March 2022

Noted

‘Severance’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘Severance’
Apple TV+’s darkly comic satire takes the pursuit of a desirable work-life balance literally

It’s an unusual query for the first day of a new job: “This isn’t like, Hell, or something?” asks Helly (Britt Lower), who has begun her employment at Lumon Industries with some HR-approved brain surgery. The chip inserted by the company sequesters Helly’s memories: outside work, she has no idea what she does at the office; when Helly’s working, she has no memory of her outside life. Like her colleagues, she doesn’t know if she’s married, has political beliefs or is loved. Because they’re only awake at the office, the cubicle dwellers don’t even know what it’s like to sleep.

A menacing thriller told with drily absurdist flourishes, Severance (Apple TV+) brings a near-future, science-fiction concept studded with the literary conceits of Jorge Luis Borges or Donald Antrim. The ultimate corporate solution to the work/life balance, “severance” is a non-disclosure agreement that can’t be broken. But Helly and the rest of Macrodata Refinement – Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry) – initially have no idea of how vulnerable they are. The “innies” swap theories about what they do as “outies”, try to earn childish rewards and hope to avoid the dreaded “break room”, where workplace infringements are punished.

The narrative examines the intertwined duality of Mark, who is chipper inside the office but suffused with regret when his memories return outside. “A handshake is available upon request,” notes his unnerving boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who is part of this Kafkaesque middle management structure. The employees are foundlings, naive to the world that has allowed them to be created. If they quit they essentially die – without the workplace they don’t exist. Insidious horrors seep into the existential cracks created by this concept.

With his debut series, creator Dan Erickson reveals a distinct voice, in which the dystopian circumstances are greeted with corporate slogans and water-cooler gossip. The pacing is unhurried and the tone is initially obtuse and even dislocating. Over time, the plot acquires both detail and dread – one team member threatens self-harm so they can get a message to their “outie” demanding they resign, only to be cruelly rebuffed by that controlling other self. The series embraces the inexplicable: the office hallways are like labyrinths and co-workers, such as Burt (Christopher Walken) from Optics and Design, are mysterious figures. That the writings of Lumon Industries’ founder are treated as gospel only adds to the cult-like atmosphere.

Severance’s chief advocate was executive producer and lead director Ben Stiller. The comedic actor is a fussy director who sometimes veers towards the explicit, but his eye for world-building is exemplary. As with his underrated 2018 prison-break drama Escape at Dannemora, Stiller creates an involved environment where each space imparts information that shapes the story. Here he shows you the everyday world and the increasingly dangerous offshoot that is just one productivity initiative away. The later episodes have a gripping tension, which allows for a wonder both hopeful and alarming. Hell, it turns out, is the job where no one can advocate for you, not even yourself.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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