When I first heard of AppleTV’s new workplace series “Severance,” my TV tastebuds were more prepared for a comedy sci-fi twist on Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” or “The Office.” I knew the premise involved a company that incorporated technology and brain surgery to bifurcate the brains of its employees into separate beings; one who exists only for the workplace, known as an ‘innie’, versus one who exists only for downtime, known as an ‘outie.’ The innies and outies would have absolutely no knowledge of each other’s lives, and function as separate, amnesiac halves of a whole person. It’s a draconian solution to the issue of ‘work/life balance.’ While the core concept of “Severance” could’ve arguably fit into a half-hour segment of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” it’s allowed to breathe within a series’ format. The horror of allowing a corporation to control one’s mind is allowed to seep in, with all possible ramifications.
The alternate reality created in “Severance” is both retro-tech yet advanced; clunky cathode-ray tube monitors occupy the same buildings as more advanced machinery that controls workers’ personalities by remote. In return for their loyalty to the mysterious, dynastic mega-corporation of Lumon, workers are given the kind of perfunctory ‘perks’ we see in real-life workplaces–casual dress days, lifeless ‘dance parties’ for meeting quotas, or, if you’re a really good drone, you might just qualify for your own waffle breakfast. On the down side, you’re also subject to bizarre, tortuous punishments if/when you break the rules, or dare to take a deeper look into the very company for which you’ve chopped your mind in half. In short, it’s corporate Hell. Or, more accurately, a corporate cult.
Note: Having worked for a similarly soulless corporation for a good 17 years before cashing out my early retirement (and saving my sanity), I easily relate to this series–painfully so, in fact. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t an easy watch for me, at first. Stay with it.
Created by Dan Erickson, “Severance” has been largely directed by comedic actor/writer Ben Stiller (“Cable Guy”). As a longtime fan of Stiller’s brilliant, short-lived sketch comedy series “The Ben Stiller Show” (1991-1992), I was expecting something more parodic. However, instead of “The Office”, “Severance” has more in common with the aforementioned “Twilight Zone.” In fact, there are music cues that directly reference Bernard Hermann’s score for The Twilight Zone’s first season. Filmmaker Spike Jonez (“Her,” “Being John Malkovich”) is a clear visual influence on this series, as well as Stanley Kubrick‘s deeply unsettling austerity.
The dehumanizing visual style of the workplace–no windows to the outside world, no personal mementos of “outie” family or friends–reinforces the notion of Lumon being a cult, since the first rule of a cult is to isolate a person from familiar surroundings and friends.
Despite the dehumanizing setting, “Severance” is populated with an all-too human workforce. Following the termination of coworker Petey, a new “innie” awakens in an unused office boardroom. This newbie, named Helly is an angry young woman who believes she’s been abducted against her will. She hears the voice of newly promoted group manager Mark, who failingly attempts to relax her, reading from a typically inept corporate script, designed for ‘new hires’ who’ve had this unholy brain-bifurcation (which, we soon learn, is voluntary).
Once they meet face-to-face, the violently angry Helly gives Mark a nice cut on the forehead to remember her by…which he can’t, since his later outie self is given a note stating that the cut on his head was a common workplace accident. As they leave work for the day, outie selves are restored to full control, leaving them with a perfect memory gap from arrival in the morning until quitting time. Even worker arrival/departure times are carefully staggered, so that Lumon employees won’t be able to recognize each others’ faces once their outie selves are reactivated.
Getting to know the ‘Innies’ and ‘Outies.’
Following his best friend Petey’s termination, Mark (Adam Scott) is assigned by his boss, Ms. Harmony Cobel, to take his place as wrangler of a quartet of number crunchers who sit in a tight cluster of cubicles within a cavernous office space. The four of them spend their days performing “macro-data refinement”; i.e, arranging numbers on a screen–an intuitive process which is never clearly defined, and serves no apparent purpose. We learn through outie-Mark’s contact with his pregnant sister Devon (Jen Tullock) and her author husband Ricken (Michael Chernus) that Mark was a former history professor who resigned his post following the car accident-death of his wife, Gemma. Mark found himself unable to function with his profound grief, so he sought a new career where he could turn it off like a light switch. Enter Lumon, and its “severance” procedure, which a desperate Mark genuinely wanted at the time.
