Depending on your vantage point, the current state of employment — with more unions forming, or reconsiderations of the true cost of a job — is a Great Resignation or a Great Reevaluation. Regardless, between a pandemic exposing how incidental workers are made to feel in the face of their jobs, and the larger capitalistic logic that got us all here, this moment in time is not a good time. It’s a divide that no show understands quite to the degree of Severance, Apple TV Plus’ new sci-fi series in which people forcibly divide their work selves from their personal selves. The show goes to some bleak places, but with each twist — of the show, or its philosophical knife — it’s also increasingly compelling.
The world-building foundation results in an Escher-like world in which being of two minds is more of a threat than ever: The first episode (aptly titled “Good News About Hell”) opens with a woman coming to in a windowless conference room for the mysterious Lumon company, unsure of where or even who she is. She is as bewildered as she is upset, and Ben Stiller — who directed the first two episodes, and a handful throughout the series — lets the show linger in the mundane terror of waking up to a work-life division. This is, after all, the first time she’s ever really woken up, at least with this consciousness.
And it can be an attractive division in the world of Severance. Mark (Adam Scott) took the job offer to get away from his grief about losing his wife; for eight hours a day he gets to be a totally new person, unencumbered by the aching gnaw of missing someone close, freed from weeping openly in his parked car. That those hours happen to be ones he gets paid for is a perk.
But Severance is ultimately a thriller, and a deft one, built on the way the brain just fundamentally shouldn’t be asked to do that. At first it’s merely the “innies” (as they dub themselves) speculating on the lives of their “outies.” Their work is inscrutable, siloed off from the rest of the company; even they aren’t sure what they’re doing. A shadowy board listens in via a speaker system, but their boss Peggy (Patricia Arquette) says a congratulatory handshake is available upon request.
The first two episodes slowly build out the rules behind the dry surreality of the office, and the world beyond the walls of the office. The decor is so mid-century that the bland, stale air of the office can be felt in every shot. And in Mark’s time as an outie, we see the world beyond the Lumon building as cold and gray, with well-meaning yuppies who have to read thinkpieces to know it wasn’t called World War I at the time.
If that sounds like the indulgent sprawl of a streaming TV show, Severance’s unspooling of the peculiarities of the show’s world over its opening pair of episodes at least feels earned. By spoon feeding the day-to-day cruelty of the job, the series writers convincingly concoct a society that might allow for a choice as controversial as the Severance procedure. And as the mystery of the show slowly mounts, the pleasures of it do too — the cast alternating between droll and cheery; the methodical office politics twisted into something darker.
In that way, the show feels like death by a thousand cuts as it gets at something depressingly real: There’s not just a divide between work and home lives, there’s a divide in how work interests and human interests can be so totally at odds with each other. We all deserve to be treated well at work, but given how folks are disincentivized to make a fuss (let alone be unemployed) it’s no surprise that the workforce means swallowing some bum deals.
And if people don’t have to consciously do it, what have they got to lose? No one understands this better than Helly (Britt Lower), the newest worker in the office who’s almost immediately put off by the “work first” attitude everyone employs. Right away she tries to quit, and just as quickly she runs into problems. Mark quietly tells her she has to request three times to leave (just one of many protocols in place for the innies), but when she tries to leave through the stairwell, she finds herself in the exact same hallway she left from. Such bureaucratic control is unsettling, but not nearly as chilling as the gulf between the wants of her outie and herself.
As Severance goes on, Helly and Mark’s attempts to better understand the corporation they work for — and the two different parts of themselves — leads to a maze of identities, science fiction, and real interrogation of work-life balance. “I have no choice?” the innie-Helly asks of Mark’s innie.
“Well every time you find yourself here it’s because you chose to come back,” Mark replies. It’s a chilling line, and one that hits harder in a period of Great Reconsideration of what the workforce is owed in a work-life balance. What Severance ultimately so eloquently reminds us is that dividing ourselves in two to go to work has always been part of the job.
The first two episodes of Severance are now streaming on Apple TV Plus. New episodes drop every Friday.