A few minutes into the premiere of Severance, we see Mark Scout (Adam Scott) alone in his car, weeping uncontrollably. He eventually pulls himself together and goes inside the building where he works. He exchanges pleasantries with the security guard on duty and takes the elevator to his basement office. He closes his eyes, and a change immediately takes place as he reaches his floor. He’s now a new man… literally.
Mark works at Lumon Industries, in the macrodata refinement division, which is as meaningless as it sounds. A few years ago, he agreed to have his work and non-work memories permanently “severed.” This is true of all his coworkers, including Helly (Britt Lower), who we meet on her first traumatic day. She wakes up on top of a conference table with no memory of who she was before this moment. That’s the first of many great twists series creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller deliver in Severance. Mark is the show’s protagonist, but Helly is the first character we see. Her disorientation and increasing horror set the tone for the nine-episode thriller. This is not a wacky workplace comedy. It’s an installment of The Twilight Zone that continues past the shock ending.
“Who are you?” are the first words Mark speaks. It’s part of Helly’s orientation, but the question also establishes the philosophical issues the series explores so well. The concept of “severance” is admittedly tempting: You’d commute to the office each morning without the looming dread of a busy day, annoying coworkers, and demanding bosses. Once you enter the workplace, you’ve immediately forgotten any outside, personal distractions that might hamper productivity.
Corporations would obviously benefit the most from this arrangement, and Erickson and Stiller quickly establish Lumon Industries as sinister. Mark’s duplicitous supervisor Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) and her righthand man Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) are disturbingly familiar villains. If Harmony had an outside life, it shriveled up and died long ago; all that remains is her fanatical devotion to Lumon. She’s the stern boss who doesn’t bother pretending, while Tillman’s Mr. Milchick is a soulless, empty suit with an aggressively fake smile. Despite his best efforts, carefully constructed no doubt over multiple corporate retreats, Milchick never seems fully human.
In her first scene, Helly is filmed from above. Her hair is disheveled and her legs splayed out on the conference table as if she’s been the victim of an assault, which is exactly what’s happened. This Helly didn’t consent to any of this. She’s a prisoner of her “Outtie’s” choices. “Outtie” is Lumon’s sickly cute terminology for an employee when they’re outside the office. The “Innie” clearly receives the short end of the stick: What would motivate your work self without the memory of your family or outside life in general? You don’t know if you’re putting kids through college or saving up for a tropical vacation. You never experience nights and weekends or even sleep. Lumon’s severed employees aren’t pursuing their passions, either, as the work is so tedious it almost feels deliberate. Why would anyone endure this for the sake of their “Outtie,” who’s technically another person entirely? Well, it’s not so easy to leave. “Innies” can submit resignation requests but their “Outtie” must approve them, and Helly’s “Outtie” is quite content with the current situation. There’s a chilling moment when Helly’s “Outtie” tells her through a pre-recorded message that she’s not a “person.” Only Helly’s “Outtie” is real.
Lower is a delight to watch as Helly, who moves through every scene like a caged animal. She recalls a modern version of Patrick McGoohan’s character from The Prisoner. She won’t be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered, either. You’re led to think that Mark is Helly’s Number 2, but he’s just as much as prisoner as she is. Helly responds to her living hell (yes, the name is probably intentional) the same as most of us would. She’s desperate to escape. Mark is more resigned to his fate, at least at first. He accepted this position out of desperation, which is why most people take bad jobs. There are no fools inside Lumon’s haunted house. We can appreciate the choices that brought them there. Perhaps we’ve made similar ones ourselves.
Severance’s entire cast is a symphony without a single off-note. Scott stands out as the series’ emotional anchor, and Tillman delivers a breakout performance as the office warden Milchick. John Turturro elevates the supercilious Irving, who constantly critiques Mark’s every move, and the always magnificent Christopher Walken gives an understated tragedy to Burt, the head of a mysterious division that almost produces something worthwhile. Also impressive are Jen Tullock as “Outtie” Mark’s skeptical sister Devon, and Zach Cherry as Dylan, who just wants his goddamn waffle party until he sees a glimpse of something greater.
Stiller directs all but three of the first season’s episodes, and it’s a stark change from his previous work. Severance’s deadpan humor is more like Being John Malkovich than Zoolander and Tropic Thunder. Stiller deftly balances absurd comic moments with genuine character development. When Harmony tells Mark that “a handshake is available upon request,” Stiller doesn’t settle for making that awkward corporate speak the punchline. Instead, he trusts Arquette to sell Harmony’s subtle discomfort when Mark takes her up on it. Stiller seems to have approached the scripts as if wondering “What if Hitchcock had directed The Office?” That’s just the start of the genre bending. Creepy office dance parties and disturbing visits to the “Break Room,” where employees are mentally broken, feel like scenes from a David Lynch movie. Yet, moments from Mark’s outside life play out like Noah Baumbach comedies with an undercurrent of The X-Files.
This review has studiously avoided major spoilers or plot twists. It’s best to start the journey without knowing the destination or the surprise stops along the way. If you’ve ever worked in a corporate environment, Severance might trigger unpleasant memories of feeling just as trapped as Helly—despite the fantastic premise, the series often feels a little too real. Like all the best sci-fi and social satire, Severance is our current reality, just dialed up to 11.