When we first meet Mark, he drives into the massive Lumon parking lot, and he’s sobbing at the wheel. After a few moments, he pulls himself together enough to enter the Lumon lobby. In the lobby bathroom, he wipes his eyes, and changes clothes. In the elevator ride up to his office, his innie-self is automatically activated–completely divorcing outie-Mark from the painful emotions of his personal life. During the course of the series, things begin to get messy, however, and corporate-drone Mark realizes that Lumon may not be the godsend he imagined it to be, as the more inquisitive side of himself gradually reemerges. Widower Mark also tries haphazardly to get back into dating, and he begins seeing the patient Alexa (Nikki M. James), who soon realizes outie-Mark is not-yet ready to commit. Innie-Mark also begins to read a copy of his brother-in-law Ricken’s platitudinous book, “The You You Are,” which surprisingly resonates with Mark’s situation at Lumon.
Note: Adam Scott’s performance as Mark is a revelation. Seemingly a blank slate, Scott’s deceptively complex performance sees him playing two different people; a middle manager who tries to keep his team focused on their bizarre tasks, and an anguished widower who begins to question unwise choices he made at the height of his grief. His ‘innie’ self is clear-eyed, sober and (to a minimalist degree) resolute, while his outie self is more taciturn, with only flashes of genuine decisiveness. Scott’s performance has Emmy all over it.
“Helly,” aka Helena Eagan (Britt Lower) is the ‘newbie’ to the office, replacing terminated Petey. Unlike the others, Hellie is unwilling to submit to the control offered by Lumon’s ‘severance.’ She rages against the machine at ever turn, trying multiple times to unsuccessfully smuggle secret letters of resignation to her outie-self. Frustrated at every turn, Helly attempts to hang herself in an elevator, but is saved and revived, just in time. Breaking rules and pushing back against the authority of Lumon operative Milchik, Helly is punished for her transgressions until she exceeds a work quota, and is “rewarded” with a lifeless dance party in her honor (workplace ‘parties’ are, after all, inherently evil). After Mark saves her life, the rebellious Helly awakens a latent curiosity in him, as the two begin to feel sparks of attraction as well.
Note: Mark’s attraction to Helly doesn’t exactly qualify as infidelity, since innie-Mark has no knowledge of his late wife Gemma’s car accident, nor of his outie-self dating the ever-patient Alexa.
The greatest surprise comes in the last episode of the first season when coworker/coconspirator Dylan manages to reactivate his fellow refiners’ innie personae while they’re in the outside world–forcing them to see and deal with their true lives for the first time in their memories. Helly is in for the biggest surprise when she learns she is the powerful Helena Eagan; heiress to the Eagan family, the capitalist dynasty behind the Lumon corporation. Helly’s awakened innie finds herself at a swank party of movers and shakers, where she is supposed to make an influential speech justifying Lumon’s severance procedure. In short, this angry rebel learns she’s Ivanka Trump. With her enraged innie-self in control, Helly’s speech lashes out against the lies and torturous workplace policies of her family’s cultish business empire … just before Dylan loses control of his security hack, and Helena reverts to her native heiress self.
Note: Like all members of this superb cast, Britt Lower gives a fiery, dynamic performance. The only glimpse we see of Helena’s true outie-self is in the prerecorded message she delivers to Helly, as she coolly rejects her innie’s resignations. Lower plays both sides, rebel and heiress, with absolute conviction.
Dylan (Zach Cherry) is the office tech wizard and resident malcontent. He’s the guy in the office who makes the occasional lewd comment at a pretty employee, and who scowls in disgust at every minor procedural change–or because the vending machine ran out of his favorite snack. In every workplace I’ve ever been in my life, there’s always been a Dylan. In the final few episodes of the season, Dylan’s bifurcated brain is given a rude awakening when is innie-self is reactivated at home for ’emergency overtime’ by the company. Once awakened at home, innie-Dylan learns he’s a family man, with at least one child–a child his innie-self can’t even recognize. An angered Dylan then sees the sinister office overseer, Milchik in his living room–like a waking nightmare.
