Home » Why the Puzzle-Box Sci-Fi of Severance Works – The Atlantic

Why the Puzzle-Box Sci-Fi of Severance Works – The Atlantic

by Arifa Rana

Where Lost and Westworld spun out, the Apple TV+ show’s contained world succeeds.
At a time when the American office is anywhere a Zoom window can be opened, the notion of truly separating work and home is an alluring one. Take that thought to its furthest extreme and you have the Apple TV+ thriller Severance. The dystopian sci-fi starring Adam Scott makes “work-life balance” an actual divide in its characters’ consciousnesses; a special surgery allows them to switch between their work and home selves on their elevator commutes to and from their shadowy employer’s basement.
The show is a fresh approach to the very present anxieties about office life. It’s also another in a long line of puzzle-box science-fiction stories that leave the audience trying to piece together the rules of the game. But where Lost and Westworld’s mysterious islands spawned endless fan theories before spinning out into the wider world, Severance exists in a mercifully contained universe.
Its characters are physically hemmed in, apparently able to exist as their work consciousness only among the white hallways and spartan cubicles of Lumon Industries. They never see the sun or know anything but the workday, and they are compensated with desk toys and conference-room parties that would embarrass even Michael Scott.
Life at Lumon is an absurdist existential nightmare. And while its bleak humor calls to mind Office Space alongside its Westworld-esque premise, Severance benefits from leaning into the darkness of both influences, building a fresh critique of workplace life for our strained “return-to-office” era.
For an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review, three staff writers discussed the first season of Severance. Spencer Kornhaber, Sophie Gilbert, and David Sims talk about sci-fi dystopias, the show’s commentary on white-collar work, and what it says about the strange new landscape of streaming television. Listen to their conversation here:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Spencer Kornhaber: The Apple TV+ show Severance, a dystopian sci-fi psychological thriller, has perhaps become the most acclaimed show of the year. What do you think, Sophie, as our TV critic—is it the TV show of the year?
Sophie Gilbert: I would say it is the one that has gathered the most hype over the course of its run. It was certainly the one that I’ve seen people talking about more than anything else, which in part could just be the strangeness of the show, but it’s also gathered a lot of fans for justifiable reasons.
Kornhaber: Yeah, the finale was last month, but it feels like people are still catching up on the show and still becoming obsessed and talking about it. So we’re going to try to sort through why it’s become this obsession and what it says about workplace culture today. Sophie, do you think you could explain what the heck this show is?
Gilbert: I wish I could. [Laughs.] I will try. It begins with a woman passed out on a conference table. She, and we the viewers, have no idea what’s going on. And it turns out her name is Helly R. and she has undergone a process called “severance,” which is explained through our protagonist Mark, played by Adam Scott.
They both work for a very mysterious company called Lumon Industries, which has implanted a chip in their brains with their permission. It divides their memory and perception, such that, every time they step into the elevator to the “severed” floor of Lumon, it triggers the chip and their memories reset, geospatially separating into their work and home selves. So Work Mark has no idea what his life is like outside the office. And Outside Mark doesn’t know what Work Mark does. And honestly, Work Mark doesn’t seem to know what Work Mark does either.
Whatever is happening at Lumon? There are bottle-fed goats. There are endless corridors. There is a cult of personality run around the company’s founders, the Eagan family. There’s a lot going on. And so, while it may seem that Mark has achieved the goal of work-life balance, what he’s actually done, as we see in the show, is essentially enslaved a version of himself who never gets to leave the office. I wrote about this in my review, but it’s kind of the opposite of what we’ve all gone through during the pandemic, which is work bleeding into home life.
Read: Severance makes the workplace eerily dystopian
Kornhaber: Yeah. It’s as if, whenever you turned on Zoom, you suddenly forgot what was happening in the kitchen you were in. David, do you like Severance?
David Sims: Yes, I love the show deeply. And I can be a bit of a grump about television these days. I think Netflix ruined television forever. But this show reminds me of the halcyon days of the early 2000s, when TV was good in my, you know, stupid opinion. It reminds me of the joyful discovery of sci-fi serials like Lost where we were all in it together trying to figure it out. The act of seeing all this creativity on-screen, chatting about it with each other, and trying to figure out what it could mean.
I can’t think of another show that’s excited me as much in recent memory. I get that feeling of: “Ooh, we get to watch a Severance!” It’s rare these days that you’re like: “It’s Friday; we get to see another one!” I just never have that feeling anymore.
