At mysterious biotech company Lumon Industries, certain employees are given a brain implant that keeps their work selves completely separate from their personal selves, with no shared memories between them. The procedure gives Apple TV+’s new thriller its name, Severance, and it puts in motion the show’s excellently eerie drama.
Set in snowy Pennsylvania, Severance follows Lumon employee Mark Scout (Adam Scott), who’s chosen to be among the company’s permanently “severed” workers as a means of coping with the tremendous grief he feels over losing his wife in a car accident. It’s the ultimate way to compartmentalise one’s feelings: on the elevator ride to his office, his brain switches from the “outie” version of him (lonely, morose, has a drinking problem) to the “innie” version, a peppy company man who’s just been promoted to lead “macrodata refiner.” If that sounds nebulous, it is; the job basically involves staring at numbers floating on a screen, and none of Mark’s co-workers — who are all treated more or less like children by the higher-ups — know what the numbers mean or even what sort of data they’re “refining.”
It is an absolutely weird workplace — and that’s not just limited to the actual work. Lumon HQ is a maze of sterile white hallways that lead to various windowless rooms, plus odd touches like a reliance on outdated technology (cassette tapes, computers that are definitely not state-of-the-art) and a hefty side of wryly funny, Office Space-ish corporate satire (waffle parties as a performance incentive). There’s also the hovering presence of Lumon’s late founder, a cult-like figure whose clichéd yet vaguely threatening nuggets of wisdom propel the company culture, and who somehow built his topical salve business into a massive biotech that does… well, nobody’s sure what it does. At least Mark doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care — until the two sides of his divided mind start to suspect that perhaps something very, very bad is going on.
Lumon is a lot to take in at first, but Severance — written and created by Dan Erickson, with several episodes directed by Ben Stiller, who’s also one of the executive producers — wisely gives us an entry point with new hire Helly (Britt Lower). Her “outie” enthusiastically accepted the job and willingly submitted to the severance procedure, but her “innie” is dead certain she is absolutely not cut out for working at Lumon, and sets about trying to escape and/or resign almost immediately. We also meet the person Helly has been brought in to replace: Mark’s former office bestie Petey (Yul Vazquez), whose sudden absence at work is upsetting — but whose sudden appearance in Mark’s “outie” life, where of course Mark doesn’t recognise him, is even more upsetting.
Severance succeeds on multiple levels — there’s the peculiar mystery at its core revolving around “the truth about what’s going on down there,” as Petey refers to it: namely, what the hell is Lumon Industries really up to? Mark’s work seems so mundane, not something so secretive and sensitive that he should be required to split his mind in half over it; clearly there’s a lot more to this puzzle that Severance will tease out over its nine-episode run. And the idea of enduring a brain implant that basically transforms one person into two is also fascinating and disturbing. The experience is vividly brought to life by Scott’s nuanced performance — he’s playing the same guy carved into two different characters, and you can’t help but root for them both to figure out what’s going on and come back together.
Certain other characters who aren’t severed but are also part of Mark’s life only deepen the intrigue — particularly Patricia Arquette’s slippery, formidable, fantastically creepy Lumon supervisor. Truly, the entire supporting cast is great, including John Turturro and Zach Cherry as Mark’s longtime workmates; Lower and Vazquez as his more unstable colleagues; Tramell Tillman and Christopher Walken as a Lumon employees who aren’t exactly what they seem to be at first; and Jen Tullock as Mark’s heavily pregnant sister, his only grounded connection to life outside of Lumon.
The only bad thing we can say about Severance is this is a show you will be dying to binge, and you won’t be able to, at least if you start watching it now. The first two episodes of Severance begin streaming today; the remaining seven episodes will roll out weekly on Apple TV+.