Knowledge of his family overwhelms Dylan, whose prior grumblings at work used to be relaxed with occasional high-end office perks, such as waffle breakfasts, or even strippers. Such easy mollification allowed Milchik to mistakenly assume Dylan was just a garden-variety hypocrite. Dylan returns to work the next day, but his innie-self is now aware of the life he’s been altered to forget. This newfound resentment fuels the season’s finale where he arranges to hack into a Lumon security station and consensually do for his colleagues what was involuntarily done to him–awaken their innie-selves in the outie-world. It’s hoped that their brief appearances there can be used to strike lethal blows to the misery factory that is Lumon.
Note: Zach Cherry expertly plays what is perhaps the closest this series has to an outright comic character, though he’s tempered with genuine sympathy when he see him at home with his child–a child who’s a stranger to this electronically lobotomized version of himself. We don’t get a glimpse of outie-Dylan’s true behavior, nor do we learn the reason why such a natural cynic would give consent to the severance procedure. This is ripe territory for exploration in season 2.
Irving (John Turturro) is equal parts prickly and pathetic. Seemingly the regulations-bound martinet of the office, Irving has almost OCD-levels of near-panic when things aren’t just so. When we first meet him, he even adopts a faint trace of a British accent. Given that no severance employee is sure exactly where they’re born, Irving being British is certainly a possibility. Irving craves order and control, however illusionary they may be. This fastidious gentleman’s world is turned upside down when he randomly meets another severance innie named Burt (played by the legendary Christopher Walken, no less); Burt is the chief of the mega-corporation’s optics and design division. After a few conversations about Eagan-centric art (the only art allowed in the building), Irving and Burt realize they’re attracted to each other. Unfortunately, fraternization of that kind is discouraged within the Lumon corporation. Irving’s irrepressible love for Burt soon awakens the seeds of rebellion within him, but his hopes are dashed when he learns Burt is retiring.
In the final episodes, innie-Irving, like innie-Mark and innie-Helena, is also reactivated within the real world by hacker Dylan. Once awakened, Irving discovers he’s a bohemian artist who paints multiple images of dark corridors–perhaps symbolizing his outie-self’s desire to know just what his innie-self does for most of his day. Irving also finds a chest containing his late naval officer’s father’s personal effects. Driving his outie-self’s car for the first time in his innie-self’s existence, Irving then goes on a desperate quest to locate the now-retired Burt, using maps and tracking data of all Lumon employees his outie-self accumulated over the years. The finale ends with Irving arriving at Burt’s door… where he sees outie-Burt in a happy domestic situation with his presumed husband. Irving is devastated.
Note: Veteran character actor John Turturro (“The Batman”, “Quiz Show”) is the most recognizable actor within the show’s core office quartet (Christopher Walken’s Burt works in another division of Lumon), and of course, he brings much to the table. Like Helly, his outie-self is as different as possible from the buttoned-up repressed man he’s forced himself to play every day at Lumon, thanks to the severance procedure. Like Dylan, we never actually get to see Turturro playing the outie-version of Irving, since we only see his innie’s activation in the outside world. I’m sure that’s a compelling story as well.
Fired Lumon office manager Petey (Yul Vasquez) appears in the first few episodes, seeking out his clueless friend Mark’s help to fight back against Lumon. Petey had his mind surgically rejoined in a dangerous back-alley medical procedure that removed the Lumon chip from his brain. However, the procedure has left Petey with severe side effects, including painful flashbacks and waking hallucinations, as his formerly divided-selves fight to coexist within his brain. Unfortunately, the tormented Petey suffers brain bleeding, and doesn’t survive. Petey gives Mark the first stirrings that something is amiss with Lumon. That feeling is gradually amplified during the course of the season.
We first see the enigmatic “Ms. Casey” (Daren Lachman) acting as Lumon’s ‘workplace counselor’ (a quasi-human resources officer), who’s tasked with counseling troubled employees, offering vague (and untrue) ‘facts’ about their outie-selves, which are designed to mitigate feelings of unhappiness or disaffection. Ms. Casey offers perfunctory words instead of genuine help, and her reactions are like an android who is learning about human behavior from an outdated psychological reference manual. The neutral-faced Ms. Casey is eventually fired by her superiors for failing to adequately suppress rebellious tendencies within the macro-data team. However, the greatest shock about Ms. Casey comes in the last few moments of the season finale, as innie-Mark is awakened in outie-Mark’s world, where he finds a photo of himself and his late wife Gemma…who is the woman he knows at Lumon as Ms. Casey. Before coworker Dylan loses the hack that allows Mark’s innie-self to recognize Ms. Casey as Gemma, he screams to his sister “She’s alive!”
