By Catarina Vicente
We spend too much time at work. As a fact accepted by blue and white-collar workers alike (and yet barely acknowledged or acted upon by companies), spending so much of our lives working feels like an inevitable nightmare for many. It’s no wonder campaigns for better work-life balance have become more common over recent years.
Ben Stiller’s new series, Severance, explores this concept in a dystopian light.
We follow Mark (Adam Scott) and his coworkers, Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry), at their office in Lumon Industries, where they welcome a new intern, Helly R. (Britt Lower), to their team. At Lumon, all workers must undergo a procedure called ‘severance’, which splits their consciousness into a work-self (an ‘innie’) and home-self (an ‘outie’), creating two selves with none of the memories of the other. With no ties to their real-life selves, workers can achieve maximum productivity, and more importantly, keep quiet about the mysterious (but very important, as the characters remark) work they conduct at Lumon.
Mark is assigned to watch over Helly, as she becomes used to the monotonous life of an ‘innie’: the endless days of work under fluorescent lights, stale air, in the uncomfortable atmosphere of their designated cubicles. With each passing day, her rebelliousness grows, and her attempts to escape lead to the discovery of secrets behind the cult-ish work environment of the company.
Severance is at its strongest when it focuses on these secrets. In the innies’ plotlines, this means the four co-workers’ bubbling alliance to discover what Lumon truly is; in the outer world, it’s Mark’s outie-self finding out more about his previous co-worker’s disappearance. By gradually giving the audience small answers, dwarfed by even bigger questions, Severance keeps a steady pacing.
My only complaint is that this pacing does falter at the start, not only with outie Mark’s plotline, but is later remedied in the show’s final episodes, as it builds to an explosive finale.
It poses bigger questions for the viewers too, breaching themes of identity, hope, and free will under capitalism (at least a very dark version of it).
The character development was also quite strong, in a large part due to the cast’s commendable acting. The main actors are wildly talented, but Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman give the standout performances, as the subtly eerie department heads overseeing the main four characters.
Even if the plot isn’t for you, the visuals are stunning: solid colour palettes and outfits that reflect the suffocating, lifeless feel of a fluorescent-lit office block. Small details in the background yield easter eggs or even possible foreshadowing – it’s a show whose story and set design are worth pausing and poring over.
More importantly, there’s baby goats. The finale left off at a cliffhanger, and after a confirmation of a second season (in a characteristic, eerie style akin to the show), the series remains, in my opinion, quite underrated, which is why I’m excited to see the fandom grow as we await its second season.