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‘Severance’ Offers a Surreal, Allegorical Twist on Work-Life Balance

At first blush, the titular concept of the new Apple TV+ series is “work-life balance” taken to the extreme. Yet the further ‘Severance’ goes, the more resonance it acquires.

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

The new series Severance, which streams its first two episodes Friday on Apple TV+, is the latest entry in a genre one might call the uncanny office. Think of it as the mirror image of classic satires like The Office or Office Space, which present the American white-collar workplace as a banal exercise in oppressive mundanity. The uncanny office is equally skeptical of its corporate setting, but takes a more surreal approach, juxtaposing fluorescent lights and mindless jargon with some kind of tonal curveball. The contrast is, in part, comedic; it also helps draw out the already sinister undertones of professional conformity.

The Marvel series Loki takes place inside the Time Variance Authority, an uncanny office where functionaries use Infinity Stones as paperweights. Over three seasons on Comedy Central, Corporate used generic multinational Hampton DeVille as a catch-all for everything from streaming services to Big Pharma, contrasting its characters’ small-scale ennui with their employer’s massive reach. And back in 2009, the cult sitcom Better Off Ted outlined the inner workings of Veridian Dynamics, a faceless company whose projects in development include a cryonics chamber and a scented lightbulb.

Severance, not to be confused with Ling Ma’s pandemic novel of the same name—an uncanny office classic in its own right—offers a new, allegorical twist on this familiar concept. Created by Dan Erickson and largely directed by Ben Stiller, Severance stars Adam Scott as Mark S., a soft-spoken middle manager at a company called Lumon Industries. Or rather, part of him is: In the procedure that gives Severance its name, Mark’s primary self has been “severed” from his work self, with one half of his personality retaining no knowledge or memory of the other. Mark’s “innie,” Lumon’s infantilizing term for its on-the-clock employees, has no idea what his life is like the other 16 hours a day; Mark’s “outie” has no idea what he actually does in exchange for his paychecks.

We learn all this through the eyes of Helly R. (Britt Lower), the latest employee of Lumon’s Macro Data Refinement division, or MDR for short. Helly doesn’t know this when she wakes up facedown on a conference room table, but she’s been brought on to replace Petey (Yul Vazquez), Mark’s former work bestie who’s suddenly vanished from the windowless basement where severed employees spend their days.

Like many shows with mysteries to tease and worlds to build, Severance is at its best in its pilot, a hypnotic hour that draws the viewer in with a menacing, perfectly curated vibe. When Helly, or rather Helly’s innie, first comes to, she’s a blank slate, with no idea where she is or what she’s doing there. Her only guidance is a disembodied voice she soon understands to be Mark’s. It doesn’t take long for the existential horror of her new life to set in. As an innie, Helly doesn’t experience the recreation or rest that make a dead-end job slightly more bearable. Her entire life consists of sitting in a cubicle, staring at numbers on a computer screen, and sorting them into boxes. In this Marxian parable, the MDR employees are about as alienated from the means of production as a worker can possibly get: Whatever “data” they’re “refining” has been encrypted to the point where they have no idea what they’re looking at or even why they’re looking at it. Mark simply instructs Helly to look for numbers that are somehow “scary” and she’ll know what to do. Uncanny indeed!

Working with cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné and production designers Nick Francone and Jeremy Hindle, Stiller renders Lumon as an exaggerated version of an everyday setting that’s already more eerie and artificial than we’d like to admit. There’s an endless parking lot, blanketed in snow. From there, drones like Mark proceed to a gray-and-steel lobby—a generic atrium apart from the giant statue of Lumon founder Kier Egan, who looms over everything much like Loki’s trio of Time-Keepers. Then the elevator takes them down to the severed floor, an endless maze of bright white hallways. Somewhere between the surface and the subterranean desks, the outie clocks out and the innie punches in.

Helly may be our introduction to Lumon and the concept of severance, but Mark is the only character we see travel from one state of being to the next. Helly, sardonic jokester Dylan (Zach Cherry), and uptight stickler Irving (John Turturro) exist primarily as innies; so do the members of other severed departments like Optics and Design, captained by the avuncular Burt (Christopher Walken). Supervisors Milchick (Tramell Tillman) and Harmony (Patricia Arquette, reuniting with Stiller after her transformative turn in Escape at Dannemora) aren’t severed at all, giving them an extra form of leverage in the already skewed power imbalance between boss and underling.

Mark actually takes us from Lumon’s headquarters to the bland, Lumon-subsidized townhouse where he lives—and gives us an idea why anyone would voluntarily split themselves in two. A couple of years before the events of Severance, Mark lost his wife. Severance is his way of lessening the pain by exactly a third. You can’t grieve what you can’t remember you’ve lost for eight hours a day. As a result, Scott gives a remarkable dual performance. Both sides of Mark have aspects of the same personality, but the original is jaded and bitter, the newer version curious and naive. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, but for now, Scott gets two full roles to his colleagues’ one.

Over nine episodes, all of which were screened for critics in advance, Severance remains mysterious, but doesn’t act like a mystery box. Sure, Erickson and his writers work to create suspense, as does Apple TV+ by opting for a weekly release after this initial drop. What happened to Petey? Why does Harmony live next door to Mark’s outie, disguising herself as a nurse? What is Lumon up to that’s so important it’s invented an invasive medical procedure to protect its secrets? As compelling as the vibes may be, Severance does need a story with momentum to structure them around.

But Severance is less interested in scattering bread crumbs around its plot than creating arresting images to evoke its themes. Lumon’s employee handbook is written like religious scripture, complete with commandments like “render not my creation in miniature” (an edict against mapping the basement’s labyrinthine layout). Whenever innies violate protocol, they’re sent to a place called the Break Room, where they’re forced to repeat an apology ad nauseam until it’s determined they “meant it.” Two characters on a “mental health walk” encounter a room filled, for no discernible reason, with baby goats. It’s the promise of these bizarre, unpredictable interludes, much more than the hope of concrete answers, that kept me pressing Play.

In part, that disinterest stemmed from the inevitable pacing issues that come with spinning an addictive hook into a multiseason mystery. (The Severance cast has enough star power to be a limited series, but the slow drip of information indicates early on that Erickson has no intention of wrapping things up so soon.) As a puzzle, Severance can drag, especially compared to denser, faster shows like Yellowjackets.

But as a metaphor, Severance is so strong that its soft spots are easy to ignore. At first blush, the titular concept is “work-life balance” taken to the extreme. Yet the further Severance goes, the more resonance it acquires. As the innies awaken to their plight, they start to work together and share information, a higher-stakes version of organizing their workplace. Characters debate the personhood of innies and the obligations that come with bringing a life into the world without its consent, issues that go beyond the professional and into the deeply personal. And of course, there are the ethical questions of what we owe to our jobs, and they to us. Severance is a simple concept with complex applications, the seed of any good work of speculative fiction.

The uncanny office gains part of its power from how cultish postwar American capitalism can look to anyone outside its beating heart. As the economy shifts away from stable, centralized work and toward ad hoc, one-off gigs, that audience only grows by the day. But as alien as even the regular office job can already seem, it also speaks to deeper, justified anxieties about all kinds of work, not just pencil-pushing. How much control should corporations have over our lives? How often is what’s sold to us as freedom just another form of exploitation? Dystopia is all around us, but Severance distills it into potent, streamlined form.