To be continued…
Note: Gemma’s transformation into Ms. Casey is not only the greatest surprise of the season, but it’s also the season’s most horrifying moment. Was Gemma somehow resurrected by the Lumon corporation into this zombie-woman we see now? Or was she secretly unhappy in her marriage to Mark, eventually faking her own death and voluntarily undergoing severance to help her forget about him? Does “Ms. Casey” have a new life outside of Lumon as well? Many questions begging to be answered in the next season.
Lumon is, of course, the evil mega-corporation at the heart of the story. They their dirty hands in the production of everything from bottled water to government weapons contracts. Like Amazon, they are all-encompassing, and like the Walton family of Walmart, they pride themselves in being a ‘family-owned’ business (i.e., a corporate dynasty). They are all evil corporations of the United States rolled into one. What they actually do within their walls is not so important as what they represent. Lumon is what happens when Big Brother ideology is privatized. It’s still every bit as evil as a Big Brother state, but with a profit margin to worry about as well. Lumon is what happens when a heartless, soulless mega-corporation attempts to assume the roles of both parent and god. You’d be hard-pressed to find a sharper, more timely commentary on the dangers of rampant, unchecked capitalism in modern science fiction film or television.
Note: The exteriors of Lumon are filmed at the real-life Bell Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey. In fact, New Jersey features most of the exterior locations used in the series.
The ‘dynasty’ of Lumon survives in current CEO Jame Eagan (Michael Siberry), who is the sixty-something descendent of the original Lumon founder, Keir Eagan (Mark Gellar), whose face is seen in artwork on Lumon’s walls and in company films. Visually, the bearded Keir Eagan is an intimidating cross between Karl Marx and Brigham Young, with just a pinch of Walt Disney thrown in as well. The idea of bifurcating a person’s work-self (innie) with a private-self (outie) came from Keir Eagan’s descendants, and has been reified using modern technology, such as brain-controlling chips and surgery. The Eagan ‘philosophy’ of shutting out reality within the walls of its buildings is evidenced everywhere; all of the business technology, artwork, and even vending machine food choices are supplied through Lumon. Once within Lumon’s walls, there is no other world. Even the strippers used for employee ‘perks’ (as we see when Dylan is ‘rewarded’ for his productivity) wear Keir Eagan masks as they strip down to their lingerie, in a pathetic attempt to control even the sexual impulses of its ‘innies’ while they’re on the company clock. There is, of course, a growing movement in the outside world against Lumon’s inhumane severance policy, but you won’t find evidence of it anywhere within Lumon’s thick walls.
Note: We also see proof that Lumon’s patented severance technique is being used for even darker purposes (as it would be) in the real world, such as on a senator’s wife, who doesn’t seem to remember having one of her babies in a birthing lodge near where Mark’s sister delivered her child. That same senator’s wife also appears to Helena at the fundraiser in the season finale…
Patricia Arquette (“Ed Wood”, “Medium”) plays Ms. Harmony Cobel, the no-nonsense boss in charge of the severance-employees who work on her floor, including Mark’s macro-data refinement team. Cobel seems to have a special investment in Mark, going so far as to live next door to his outie-self in the real world, posing as the kindly-but-nosey widow, Mrs. Selvig, who ingratiates herself into Mark’s circle by offering to babysit for Mark’s sister’s newborn. Ms. Cobel, is, of course, not severed herself–she’s merely playing the part of Mrs. Selvig for reasons that are as-yet unclear (another riddle to be solved in subsequent seasons). Her fixation on Mark (or perhaps attraction) begins to cloud her judgment, inadvertently allowing his increasingly independent macro-data refinement team greater freedom to dig deeper within the deliberately separated divisions of Lumon. Mark is, of course, spurred on by the rebellious Helly–Cobel’s rival for Mark’s soul. Cobel’s clearly compromised judgment soon sounds the alarms with her powerful colleague, the problem-solver on her floor, Milchik, who promptly fires her. Her termination gives her the motivation to support Mark’s cause, yet it also opens a door for her return to Lumon’s graces when she realizes Mark’s innie has somehow been activated in the real world.
