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The Search for Work-Life Balance Takes a Dystopian Turn in Severance

Adam Scott severs the connection between his work self and his home self in this dark new Apple TV+ series.
  • Adam Scott in Severance. (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Adam Scott in Severance. (Photo: Apple TV+)

    Among the many quirks of modern living that the pandemic exacerbated, none was felt more acutely by many than the intrusion of one's work life into one's home life. Working from home has its advantages — not catching a deadly plague being a pretty big one, but there's also no commute, you can save on lunch expenses, and your hours can be a bit more flexible. But as anyone who's done it for any length of time will be all too willing to tell you, that bleed-through from your work hours to your home hours can be taxing, both logistically and psychologically. Even before the pandemic, a lot of us had jobs that followed us home from the office. But what if you really could clock out and not have to think about work until the next morning?

    Like any good science fiction, Severance, the new Apple TV+ show from creator Dan Erickson, answers that "what if?" question with science that seems both plausible and incredibly sinister. In some imagined near future (the time and place this show exists in are kept purposefully vague), an omnitech supercompany called Lumen has pioneered a process called severance, where employees can volunteer for a surgical procedure where their memories of their work selves and home selves are cut off from one another. They show up at work in the morning, enter the elevator at 9-ish (the arrivals are staggered, we're reminded often, to keep employees's outside selves from meeting each other), and the next thing theyknow it's 5 (ish) and you're exiting the building for the day. Conversely, their work self only exists within the office, unaware of their life on the outside in any capacity beyond the fact that it exists and it's none of their business.

    We're introduced to Severance in the most traumatic way possible, as newly severed employee Helly (Britt Lower) wakes up on a table in an empty conference room to a voice on a speaker asking her questions to confirm that the procedure worked. The voice on the other end, who soon reveals himself, belongs to Mark (Adam Scott), who is technically Helly's supervisor but is pretty much in the same boat; he's just been there longer. Mark is severed too, as are the two other employees in their small, isolated department: friendly Dylan (Zach Cherry) and fussy true-believer Irving (John Turturro). Helly's introduction to her new reality is terrifying, as she realizes she has no memories of her life or family and no way of escaping her situation. This is treated by the others with something akin to a shrug, and you get the sense that they've all been through this themselves.

    From this setup alone, Severance probably sounds like an idea that might have made for a compelling episode of Black Mirror. But while both shows take a very "careful what you wish for" view of advancing technology, Severance ends up pushing far further into the sinister implications of its premise. In the second episode, we're treated to an up-close view of the severance procedure itself, an invasive brain surgery filmed with maximum whirring drill and crunching skull. But it's the psychological implications of severance that are most terrifying. These bifurcated individuals end up leading half lives, split between their "Innie" (the person at work) and their "Outie" (the person who goes home). The innie only exists at Lumen and is subject to every aspect of office space dystopias we've seen through the years, from sparse, almost formless workspaces to draconian roles that only exist for their own sake to the cultspeak of both employees and their supervisors that suggest a ruling class far above.

    The most obvious question is why is this company severing its employees' memories? Initially you might suspect the answer is productivity: create a class of workers unencumbered by outside thoughts and distractions who are only there to work. This lines up with more classic visions of dystopian workplaces. But productivity is actually quite low among our central quartet. It's secrecy that Lumen seems to really desire; to have a completely closed off company without threat of leaks or whistleblowers or scrutiny from the outside of any kind.

    On the outside world, Lumen is a source of great controversy — glimpsed on TV news broadcasts and by leaflet-distributing college protesters — with severance itself apparently a hot-button human rights issue. Mark is quick to remind the people in his life that he chose severance willingly, though we also learn that he recently lost his wife and he likely chose severance as a way to have eight hours in a day where he wouldn't have to think about his grief.

    Naturally, a conspiracy plot arises, involving an ex-colleague (played by Yul Vasquez) who approaches Mark on the outside. Patricia Arquette plays Mark's terrifyingly stone-faced boss whose presence in his life is more than it initially seems. Clearly there's a ton about Lumen to unravel, both on the inside and the outside. The further into Severance we travel, the more dark corners we uncover and odd characters we meet (Christopher Walken plays an archivist who works in another department). The conspiracy plot keeps things moving, but it's not what's ultimately so compelling about Severance. That lies in Mark and Helly and Dylan and Irving's life on the inside, which is at times unsettling, at times quotidian and quirky, and then almost before you realize it, their reality hits hard: these people being kept prisoner not only by Lumen but by their outer selves as well, who could always just … stop showing up to work the next morning. As Mark explains to Helly in a way he seems to find more comforting than she does, if their Outies didn't want them working there, they wouldn't be there. This notion, like almost everything else about Severance, gets more sinister as the show goes along.

    Severance starts off almost too slow, and it won't be surprising if a large chunk of viewers don't have the patience for it. Apple has made much of the fact that Ben Stiller directs six of of the season's nine epsiodes, which may lead some to expect it to be more of a comedy. Severance is not without humor, but it takes the unease at the center of its premise seriously, and the performances across the board but especially Scott, Lower, and Turturro, are gripping. It's a journey down a disorientingly winding corridor, but one worth following into even its darkest corners.

    The first two episodes of Severance premiere on Apple TV+ Friday, February 18. New episodes drop weekly through April 8th.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Severance, Apple TV+, Adam Scott, Ben Stiller, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette, Zach Cherry