by Andrew Wyatt on May 19, 2022

Like most great sci-fi mystery shows, AppleTV+’s new series Severance begins with an intoxicatingly enigmatic opening sequence. A thirtysomething woman (Britt Lower) awakens sprawled on a long table in a tastefully anonymous office conference room. She is dressed smartly in white-collar attire that feels three or four decades out of date. Indeed, the entire room is outfitted in an ambiguous mid- to late-20th-century style, down to the vintage intercom that rouses her from unconsciousness. The pleasant but insistent voice emanating from this device interrogates her with test-like questions: Who are you? In which state were you born? Can you name any state? “Delaware!” she blurts out in response to that third query, but she cannot provide an answer to the others. To her dawning horror, she realizes that she is suffering from some kind of retrograde amnesia. Although she possesses general knowledge and full command of her faculties, she can remember nothing of her life before awakening in this room. “What the hell did you do to me?” she demands of her faceless tormentors.

This woman is named Helly R., but it will be a bit before the series premiere circles back to her. Instead, the show follows Mark S. (Adam Scott), a suit-and-tie functionary at Lumon Industries. Mark is one of the company’s “severed” employees: In exchange for a more generous salary and benefits, severed workers agree to have their consciousness bifurcated. The “innie” identity is only aware when working at the Lumon building, while the “outie” is only aware during nights and on weekends. The transition between these two states occurs via a special, secure elevator, meaning that the innie persona never even catches a glimpse of the world outside the windowless, subterranean “severed floor.” The reasons a Lumon employee might consent to severance are varied. In Mark’s case, he was unable to function in a standard 9-to-5 routine following his wife’s death in a car accident. Not only do innies remember nothing of their existence before severance, they don’t know anything at all about their outies’ ongoing private lives. Severance means no grief, no regrets, and no attachments that would distract employees from their work.

One day, Mark discovers that his best work friend and manager on the Macrodata Refinement (MDR) team, Petey, has abruptly quit. Or so his humorless boss, Ms. Cobell (Patricia Arquette), informs him, before announcing that Mark has been named as the new department lead. On returning to his terminal in the austere MDR office, he learns that his co-workers, the rules-obsessed Irving B. (John Turturro) and the perk-fixated Dylan G. (Zach Cherry), have been joined by Petey’s replacement, Helly. What exactly this four-person team does is a little unclear. They tap away at archaic monochrome computers, searching for and quarantining “bad numbers'' from an endless sea of seemingly random digits. Overseeing the MDR group is Ms. Cobell’s right-hand man, Mr. Milchek (Tramell Tillman), a perpetually hovering middle manager with an unnervingly plastic smile. He doles out the banal company perks with cornball enthusiasm, but he can turn on a dime to icy severity when the outies misbehave – as Helly predictably does to test the proverbial bars on her new corporate cell.

Created by newcomer Dan Erickson, Severance is a work of terrific imagination and confidence, the kind of show that has already announced itself as a distinctive, fully formed work by the time the title card drops during the series premiere. In part, this is due to the instantly indelible, quasi-dystopian look of the Lumon building. Production designer Jeremy Hindle, art director Angelica Borrero, set decorator Andrew Baseman, and costume designer Sarah Edwards have crafted a remarkable corporate setting for the show, amalgamating elements from several decades of American, European, and Japanese office design. (The show also boasts some great location scouting: Bell Labs’ Eero Saarinen-designed complex in Holmdel, N.J., serves as the gargantuan building’s exterior.) The fluorescent-lit world of Lumon is somehow simultaneously soothing and unnerving, a place in which everything is aesthetically pleasant but somehow off. The corridors are a little too narrow, the lights a little too bright, the water cooler just a little too far away.

Viewers expecting a similar level of meticulous construction in the film’s science-fiction elements may be in for disappointment. The specifics of the show’s outlandish premise are nebulous and don’t stand up to hard-nosed scientific scrutiny – microchip brain implants and some curiously analog behind-the-scenes tech are involved. (For the interested, there is an extra-textual chaser: The in-universe tie-in book, Severance: The Lexington Letter, which appears to be in the spirit of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer.) That’s OK: Nitty-gritty worldbuilding is largely immaterial to the ambitions of Erickson and his writing team. Befitting a story that aims to throw the most degrading and debilitating aspects of work culture into absurdly sharp relief, Severance finds success by focusing on the essential humanity of its characters. Directors Ben Stiller (who helms six episodes) and Aoife McArdle (who helms three) are on Erickson’s wavelength, never allowing the show’s arresting aesthetic or dystopian eccentricity to push its appealing characters out of the spotlight.

