If you keep punching the clock, the clock punches back. It does this stealthily, by moving slowly or — as in the sensational Apple TV+ series Severance — it simply ceases to matter. Every day is the same. The clock ticks but it may as well not. Like a funhouse mirror version of the tedium many of us got used to during the pandemic, the office workers in Severance face indistinguishable days that melt into one another because all they literally know is the workplace.
Do they have children, lovers, pastimes? These worker ants toil in silence, their job being to shield their versions on the outside, the ones with actual lives, from the workplace. They have undergone a procedure called severance wherein a computer chip is implanted in their brains, cutting them off from the outside world (and vice versa) during work hours in the windowless office floor they work on. Those on the outside (nicknamed “outies”) don’t know what their “innies” do, so once they drive back — from an office they don’t remember — they don’t have to worry about work. This is work/life balance taken to an absurd extreme.
Created by Dan Erickson and directed mostly by Ben Stiller, the series has a distinctive aesthetic that yanks us into the fluorescent lit cubicles and white windowless walls. The architecture is a conundrum, the cubicles surrounded—with an inefficiency so pointed it must be deliberate—by room for so many more. As Severance poses questions about inner lives and outer lives, cults and faith, the abdication of moral responsibility and the bendiness of free will, it expertly captures the paranoia of walking into your office and not knowing something everyone else might know. About you.
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We meet four innies: Mark, Helly, Irving and Dylan. Their work is ephemeral — they not only serve mysterious gods and follow aphoristic scriptures, but also know not what they do. Theirs is not to wonder why. They are meant to find and sort ‘scary numbers’ but can’t describe them, unhelpfully briefing the new girl by saying she’ll know them when she sees them. What this accomplishes is anyone’s guess — including ours. “Irv thinks we’re cutting swear words out of movies,” says Dylan. (I applaud this allegory for the cluelessness of those who, entirely arbitrarily, censor movies.)
They are further subjugated by having bosses who are not severed. They know much more, including about their employees’ external lives, occasionally rewarding innies with facts about their outies. Is this an experiment? Are they lab rats running around the same maze? As Dolly Parton sang in 9 To 5: “They just use your mind, and they never give you credit/It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
As we get to know the four colleagues, we see dissent creeping in. One outie meets a conspirator, one innie continually refuses to conform, one innie falls in love and the fourth… well, the fourth realises that overtime is the last straw.
I refuse to get into plot particulars quite simply because each revelation satisfyingly pulled me deeper toward paranoia. What an inescapable feeling. Creating a situation where we inherently question everything—not merely the machinations of story but our own reactions to them—is highly seductive, and Stiller paces the twists brilliantly. The audience starts out entirely in the dark, but as the world unfolds we soon know twice as much as most of the characters, making the viewing experience a game of tallying how much the characters know at any given time. Alfred Hitchcock would dig it.
The visuals are forever contrasting: tiny desks in big rooms, baroque paintings and ice-white hallways, tube-lit workspaces and dim wintery nights. A parking lot in the snow looks like a fish skeleton, a top shot of sofas in a waiting room looks like a microchip. I thought often of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and conceptually of Spike Jonze’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind—a film Severance winks at in the first episode as a man finds a note on the windshield of his car. The constant unease reminded me of the great Philip K Dick and his landmark novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, particularly because of the brutal way innies are punished: they are made to repeat something till they mean it.
The characters are terrific. Adam Scott plays Mark as a sullen widower on the outside, but as an innie his chin is almost permanently curled inward, as if he doesn’t know how to uncurl it. It’s the face of a quizzical baby, something that makes sense given his innie is just a few years old. Zach Cherry is great as sarcastic high-achiever Dylan, who likes workplace prizes till suddenly, one night, the meaninglessness of these trinkets is thrown into perspective for him. Britt Lower plays the innie Helly with enough emphasis to make it evident some things can’t be switched off on the outside. She walks as if carrying a sledgehammer, poised to topple dystopian dictators from historic Apple adverts.
John Turturro plays Irving with a wistful, elegiac elegance. He may be mystified by the black paint he finds beneath his nails one morning at his desk, but carries on comforted by the gospel of work. One day he meets Christopher Walken’s Burt, who works in Optics & Design and has a twinkle in his eye, and the two make their own secret, a secret all their own in a world where everything is a secret. They are a delight. Patricia Arquette plays mysterious boss Ms Cobel and makes her frightening, but not quite as frightening as her enforcer, Tramell Tillman’s Mr Milchick, with his marvellously sunny smile and relentless adherence to the rules.
It’s fascinating to see the innies behave in relation to their outies: which one stubbornly never trusts the process, which one is used to following rulebooks and quoting arbitrary scriptures, which one feels far too sorry for a co-worker…. Not everything can be left behind with the turn of a switch.
“Am I livestock?”, a character asks, stumped by the lack of freedom. Severance shows that even a bad book holds words we can live by. Captives make the best audience. This superb first season gives us more questions. Are we choosing the right texts? Are we picking the least false gods? Are we identifying more with the innies or the outies? Are we looking forward to tomorrow? Are we even asking the right questions? What, after all, do electric sheep dream of?
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Streaming Tip Of The Week:
The French series Drôle (called The Stand-Ups in English) introduces us to a diverse set of stand-up comedians in Paris. Created by Fanny Herrero (best known for global smash hit Call My Agent) the delightful show explores the contradictions and whimsies of humour itself. The joke is often on us.