They say that art imitates life, but perhaps what we consider to be imitation is more accurately described as reflection. Take the American government intervention in the Vietnam War. When our country’s true motives became increasingly opaque, the antihero was born: think John Rambo from First Blood, or Mike Vronsky from The Deer Hunter; young adult men, often white, who’d grown disillusioned with authority and represented a challenge to Hollywood’s hero trope. This critical eye toward U.S. involvement in foreign nations—and whether the ends justify the means—continued post-9/11 with films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Dark Knight and Sicario; whole hosts of films with narratives in which society faced profound collapse.
But in these films, foreclosure doesn’t matter when there are zombies outside, and viral outbreaks were just a fun experiment until we actually had one. Now the question is how to address this reality on screen. We get as close to an answer as possible via the terse Apple TV thriller Severance, which, despite not being about the pandemic at all, might be the best depiction of its effects and aftermath yet seen on television.
The series follows a group of employees who work as macrodata refiners at an ominous biotech corporation called Lumon Industries on its “severed floor,” where the work memories of staffers are surgically separated from their non-work memories. The nature of the procedure means that the employees now have professional lives—known as “innies”—that are entirely unknown to their personal lives—“outies”—and vice versa.
The pilot introduces Helly (Britt Lower) as a new hire who rounds out Lumon’s macrodata refiners team of four with Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro) and new department head Mark (Adam Scott). As Helly undergoes some inimical side effects from the operation and makes increasingly reckless attempts to send a resignation message to her outie, Mark offers this tidbit: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.” It’s meant to be helpful, but of course, since the innies only functionally exist at Lumon, they don’t ever truly experience the concept of choice. While they may understand that they are the same person, it is their outie who decides to bring them back to Lumon every day—a fact which Helly is frigidly reminded of when her outie films a response tape denying resignation and telling her innie, in no uncertain terms, that she is not a person.
By this point, one may be wondering how the pandemic fits into any of this. That has to do with the reasons for which these characters seek severance in the first place. While greater emphasis is placed on the unfolding mysteries within Lumon, the ultimate revelation of who all these people are outside of the office is part of what undergirds the narrative. It’s revealed early on that Mark chose severance after losing his wife in a car accident. Since they met as professors, he could no longer teach at his university and switched to a job that he thought would allow him to function. And as the series progressed, I began to ponder: When the pandemic was in its worst throes, and the majority of the nation was under quarantine, how many thousands of people had to set aside their grief and still go to work? To clock in day after day and put on a corporate grin with no trace of awareness as to the grim horrors outside?
The allegory goes further. Macrodata aren’t alone on the severed floor, but in fact share it with a number of departments whose purposes often remain unclear. There’s Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), the wellness counselor who seems privy to information about the employees that innies shouldn’t have access to. But the only other fully-staffed department explored in any depth is Optics and Design, led by Burt (Christopher Walken). Walken was actually suggested for the part by longtime friend Turturro, who plays against his usual type and offers one of the show’s best performances because of it.
Irving and Burt are drawn to each other for reasons neither can quite explain, but their kismet connection bridges a gap between two departments who, to hear Dylan tell it, are decades-long enemies. Even (especially) in the real world, bureaucracy often thrives by keeping its participants disconnected and belying its true goals to all of them. Severance hardly has antagonists in the traditional sense. While it introduces Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) as the exigent executive of the severed floor, even she is beholden to an invisible board of directors.
Six of the season’s nine episodes are directed by Ben Stiller, who’s been quietly racking up a very impressive filmography over the past few years. He acquired the script years ago when it was first submitted to Red Hour Productions by series creator Dan Erickson, who told Variety that the script was “born of my own corporate misery.”
“I would be doing these sort of weird, seemingly meaningless, repetitive tasks all day long…And I caught myself one day walking in thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could just totally not experience the next eight hours. I wish I could disassociate and just have it be 5 and suddenly I’m going home. And it occurred to me that that’s kind of a messed up thing to catch yourself wishing for, considering we have limited, precious time on this Earth, and here I was wishing I could give some of it back.”
Severance supports this theme on a visual level as well. Inspired in part by an online creepypasta called The Backrooms, the severed floor is a maze of fluorescent white walls that extend seemingly without end. Precious few know how to navigate it with any expertise, one of those being personnel supervisor Seth Milchick, brought eerily to life by breakout performer Tramell Tillman.
He leads characters through the halls several times across the season, with the apparent use of a telephoto lens in at least one scene to collapse the perception of distance and briefly give the impression that the characters were walking in place. Stiller and alternative director Aoife McArdle manipulate the camera to keep the audience disoriented. The edit assists this as well, with cuts that sometimes violate the 180-degree rule combined with the turn of a corner to disrupt our spatial awareness. Perhaps the creators are conspiring with Lumon to keep us as adrift as their employees. If so, it definitely works.
There were certainly other shows that attempted to engage the COVID-19 fallout directly. Medical dramas like Grey’s Anatomy felt obligated to acknowledge it due to their premise, but it also came up in Black-ish, Shameless and even Mythic Quest, another Apple original. The issue with this brand of unfiltered approaches, however, is the risk of alienating an audience seeking reprieve from reality. Severance, which concluded its first season on April 8, 2022, is a brilliant example of where science fiction has always been able to thrive, by crafting allegories that invite deeper thought—yet remain entirely compelling on their own.
Severance season 1 is now available to stream on Apple TV+