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Gilbert: It reminds you of so many things while watching it. Obviously it has Charlie Kaufman–style pieces. And it reminds me a lot of Black Mirror. And there have been a lot of shows recently thinking about free will and consciousness. There was Devs on FX and Hulu, Alex Garland’s very bleak show about data programmers. HBO’s Westworld had robots that aren’t in charge of their own destiny, and last season played with the idea that human beings perhaps aren’t either. And among the mood board of things the creators were inspired by when making Severance, there was also this five-minute-long Sizzler commercial from 1991 that we’ve all now watched.
Sims: It’s pretty good.
Kornhaber: It’s so good. It’s like the architects of Too Many Cooks and all the Adult Swim post-ironic entertainment about corporate propaganda.
Gilbert: We’ve been so worried about free will all this time and freedom was right there at Sizzler. Spencer, did you like the show?
Kornhaber: I think you are both chipped. I think this show is not that great. I mean, I hear everything you’re saying. Love the mélange of influences. Think it’s working with such wonderful, weighty media ideas. But the pacing is excruciating. Ben Stiller has never met a hallway or car that he does not want to depict every moment of someone moving through it or exiting that car. I think it’s such a wonderful concept, severance, and I wish that it explored the idea a little more straightforwardly instead of making it just a pretext for another show about an evil corporation with a shadowy conspiracy that’s trying to reengineer the human experience. But I’m glad that you both like it.
Gilbert: That’s okay. I hear you. I acknowledge the you that you are. I do think that the show in the first few episodes is kind of sluggish in pacing. The thing that set it apart for me from other shows with shadowy, nefarious corporations was its sense of humor, which is just so absurd and wacky. Lumon is such a strange place. There are goats, waffle parties, and defiant jazz. Everything is done with such perfect seriousness, and yet it is on its face completely absurd.
Kornhaber: It’s making humor out of internal propaganda and the false bonhomie that you have to have at work, the feeling when your boss tells you “We’re all family” when really they’re exploiting you. But that’s the territory of Office Space and many workplace comedies, so it felt rehashed to me.
Read: The Netflix bubble is finally bursting
Sims: What you’re describing was my fear. In that opening episode with Adam Scott walking through the long hallways, my wife asked, “Is this going to be one of those shows that every episode is an hour and nothing happens?” To me, that’s basically all prestige TV now. Like you have to wait for episode nine for the premise to be established. I thought this show was going to slowly peel back the nightmare, but almost immediately it’s like: “No, if this technology existed, these people would live in a nightmare from which there is no escape.” I was just thrilled that the show was about how insane a sci-fi premise this is rather than being a light satire of office culture. It is a nightmarish satire of office culture. It just escalated far faster than I thought it would.
Gilbert: And the contrast between Helly and Mark is pretty perfect. We don’t see Helly’s outside life until the finale, but we see all of Mark’s. We see his despair after his wife’s death and how his “outie” self is profoundly miserable. And what I find so intriguing in the first episode is you see him in the elevator, you hear the elevator ping, you see his eyes suddenly flicker and suddenly … he’s free. Inside the office he’s free from this awful burden of sadness and drinking wine in front of the TV until the morning. They work so well as characters together because they’re coming from opposite perspectives. For one, severance is an absolute torture. And for the other, it’s an escape.
And there are a lot of weird shows that you’re just never going to get answers in, like Twin Peaks or The Leftovers. There are theories and hints but you basically have to let the mystery be. And with Severance, I really do feel like there are answers and you get enough of them throughout the course of the first season that you can have faith that one day you will find out what’s going on.
Kornhaber: But isn’t this a trap that we’ve fallen into before? These shows never pay off. It gives me a lot of Westworld vibes where this technology seems like a limited application at first, but then these overlords are there, thinking about how they’re going to change everyone on Earth with it. I hope they pull it off, but we’ve seen so many times before how this is just not a sustainable mode of storytelling.
Sims: You’re describing the experience of Damon Lindelof shows like Lost or The Leftovers. But I take Severance creator Dan Erickson at his word when he says he’s got an ending. The problem with Lost was the island had everything on it. And so it became this very difficult task of: How on earth do you tie the polar bear to the Egyptian statue? You’ve just thrown everything into the blender. How could you possibly create a grand unified theory here? Whereas with Severance: There’s a company. They’re up to no good. Now we know a little of what they’re up to and we’ll learn more next season. It does feel a little more focused to me.
