In 2015, the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said he’d been talking to Ben Stiller about working together. That project fell apart, but the new Apple TV+ series Severance suggests that Stiller, its director, still keenly appreciates Kaufman’s sensibilities. Although he wasn’t actually involved, Severance fits neatly into the Charlie Kaufman Cinematic Universe (CKCU), a world filled with wistful sad-sacks lost in metaphysical mazes. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s about a man trying to deal with the grief of lost love by messing with his memory via experimental surgery. Like Being John Malkovich, it uses a high-concept mind-control premise to explore knotty questions about identity. Like Adaptation, it’s fond of genre-hopping and piling twists and turns on top of twists and turns. And, as with Kaufman’s best work, it’s at least as funny as it is trippy.
Severance opens, however, like a horror movie. A woman alone, afraid, and trapped. Helly (Britt Lower) wakes up on a conference table, discombobulated, to the sound of her boss’s voice. He attempts to calm her down as he leads her through a new-hire orientation. His first question: Who are you? She’s not supposed to know the answer. She rams herself into the padded, locked door.
Said padded, locked door is located in the basement level of a sprawling campus of a conglomerate called Lumon Industries, known for pioneering an experimental procedure called “severance,” where a neurological device divides memories into two silos: the work self and the private self. Basically, they’ve accepted NDA brain implants. It’s Helly’s first day on a “severed” floor, which means she has woken up with no memory of her past. As an “innie,” she will only know what happens within the confines of their office, with no inkling of who she is on the outside, whether she has hobbies or hopes or family who love her. She doesn’t much care for the arrangement, but soon learns she’s stuck. Her “outie” won’t accept her resignation. Her coworkers, rule-abiding Irving (John Turturro) and laid-back Dylan (Zach Cherry), encourage her to accept her fate—at least until they, too, begin to chafe at their cordoned-off existence, at the mandatory group photos and work mixers that pass for their social life.
Helly is the first person we see, but it’s her supervisor, Mark Scout (Adam Scott), who we follow in and out of the office, toggling between his two selves. Scott gives a remarkable, bruised, tender performance in this kinda-sorta dual role. His “outie” is a former professor who is grieving the death of his beloved wife; he took the Lumon gig to give at least one version of himself a slice of life without so much sorrow. He lives a solitary existence, drinking whiskey morosely, socializing only when his sister insists. His “innie,” meanwhile, is a sincere, chipper middle-manager, happy enough in his pencil-pushing gig until his best work friend Petey (Yul Vasquez) abruptly vanishes, leaving him a hand-drawn map of their work floor and a nagging sense that something isn’t right.
In its “innie” storyline, Severance is a worthy addition to the “Work Sucks, I Know” canon, which includes films like Office Space and Sorry to Bother You and shows like The Office and Party Down. There’s unnecessarily complicated corporate lore, weirdly vivid rivalries between departments, awkward office crushes and squabbles about whether the work they’re doing is important or total nonsense. To placate its increasingly agitated cadre of workers, Lumon sends them to “wellness” sessions, where a counselor-type named Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) encourages art therapy and coos about how great their “outie” persona is. The Lumon office is a satirical set piece, a hellscape of sterile cubicles and hallways lit in garish fluorescents, with midcentury-modern office furniture arranged in stylized clusters, as if designed by a demon who watched a lot of Mad Men.
(An aside—as the “innies” traverse Lumon’s creepy hallways wondering about who they are above ground, it can feel as though Severance is offering up a take on Jordan Peele’s Us told from the perspective of the “tethered” doppelgangers. There’s even a scene winking at the loose rabbits populating Peele’s subterranean world. I choose to believe this is more connective tissue for the Charlie Kaufman Cinematic Universe, as a very persuasive corner of the internet is convinced that Peele’s Get Out is a Being John Malkovich sequel.)
In its “outie” storyline, the show teeters on the verge of overstuffed as it follows Mark’s morose-widower persona around. Mark’s boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) is a tightly wound menace in the office. She also lives next door to him in a Lumon-subsidized planned community, and pretends to be a kindly old hippie, ingratiating herself into his personal life in an oddly intense campaign. Why she does this to him and not any of her other employees is never explained, as he’s neither her favorite nor particularly important to the company. It also doesn’t make sense to have someone working at Lumon live in a Lumon-affiliated property under a false name. Maybe it’s simply a way to give Arquette as much screen time as possible—understandable, she’s a national treasure—but it muddles her characters’ motives. And as the storylines intersect towards the end of the season, the show appears to be setting Mark up with at least three potential love interests, which is at least two too many. He’s got enough going on!
Still, that’s a quibble. A show taking place in the CKCU doesn’t need to be streamlined, or even 100 percent coherent. The shagginess is part of the charm. Severance has got meat on its unwieldy bones, with superb performances anchoring the high-concept storyline with real emotional weight. There’s a scene where it becomes clear that at least some of the “outies” don’t view their workplace counterparts as fully human. It’s a dishonest, cruel perspective, but also a seductive one—how peaceful it would feel, if we could disavow the parts of ourselves we don’t want to deal with. But what Severance drives home, in its own zig-zagging, labyrinthine fashion, is how impossible it is to escape yourself.
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