Movies

‘Severance’ review: Corporate hell meets dystopian sci-fi in thrilling workplace drama

A still from ‘Severance’

A still from ‘Severance’

In the age of technological industrialisation, what makes humans superior to machines? Technology has certainly surpassed us to the extent of rendering some jobs fully automated. Then, is it a difference in intelligence? No, AI, of course, wins that round. Well, according to Apple TV+’s latest show, Severance, it is our memories that save us from a robotic existence. 

Memories about our family, friends and partners. Memories that trigger emotions, that bring us joy and drown us in grief. All these memories are forbidden at Lumon’s “severed floor”, where Mark Scout (Adam Scott) works. A nebulous corporation, Lumon serves as the towering place of employment in the town of Kier (named after the founder of Lumon). 

Employees who work at the severed floor have to undergo “severance,” a medical procedure that involves planting a chip in your brain following which access to memories becomes “spatially dictated”. Simply put, Mark Scout at work can’t recollect anything from his personal life; after he clocks out at 5.00 p.m., he won’t be able to recall the specificities of what he does for a living.

In severing the memories, the consciousness also divides itself. The self that exists at the workplace and the one that exists outside of it (known as “innies” and “outies” in the show) lead two separate lives. The innies indulge in workplace banter, solve problems together and gossip about the boss. Outside, they fail to recognise each other.

Think of it as the coveted work/life balance aided by a memory blackout. 

Directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, Severance avoids pinning down a time period in which the story takes place. Characters walk around in modern clothing, and surely technology has progressed enough to accommodate remotely-controlled brain implants. At Lumon’s headquarters however, the bulky computers, flip phones and the 80s workplace aesthetics reach out to confuse us, and the “Macrodata Refinement” team that Mark heads.

Comprising an overtly-devoted Irving B. (John Turturro) who prides himself on knowing “all nine core Lumon principles” and Dylan G. (Zach Cherry), the team is a compact one. 

The show paces itself out like the Monday morning after a long weekend. It takes its time to drive home the point about the mundaneness of the corporate job, but soon hurtles into a storyline that naturally fits in murder, undercover recce and a corporate fugitive. 

Though primarily a thriller, Severance also devotes its nine episodes to make a point about the exploitation of workers. A chronic overachiever, Dylan is shown to have amassed a treasure trove of Lumon incentives that include erasers, finger traps, and caricature portraits. It is fitting that the time period remains undefined, because corporate exploitation is a perennial monster. At Lumon, this monster lurks in the void between the workplace self and the personal self. 

Severance
Creator: Dan Erickson
Directors: Ben Stiller, Aoife McArdle
Cast: Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, Tramell Tillman, and others
Episodes: 9
Storyline: At a workplace where work memories and personal memories are surgically divided, employees begin to suspect the company when a colleague suddenly leaves

Mark is also tasked with training the new joinee, Helly R., who struggles to get in line with the drone of unquestioning worker bees, and repeatedly tries to quit. “Am I livestock?” she asks Mark on her very first day at the job. 

Helly arrives at Lumon filling in for Mark who has been promoted to the position of department head following the sudden departure of Peter “Petey” Kilmer. With his superiors being secretive about the same, Mark’s discomfort grows. Outside the workplace, Petey accosts Mark at a restaurant, reveals that he has managed to bypass the implant, therefore consequently retaining his memories, and urges Mark to dig into the inner workings of Lumon. 

This confrontation sets off the chain of events that culminates with an employee uprising, hilariously catalysed by a contraband self-help book.

With a plotline that focuses on simplifying sci-fi, and only keeping in the bits that are necessary, Severance manages to steer clear of turning into a self-indulgent show, ensuring it doesn’t sacrifice character development for an ambitious story. While seemingly nefarious, the procedure of getting severed remains a voluntary choice. The audience is reminded of that in how the show explores the different reasons behind the employees ending up at Lumon. 

Mark wants to escape the grief that haunts him, and Irving wants to get away from the loneliness that chips away at him. They chase the ignorance that would bring them bliss.

The visual aesthetics also contribute to the overall coherency of the world of Severance. A clinically-pristine office devoid of any soothing colours gets sickening over time as the harsh white hallways snuff out any warmth that the characters bring individually. Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné adds to this with eerily symmetrical shots. 

A timely affair

A side effect of the pandemic has involved heightened interest from the audience, as well the creators, in fully leaning into stories that leave one’s self uneasy. Shows like Kevin Can F**k Himself (2021) , Nine Perfect Strangers (2021) , The White Lotus (2021) , and Midnight Mass (2021) found success in actively engaging the viewers, giving them crumbs to follow the mystery, and ending the mad circus with a nail-biting finish. It is the television era of exploring the twisted reality, and Dan Erickson’s Severance fits right in. 

However, Erickson doesn’t search for a faraway retreat, an unassuming resort or a remote island to explore the horrors of humanity. He doesn’t need to... because they are all present in the corporate reality. 

Coming in the era of the ‘Great Resignation’, Severance is aware of the complexities it exists in and doesn’t gloss over them. Man is made machine on the show, first through their own volitions, and then through continued subjugation at the hands of the company that is only seeking to increase its own bottomline. 

A sharp separation between professional and personal life is promoted as bliss, but it quickly takes a turn for the worse when an office run by humans becomes devoid of humanness. At a work party, Mark tells Helly, “I just hope it turns out I have things I care about.” 

Mark and his colleagues quite literally struggle to re-member themselves in the post-work societies they live in. 

In the seventh episode, titled ‘Defiant Jazz’, Paul Anka croons in the background: “Memories are time that you borrow,” before Irving suggests that they “burn this place to this ground”. It is in such moments that Severance reaches its peak, when it reassures us of the survival of human resilience and camaraderie. 

Severance is currently streaming on Apple TV+


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Printable version | Aug 4, 2022 1:58:10 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/severance-review-corporate-hell-meets-dystopian-sci-fi-in-thrilling-workplace-drama/article65506982.ece