In the age of binge-watching and television seasons that drop all at once, Severance feels unique: it’s a show you definitely don’t want to watch in one go. Despite the veneer of a banal workplace drama, Severance is an incredibly tense sci-fi horror series where that tension only builds over the course of the show’s nine episodes. Each new chapter is a chance to see something more messed up and discover the dark depths the capitalist machine is willing to sink to. You’re going to want some space in between to let it all soak in — and maybe catch your breath a little.
This article contains spoilers for the first season of Severance.
Severance starts out fairly slowly. The show centers on a relatively new procedure called, naturally, severance, which splits a worker’s brain in two. This allows people to essentially skip work for eight hours a day and focus on their outside life. The work self, meanwhile (the two are colloquially referred to as “innies” and “outies”), is stuck in a life that is nothing but work. Their entire lives are contained to the office. The technology allows memories to be spatially dictated. Your life and memories are yours right up until you hop in the elevator at Lumon Industries, go down to the severed floor, and get to work. From that point on, your time and memories belong to your innie — and to Lumon.
We’re introduced to the concept through Mark (Adam Scott). On the outside, Mark is grieving the loss of his wife, and he signed up to be severed in hopes of avoiding those feelings for at least part of the day. On the inside, he’s the chipper department head of the macrodata refinement division at Lumon, where he and three other employees — Dylan (Zach Cherry), Helly (Britt Lower), and Irving (John Turturro) — spend all day long doing… something. It’s never actually clear what their job is, though they’re reassured the work is mysterious and important. It mostly involves finding “scary” numbers on a bewildering grid.
Initially, it’s easy to see the appeal of severing. Work sucks. Who wouldn’t want to cut that drudgery out of their lives and focus on the good parts? But it quickly becomes clear just how untenable the solution is. For the innies, it’s an actual nightmare. Their lives exist only within the dreary walls of Lumon’s basement. When they leave work, their next memory is of arriving the next day. They feel the effects of sleep, but they never experience it themselves. Things get so bleak that collecting office trinkets like Lumon-branded finger traps becomes an actual incentive. At one point, a contraband book of New Age philosophical gibberish makes its way into the department, and the refiners treat it like the most important piece of literature ever written. After all, when the only thing you’ve ever read is an employee handbook, anything would be good by comparison.
The sense of discomfort — and, eventually, outright terror — grows as the show progresses, and you learn more about Lumon and what life is like in the basement. The company itself is a bit like if Amazon was run by Scientologists, only a lot more evil. We’re told that it’s a pharmaceutical company with its hands in a lot of different industries. Much of the staff — at least those we see, including Mark’s boss, played with a terrifying intensity by Patricia Arquette — worship its founder like a religious figure, right down to the constant repetition of dogma. In the optics and design division, you can find, among other disturbing Romantic era-style paintings of interdepartmental wars, a version of Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, featuring Lumon founder Kier Eagan staring out into the great unknown.
Severance thrives on mystery. Like Lost and Yellowjackets, it’s a show that loves to toss inexplicable curveballs at viewers that are sometimes explained, sometimes not. In Severance, those strange twists are often the reason for the steadily creeping sense of dread. Some of this comes down to the way the show looks: the severed floor is like something out of a parallel dimension. It’s almost like a cubicle farm ripped out of the ‘60s, but with strange retrofuturistic computers, twisting hallways designed for maximum confusion, and a breakroom that doubles as a psychological torture chamber. Oh, and there’s a room filled with baby goats. It’s the kind of show where a celebratory waffle party inevitably devolves into something bizarre and uncomfortable.
This sense of mystery is amplified by the dual nature of the severed characters. Each actor is essentially playing two different people with conflicting desires. But by nature of their surgically altered brains, they only know half of the story. Outie Mark has no idea what really goes on during the hours he’s at the office, and innie Mark knows literally nothing about the outside world and the impact that widespread adoption of severance could have. You may be confused while watching, but the characters in the show have things much, much worse. I should also note that Severance’s creators have a clear love of artful cliffhangers of the “Not Penny’s boat” variety. This extends to the finale, which, while answering some important questions and offering some explosive revelations, also leaves a lot to be uncovered in Severance’s recently confirmed second season. You may shout at your screen when the credits kick in.
Put it all together, and you have a show that paints the darkest possible portrait of how megacorporations think about and treat their employees. We’ve all seen the stories of what tech giants try to get away with in the real world; Severance posits a future where they can do literally anything in secret because employees have knowingly signed up to be lab rats. If things go Lumon’s way, no one will ever know about the goats or the breakroom. That tension and terror are worth it, though. The first season of Severance is stressful, but it’s also a lot more fun than a Lumon-allocated Music Dance Experience.
The first season of Severance is streaming now on Apple TV Plus.