‘Severance’ Faced a Dilemma
(The following makes reference to self-harm as it is depicted on the show)
If the upstate New York hue of snow-laden rooftops attracts you, or if the idea of a corporatized, surgically induced bifurcation of consciousness piques your interest, you have company. Not just with the millions of viewers who have flocked to Apple TV+ to watch Severance during the series’ first season, but with comedian turned auteur visionary Ben Stiller, who stewarded the project onto the small screen and directed a majority of the episodes, as well as Adam Scott, who was brought on by Stiller and plays the show’s main character.
The series, created by Dan Erickson, checks all the boxes you want from a sci-fi story; offering a unique, world-building premise with plenty of technical details to explore, while also presenting a prescient and substantive commentary on our current culture of work/ life balance — and it does this in tandem with characters and production that pop like bursts of color on a drab, wintery canvas.
The direction, set design, and performances balance seamlessly with the story; maintaining equilibrium through the offset forces of banal, office-based rigidity and subtly uncontainable, percolating life and emotion. Sterile hallways and sparsely furnished rooms stand in stark contrast to the human tension and relationships that coalesce within them — everything, including the characters, is a pin-drop away from either eruption or emptiness.
One way to enjoy Severance is through the context of the show’s philosophical implications; examining the perils of worker commodification under a brutal capitalist system, or by investigating what constitutes our sense of self — whether we embrace distractions and escapism to avoid grief and loss, or instead to prolong it. Perhaps this was the elevator pitch that got the show greenlit, and it could very well be responsible for a portion of the significant audience the show has attracted, but I found myself largely disinterested in this dimension of the story. I believe that’s because the other lens through which to watch Severance is as the absolute banger of a psychological sci-fi thriller, and expert execution of an ambitiously stylistic vision it became.
It’s no small feat for a show in its first season to achieve a legitimate sense of groundedness; to cultivate an aura of authenticity where no moments feel disingenuous, but that’s exactly what Stiller and fellow director Aoife McArdle accomplished. Everything is deliberate — the settings (and even the show’s intro) are designed to mirror the attempted miniaturization and confinement of the main characters: we’re meant to feel the enormity of the region and the Lumon headquarters as a contrast to the suffocating constraints of the Macrodata Refiners, both as ‘innies’ and ‘outies’ (a reference to the Refiners personas when they’re in and outside the Lumon walls).
While at Lumon, Mark (Adam Scott), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irv (John Turturro), and Helly (Britt Lower) work in a large office space but are tightly packed in the center of the room with dividers between their desks. Despite the sprawling, rurally expansive town they live in, Mark’s home is in a suburbia-type townhouse development. Irv lives in a small one-bedroom apartment. The only time we see Dylan’s ‘outie’ is when he’s being questioned while sandwiched between shirts and jackets in a tiny closet.
Decisions like these, along with a subtle piano score that enters and exits scenes with the fluidity of an established character, and the choice to rely primarily on a steady cam until the adrenalized season finale are the stylistic choices you get when you have a director of Stiller’s caliber who understands a strong storytelling conceit needs structural vision to hold up over time.
The first season wasn’t without its lulls. Technical details of the severance procedure (e.g. its scope and limitations), were interesting when they helped move the plot forward; but when the first season lagged was when it felt as though the aperture was being focused a bit too narrowly — the ongoing game of codebreakers to see what messages could make it past the elevator threshold, focusing significant time in and around the Perpetuity Wing, and becoming a bit too acquainted with Mark’s morning routine.
These all served a purpose: we needed to feel as though we understood the parameters of the procedure and Lumon’s layout for some of the season’s twists to resonate, and the establishment of Mark’s mundane routine made its unraveling feel more dramatic; but when looking at this first season through the lens of a Macrodata Refiner, these were the aspects on the screen that would likely get dragged into the less exciting bin.
When the first season sang was when it used directorial vision and genre as a way to heighten the fundamentals of what makes any suspenseful story successful; brilliant acting and writing. It remains shocking that our current era of television affords us casts like these; which features Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken, and John Turturro, in addition to Scott, but what truly stunned was the emerging performers who went toe-to-toe with these titans.
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Tramell Tillman gives one of the most disarming and at times unnerving performances I can recall as Mr. Milchick, his office dance performance more vibrant and electric than any of the neon lights his gyrations obscured. At the end of Episode 4, when Helly hangs herself in the elevator, my brain could hardly process that this character who’d completely captured my adoration was potentially going to die — and if that wasn’t suspenseful enough we were forced to wrestle with the reality she might die as her ‘outie’ version who we’d never met before.
These performances, along with writing that felt completely unencumbered by self-doubt; oscillating freely between the hilarity of Ricken (Michael Chernus) agonizing over the correct resting place for his doorstep gift, and the heartbreakingly disappointing way Mark drunkenly treats Alexa (Nikki M. James)— to say nothing of how earned the mind-bending twists felt — were truly a triumph.
The decision to pursue this story as a thriller is what gave it legs, and the show can now go in practically any direction. Despite the Season 1 finale unveiling one of the major twists of the season by revealing the identity of Helly’s ‘outie’, there are plenty of questions left unanswered. Why does Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) live next door to Mark? What exactly does Lumon do? What’s the agenda of Irv’s ‘outie’? Season 2 was announced practically in tandem with the Season 1 finale, and I’m sure I’m not alone in my impatience to see how far down the elevator takes us.