Working From Home Is Not An Option
Better Late Than Never: Severance
In reviewing The Old Man recently, I posed the question whether Jeff Bridges was the most underrated actor ever. If television had an equivalent, one of the candidates would have to be Adam Scott. I never saw the cult hit Party Down so I can’t pass judgment on it, but having watched his work the past decade as Ben on Parks and Rec and Ed on Big Little Lies it has struck me as amazing that the Emmys kept ignoring him for the 2010s. I was overjoyed on a personal level when he finally got his first nomination for Severance, a series I knew I was going to have to watch well before the Emmy nods came out. And now that I’ve seen the first two episodes, it’s clear that as brilliant as Scott’s work is on this show, he is far from the greatest thing about it.
Scott plays Mark, who at the beginning of the series we see weeping in his car before he walks into an enormous corporation known as Lumon, which looks like what you’d get if you crossed the ominous nature of ECorp with the overall style and branding of the Dharma Initiative. Mark goes into work like he has every day for two years (though we don’t know how long it’s been) and finds that his friend Petey is gone. Mark then is called in to meet Miss Solveg (Patricia Arquette, practically unrecognizable in both appearance and performance) who tells him with all the warmth of an android that he’s been promoted. He then goes through the welcoming procedure of a new employee known as Helly, who we first meet lying prone on a desk. He begins to welcoming procedure which consists of five questions, and when she can’t answer four of them, he’s astonished that’s a perfect score.
Helly spend the next twenty minutes of the Pilot trying to escape Lumon, something that is impossible. Then she’s shown a video of herself agreeing to ‘severance’, a process that will lead to the separation of her work life from her home life in the most literal sense. When employees at Lumon leave the office, they completely forget everything that happened at work, and the reverse happens when the return the next morning. What is obviously frightening is that all of the employees on Mark’s floor seem to treat this utterly horrifying idea as normal.
We then see Mark at home, which is essentially the company town. He has a sister who is on the verge of giving birth and has several outings with her friends and family. Several things become clear quickly: Mark agreed to this procedure because his wife died two years ago and he literally wanted to lose himself in his job. Despite the arguments that the procedure is harmless and has no side effects, Mark is clearly suffering from memory issues outside of work, and is very aggressive about where he works. And as we see in the final moments of the pilot, he is clearly being monitored by his own next door neighbor — although given the nature of severance, we’re still not certain if she’s really doing it or this was her real life outside of the company.
More terrifying things come to light in the second episode. The nature of the work is weird enough: there is a sea of numbers which you are supposed to surround, sort and bin: we’ve only heard of one category called scary. No one at Mark’s station — or even anywhere else in the company seems to know what the work they are doing is and don’t even seem about to ask questions about it. There is a ‘team building exercise’ which starts out creepy (but as someone who once worked in this field, not that far removed from reality) which very quickly degenerates into Helly making a run for it. And when he takes responsibility for it, Mark ends up going to the ‘break room’, which we very quickly learn is well-named. Irving, the eldest and most truculent employee (John Turturro, superb) seems to be trying to hard to fit in. We’re inclined to think he might be a spy for ‘management’, but when he starts to doze off and we saw the after effects, there’s a moment that makes you genuinely afraid for happens when you need to retire. (We know resignations are never accepted, and given what Mark has learned about Petey, getting fired isn’t exactly much better.)
But honestly, I think the truly most horrifying about Severance so far is how utterly docile what they do. Given the effects of corporate culture well before the pandemic, this series is both terrifying and darkly satirical to what it is like to work as a drone in the world of capitalism. All of the people who work here agree to have brain surgery performed on them so they’ll forget their lives outside of work. They very quickly seem to accept this as a condition of their employment, as well as the fact they have no idea what they are doing. They are conditioned to well at their jobs for the most pitiable of rewards systems — Bert is obsessed with getting the highest rating for his department for a ‘waffle party’ and when Mark is injured on the job, he’s rewarded with a gift certificate for a steak house he will have no memory of using or enjoying. If Squid Game gave us a clear picture of the evils of the capitalist system, Severance is just as relentless as showing us the evils of the corporate world, something that is carried to an extreme here.
Severance is one of the most terrifying and brilliant dramas this year, and much of that credit must go to the director — Ben Stiller. Since he broke new ground in the exceptional limited series Escape at Dannemora (also starring Arquette), Stiller has been a revelation when it comes to telling dramatic stories. In this show where, just as with Mr. Robot, the direction is vital to the series success, Stiller’s work is mesmerizing, watching the characters run through endless corridors, going through doorways that lead back to the same place, cutting between work and a date in jump shots, it’s rather hard to believe is the man whose most successful directorial credit was Zoolander. Then again, considering that when he was just starting out on The Ben Stiller Show one of the better parts of those series were the satires of major big budget films, you could argue just as viably that he’s been preparing for work all his life. Either way, it’s a triumph deserving of the Emmy nomination he got.
I don’t know yet if the mythology that we’re seeing around Severance will turn out to be as disappointing as almost every major mythology based series turns out to be in the end. But everything about this show is so rewarding to watch (and I’ve barely gotten a sense of Christopher Walken is up to yet) that I absolutely am glued to every second. A lot of things about the series aren’t clear yet. What is clear is that the Emmys absolutely made the right choices when they gave it fourteen nominations, including Best Drama. I don’t know yet if any of the nominated actors will win yet, but I know that even if they don’t, they’ll have plenty of chances. This looks like one of the best shows of 2022.
My score: 5 stars.