Note: Patricia Arquette expertly switches back and forth between the roles of the icy-yet-unstable Harmony Cobel and kindly Mrs. Selvig. When playing this character’s true self of Cobel, Arquette is perfectly ruthless, yet she offers just a hint of something deeper in her relationship to (or investment with) Mark. When Cobel pretends to be kindly next-door widow Mrs. Selvig, she seems more direct in her emotional attachment to Mark than when she adopts her icier facade on Lumon’s time. Mrs. Selvig may represent that side of herself that somehow wants to be integral to Mark’s life. Perhaps she’s the one behind Gemma’s “accident”, in a calculated attempt to bring Mark to Lumon (?). Whatever the character’s complex reasons, it’s a fascinating dichotomy that the talented Patricia Arquette explores with aplomb.
When we meet Mr. Milchik (Tramell Tillman), he seems to be little more than a company yes-man and occasional ‘enforcer’; the guy who oversees the rewards and punishments of the macro-data refinement team. Milchik’s authority with Mark’s increasingly willful crew, and even Ms. Cobel, seems to be surprisingly broad when he has her fired in the penultimate episode of season one. Milchik has full knowledge of his team’s true-self biographies, and is able to carefully exploit that knowledge whenever needed. In the finale, refiner Dylan has barricaded himself within a security room using thick cords to bind the doors together as he precariously holds two switches down simultaneously… allowing his colleagues in the outside world time enough to deliver their respective blows to Lumon. Dylan is motivated to risk everything after catching a glimpse of his child, courtesy of Milchik’s fumbled ’emergency overtime.’ Milchik, alerted by a tip from the post-terminated Ms. Cobel, realizes Dylan has reactivated the severance employees innie-selves in the outside world. Desperately trying to cut through the cables, Milchik–acting in the role of Satan himself–attempts to seduce Dylan back into the Lumon fold by promising more ‘perks,’ including coffee cozies (one of the lamest lures imaginable, yet surprisingly authentic for such corporations, I can vouch). Milchik is the company’s seducer, yet he mistakenly gambled and lost, by assuming Dylan to be the weakest link in the severance team.
Note: Tramell Tillman plays the role with perfect ‘never-let-’em-see-you-sweat’ grace and menace, until his edges begin to fray near the end of the season, as he is pressed at both ends by both Ms. Cobel and the increasingly assertive macro-data refinement team. We never see Tillman in the real world, and it would be very interesting to speculate on what kind of life Tillman has outside of Lumon. Then again, he’s the kind of ‘company man’ you’d half-expect to live in a secret apartment somewhere within the walls of company headquarters. You can barely imagine Milchik outside of Lumon’s fluorescent-lit walls…
Summing It Up.
“Severance” is a cautionary tale about the dangers of runaway unregulated capitalism at the expense of individual humanity, as well as the often-shocking breadth of powers inferred upon ‘too big to fail’ corporations. In this universe, a soulless corporation mimics–or rather mocks–the role of both parent and state for its lobotomized children. To that end, the actors of the series all play their roles to perfection, with each of the core actors essentially playing two characters–a ‘true’ version, and a worker-version that can’t even recall what sleeping feels like. The heartbreaking (and surprising) details of who these people truly are, teased to us over season one, feels like a reward for both the characters and the audience.
The Lumon corporation/cult is hellbent on creating and maintaining its workforce of designer drones. To what end is unimportant, and doesn’t really matter. I hope the ongoing mythology of the series doesn’t get bogged down in justifications or details (see: “The X-Files” or “Lost”). In fact, I’m hoping the evil Lumon corporation’s goals remain nebulous. At the end of the series’ first season, it’s clear that “Severance” is not so much about what the employees of Lumon are there to do–it’s about how those employees are being consumed, in both body and mind, to do it.
“Severance” wasn’t an easy watch for me, at first, but it was certainly worth it. In fact, it may be one of the most important pieces of science fiction I’ve seen in a long while.
Where To Watch.
“Severance” Season 1 is available to stream exclusively on AppleTV. A second season is already in the works; no word on a release date as of this writing.