award and Emmy Award winner Patricia Arquette (“Escape at Dannemora,” “Boyhood”), who stars alongside Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation,” “Step Brothers”), Emmy Award winner John Turturro (“The Plot Against America,” “The Night Of”), Britt Lower (“High Maintenance,” “Casual”), Zach Cherry (“You,” “Succession”), Dichen Lachman (“Jurassic World: Dominion,” “Altered Carbon”), Jen Tullock (“Before You Know It,” “Bless This Mess”), Tramell Tillman (“Hunters,” Dietland”), Michael Chernus (“Orange is the New Black,” “Patriot“) and Academy Award winner Christopher Walken.
The series is written and created by Dan Erickson. Mark Friedman, Chris Black, John Cameron and Andrew Colville are executive producers alongside Erickson. Ben Stiller, Nicky Weinstock and Jackie Cohn executive produce through Red Hour Productions, and both Patricia Arquette and Adam Scott serve as producers. Endeavor Content serves as the studio.
Thanks to Twitter user @Tonniemug for bringing Severance to my attention and @catharsix for the encouragement.
Image courtesy of AppleTV+.