The concept of the work/life balance is a hot topic at the moment, with plenty of employers struggling to appeal to a workforce less attached to their office and colleagues (and more tied to home and friends) after nearly two years of working from home.
This makes Apple TV’s new sci-fi thriller Severance feel all the more timely, though it’s actually been in the works since around 2016. In this world, that elusive work/life balance has been achieved through a controversial procedure called (you guessed it) severance, whereby certain workers at a shady corporation called Lumon have their office and home memories surgically separated.
In practice this means that while in work, they have no memory of the outside world or who they were out there. Meanwhile, whenever they leave their "severed" floor they have no clue what they’ve been up to from 9-5, not even remembering the names or faces of colleagues they’ve worked with for years.
We're introduced to the stark realities of this process early on in an arresting scene, where new employee Helly (Britt Lower) wakes up splayed out on a table, with no memories of her real life as a disembodied voice tests her. Cornered and angry, Helly desperately tries to leave – only for her outside self to immediately return, still keen to kick off her new job.
In effect they become two beings, nicknamed "innies" and "outies" (in an intentionally cutesy, irritating way), with the so-called "innies" imprisoned until their outside selves decide to move on. But why would they? They’re getting paid for, essentially, going to an office and then leaving every day. And for particular members of staff, there are other benefits.
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Take protagonist Mark Scout (Adam Scott). Still mourning the death of his wife and weeping in his car every morning (his colleagues, noting his red eyes in the morning joke that he has an “elevator allergy”), he welcomes the idea that for eight hours a day, he can be free from his crushing grief, even as friends and family fret about his rash decision.
In this crucial role, Scott gives a subtle performance as both versions of Mark – the sardonic, slightly brash outside version who’s barely holding it together and the chipper worker bee inside, but who still has flashes of the same sarcastic humour. It must have been tempting to exaggerate the differences between the iterations, but Scott instead makes it clear that Mark is largely the same person inside and out, just filtered a little differently. After all, don’t we all have a "work persona" that’s a little different to how we might be on the outside?
Anyway, it’s clear from the early episodes that Mark has landed inside the lion’s den at Lumon. His bosses are sinister and eerie, spouting corporate buzzwords with a barely-concealed undercurrent of menace, while the workers’ cubicles are contained within an off-white labyrinth of identical corridors. The work (Macro-Data-Refinement) is strange and perplexing, the perks are bizarre and mixing with other "departments" is forbidden. Anyone who misbehaves is subject to a psychological battering in the "break room", while one senior manager disappears altogether between shifts.
At first Mark seems fairly oblivious to this horror, but it’s no spoiler to note that over the course of Severance’s nine episodes he begins to dig deeper into what’s really happening at Lumon, and what severance truly means to those subjected to it. Meanwhile, his tough and suspicious boss Harmony (Patricia Arquette) investigates Mark's life, while his colleagues (an excellent John Turturro, Zach Cherry and Lower) begin to notice strange goings-on of their own.
Is this all just some big science experiment? Is the data they’re "refining" actually doing anything, or is it busywork? Or is the process of severance itself the whole purpose of the endeavour? The central mystery pulls you through, even as the world around it gets weirder and weirder (what’s with the room of goats?).
At times, Severance is a little too slow at delivering key markers in that mystery. The first episode in particular feels drawn-out, even ostentatiously so (at one point, 87 uncut seconds is devoted to Scott walking down a series of corridors), and it takes a while for it all to get going. But the strange, otherworldly atmosphere of the Lumon building (and its contrast with Mark’s scruffy life outside) and its mysteries just about make it worthwhile, and after that first hurdle the pace picks up considerably.
Alongside writer/creator Dan Erickson, credit must go to executive producer Ben Stiller, who directed six of the nine episodes (with Aoife McArdle on the other three) and really develops a sinister, threatening tone underneath the sheen of upbeat bland corporate America. Who knew that this was coming next from the director of Tropic Thunder and Zoolander?
Altogether, Severance is an impressive creation. It’s a sci-fi mystery, an quasi-religious thriller and much more besides – but more than anything it really is a portrait of work and how we let it take over our lives. How much of ourselves do we give to heartless corporations, and what does it cost us to do so? Is there such a thing as a work/life balance, or is the very concept of paid employment incompatible with personal freedom?
Answers prepared for the next all-hands meeting, please. Make a note, just in case you forget.
Severance begins streaming on Apple TV+ from Friday 18th February – sign up for Apple TV+ now.