As the newcomer to the severance process and the MDR team, the perplexed and rebellious Helly serves as the show’s audience insert character. (Lower is perpetually side-eyeing her colleagues with a wonderful “Is this really happening to me?” expression.) From the moment she awakens at Lumon, Helly speculates out loud about the truth behind the company's mysteries, giving voice to the suspicions of genre-savvy viewers: Is this purgatory? Am I livestock? Has the apocalypse occurred outside? Mark, however, is the series protagonist, and he is the only severed worker whose non-work life the viewer is permitted to see. The outside world seems to resemble upstate New York in 2020, which just makes the retro, faintly surreal Lumon world feel all the stranger. Outie Mark lives in a company subdivision and seems to have no interests or friends, beyond his acerbic sister, Devon (Jen Tullock), who is married to an unctuous self-help author (Michael Chernus) and currently very pregnant with her first child. Devon is understandably worried about Mark: Despite relegating every scrap of his wife’s memory to some cardboard boxes in a corner of his basement, he seems unable to accept that she is gone.

The empathic strength of Severance’s writing is particularly evident in how it treats its secondary characters, even those who initially seem designed for comic relief. Irving is a wet-blanket stickler for the company handbook, with an unshakeable faith in Lumon’s weirdly evangelical corporate philosophy. However, after a chance encounter with Burt G. (Christopher Walken), a veteran employee from the Optics and Design department, an irrepressibly romantic side of Irving starts to flower. Dylan at first seems to be little more than a sarcastic, reward-focused boor, but as it gradually becomes apparent how much Lumon has taken from him, he begins to express a newfound, righteous defiance. Even the tyrannical Ms. Cobell has her pitiable moments, revealing that she is less an unfeeling overlord than a true believer in search of redemption.

One of Severance’s core themes is the sheer, anti-human weirdness of contemporary work culture. The show drops that insidiously grotesque phrase “work-life balance” in its first episode, and the same words have shown up in many appreciations of the series. There’s something both hilarious and disturbing about the infantilizing perks that Lumon proffers its severed employees – Melon snacks! Dance breaks! Waffle parties! – in between wellness checks with the company therapist (Dichen Lachman) and compulsory visits to the dreaded Break Room for psychological reprogramming. Modern office life might constitute low-hanging fruit, satire-wise, but Severance treats it with an indelible blend of straight-faced silliness and ripe psychological horror. It's as if someone swirled together THX-1138 (1971), Brazil (1985), and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) into some deranged sweet-and-savory concoction. And unlike many works that treat the present state of the world as a uniquely dispiriting moment, Erickson’s series explicitly connects Lumon’s abuses to the past century-and-a-half of toxic American business culture, with its creepy reverence for company loyalty and worker self-sacrifice.

While the series’ tragically ludicrous (and ludicrously tragic) depiction of work has garnered substantial critical attention, Severance also functions as a striking exploration of consciousness. The questions of mind-body duality and the continuity of identity are of course well-worn topics in science fiction. (Just ask any Trekkie about the metaphysical implications of matter transporters.) However, such topics have rarely taken center stage in the way that they do in Severance, which pulls off the splendid genre trick of elegantly entwining theme and premise. At times, it’s simply exciting to watch the show’s creators shape their storytelling approach around the characters’ split perceptions. Early in the series, for example, Helly’s first day at Lumon is portrayed twice: first from her innie’s viewpoint, and then briefly from her outie’s perspective. Meanwhile, Scott is essentially playing two distinct characters who never directly interact, a fact that the writers and directors treat less as an obstacle than an opportunity for some ingenious dramatic payoffs. That Erickson and his collaborators manage to create such a compelling mystery without resorting to time-hopping structural trickery or unreliable-narrator shenanigans (so far, at least) is particularly impressive.

Severance is ultimately more interested in a good, thrilling story than in haranguing the audience with a philosophy lecture, but the show has a sneaky way of inviting the viewer to ruminate on the nature of consciousness even as they’re white-knuckling their armchair. Specifically, the series proceeds from an assumption that a contiguous stream of subjective sensations and memories are the borders that bound a unique identity. (Without going too deep into the very dense arguments surrounding the mind-body problem, the show seems to embrace a form of epiphenomenalism, given that consciousness splitting can be achieved through physical technology.) The rules of severance lead into an ethical and legal quagmire that the show openly acknowledges. The innie, after all, is a basically a slave, a sentient being brought into existence solely to work without compensation and provide their outie with a life of leisure. The innie has no say in their situation and, as Mark explains to Helly with a hint of bitter amusement, resignations are almost always rejected.

Beyond these proximal moral concerns, however, the series also raises all sorts of fascinating philosophical questions. Do the severed represent two distinct individuals inhabiting the same physical form? Where exactly does the outie “go” when the innie is present, and vice versa? Is the dormant identity effectively nonexistent (or perhaps a “philosophical zombie”) during its quiescent phase? This introduces some head-spinning complications to some already-contentious metaphysical conundrums, such as mind uploading. The show’s first season may not answer these questions definitively, but by ingeniously embedding them in a juicy and evocative sci-fi thriller, Severance lends them acute urgency and poignancy. They no longer feel like airy thought experiments, but – as the show’s heart-stopping season finale demonstrates – like matters of life and death.

Rating: A-

Further Viewing: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), 9 to 5 (1980), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Clockwatchers (1997), Being John Malkovich (1999), Memento (2000), Waking Life (2001), Better Off Ted (2009-10), The Cabin in the Woods (2011), Workaholics (2011-17).

The first season of Severance is now available to stream from AppleTV+.