Apple TV’s new series Severance is a fantastic mystery workplace thriller that explores the idea of individuality in the modern workspace.
Ever since Lost wrapped up its six season long mystery in 2010 and divided audiences around the world, there’s been a notable lack of “mystery box” programming: programming that slowly oozes information out of itself over a long amount of time and structures itself upon the many questions that it offers to the viewer to speculate on. Other than shows like HBO’s Westworld or the Twin Peaks revival on Showtime, television has moved towards the direction of more traditional storytelling that often bases itself in reality or in the form of miniseries that tell one complete story. With Severance however, this type of mystery television has returned and has done so in a masterful way.
Severance follows Mark (Adam Scott) who works for Lumon on the Severance program: A program that separates your personal life and work life the moment you walk through the company doors. Upon his new promotion to lead the Macrodata Refinement team, the arrival of a new employee named Helly (Britt Lower) leads Mark and his team down a path to discover who they are outside of their workplace and the truth of who they really work for.
When Severance begins, we see a woman passed out on a white desk; it’s an incredibly hypnotic shot that is also accompanied by a haunting score by Theodore Shapiro. As episode 1 and the rest of the series shows itself, so do the influences. The familiar architecture of the 2019 video game “Control” as well as the paranoia and unease of 70s political conspiracy thrillers such as The Parallax View help the series flesh out this wholly original narrative and thematic idea on a bold visual level.
For 6 of the 9 episodes in season 1, Ben Stiller directs with an incredibly confident touch that’s both a huge step up from his 2018 television miniseries Escape at Dannemora as well as a perfect continuation of his established stylistic approaches. Episode 9 largely feels tense not only because of its strong writing but also the more handheld and claustrophobic camera direction. As the episode is sprinkled with multiple long shots and P.O.V. shots, it’s a sharp contrast from the rest of the calm direction from the previous episodes but serves as a notable example of the diversity that Severance brings even in its deceiving modernist landscapes that it presents inside the workspace of Lumon industries.
As the series continues, we establish not just the personal motivations as to why the central characters of the story would take part in something like the Severance procedure but also the political world that centers itself around every moment of every episode. We see multiple protests regarding the Severance program, shady politicians offering their support for sinister reasons and punk bands singing in revolt to the system that Severance is creating.
As much as the series is about the dangers of ignoring internalized trauma, as the character of Mark uses the workplace to run away from the passing of his wife, it also serves as a brutal takedown of the modern day workplace and how it attempts to shred any form of individuality from its workers. As stories of Amazon warehouses are released almost daily exposing the deep internal surveillance committed on their workers as well as the impossible hours many are forced to work under, Severance enters the spotlight with an incredibly haunting feeling throughout its 9 episodes that feels more and more timely with each passing day. The concept of dividing yourself into two and the exploitation that the workplace can commit on a person without their knowledge is a truly frightening concept that the series covers especially in its later episodes.
By the time Severance reaches its masterful season finale, it finds itself at the beginning of a large story. There are many moving parts to the series on a personal character level and the larger world that surrounds them but whereas the abundance of questions can come at a disadvantage for shows such as Westworld, where Severance shines is its commitment to give you just enough of an answer while delicately adding more questions to it. Coming to season 1 of a show that is clearly presenting itself as the beginning of a long story looking for answers to every single question is a fool’s errand. However, it makes a very strong effort to keep viewers inside its beautifully original world thanks to its perfect balance of engaging mystery and trickling of information.
Severance is the type of television that only comes once in a while. A thriller determined to take the viewer on a long haul trip while softly satisfying every craving they might be looking for. Writer and showrunner Dan Erickson, with this first chapter of what looks to be a multi season story, has done more than enough to create a thrilling ride for viewers to take and the wait for season 2 will be a painful one.
Season 1 of Severance is now available to watch on Apple TV+.