Gilbert: This show says so many things about late capitalism and our experience of work as mandated by large corporations with boards that tend not to see humans necessarily as individuals with complex personal lives and interiority, but as a vast, amorphous pool of workers to be drawn from as need be. It’s really fascinating to me that this show is airing on Apple.
Sims: This show is really making fun of Apple.
Gilbert: There’s a cult of personality with a founder.
Sims: Everything’s all white and retro.
Gilbert: There are things that feel directly drawn from real things big tech companies have done to their employees. It’s so subversive in such an intriguing way. And you definitely don’t expect to find something like this, necessarily, on Apple’s streaming platform.
Kornhaber: Yeah, how is Apple doing in the streaming race?
Gilbert: I myself may be guilty of this, but I remember when Apple TV+ launched, there was such a sense of like: “Who needs another streaming platform?” We made jokes about it. In Season 2 of The Morning Show, the fictional network launched a streaming platform and the reaction is: “Not another one! This is too much TV!” And when Apple launched, it didn’t have the back catalog that Netflix or HBO had. There was no preexisting Apple content. So the shows that it launched with were the shows that you got when you signed up.
And the first flush of shows that it came out with were not super compelling. But then came Ted Lasso, which I think now is everyone and their dad’s and their mom’s and their sister in-law’s favorite comedy. And now the new shows coming out, like Slow Horses, which is the Mick Herron spy adaptation with Gary Oldman, are really well crafted. And it does make the case for Apple as actually, if you’re into quality television, one of the most successful streaming networks out there right now. I don’t know what that says for it in terms of its success financially. David, maybe you know more about that than I do.
Sims: When Apple TV+ started to get off the ground, they brought in Richard Plepler, who worked at HBO for 27 years and is one of the big architects of what we think of as HBO’s golden era. In the late 1990s through the 2010s, they really emphasized a new HBO show as being an event. They didn’t flood the zone. HBO would usually just have a new episode on Sundays.
But it was real water-cooler stuff. Everyone you know would be discussing it the next day. The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, True Blood. Boardwalk Empire, The Newsroom, Veep, Big Little Lies, True Detective—all this kind of stuff. And he moved on from HBO when it got sucked into the corporate structure of AT&T and they wanted to do lots more. HBO Max is going to have lots of shows and try to imitate Netflix.
And I feel like Apple TV is now trying to slide into that space where an Apple show is an event. It’s this very glossy, impressive star-laden product that is going to come out weekly and is going to be much discussed. Now, has that worked yet? I think in bits and pieces. The Morning Show was so star-laden that it definitely had some moments where people were talking about it. Then I feel people fell off in the second season. But then Ted Lasso and Mythic Quest were these surprise small-scale comedies that became buzzy. And Severance feels like one of the first ones where friends of mine are asking about it and it’s spreading through word of mouth.
Read: HBO CEO Richard Plepler resigned. Here’s what it means.
Gilbert: I think the quality-versus-quantity argument is a really interesting thing to consider. Because I do think HBO used to be very distinctive in what it green-lit and what it put on television. And now it feels much more like there’s just a bunch of stuff on HBO Max. I think it’s kind of depending on the idea that people will log into HBO Max like they do with Netflix and just browse for shows, whereas Apple seems to be picking its content more selectively. And it doesn’t entirely always pay off. But you are also getting shows like Severance and Ted Lasso, which I think many people would agree are worth paying money for. The thing is though, I’m not sure if it’s a sustainable financial model for any company other than Apple, which has all the money in the entire world to throw at content.
Kornhaber: And meanwhile, David, you just wrote about how Netflix is starting to deflate.
Sims: The whole magic of Netflix is this company that spends wildly and borrows money wildly and keeps expanding wildly with this promise that they’ve always made to their investors that the numbers of subscribers are going to just keep going up. And since that has basically been true for 10 years, the argument has made a certain sort of sense. And now, after just one quarter of their subscriber numbers going down a little bit, it’s burst the weird reality bubble around that company.
And now I feel like everyone in the industry within Netflix and outside of it is having this reckoning moment where it’s: “Oh, okay, so is that not the strategy anymore? Are we not all just going to try to flood the zone with television to keep up with everyone else?” I mean, it’s a podcast unto itself what’s happening with Netflix right now. But I agree, maybe a more curated approach is best. But like Sophie says, it does help that Apple is worth so much. Netflix doesn’t sell phones.
Kornhaber: Do we think this show has anything new to say about the workplace?
Gilbert: I’d say it does, just because the workplace has changed so much in the last few years. With Slack and the tyranny of always being online—just a phone beep away from something horrible that you forgot to do at your job. And the information we’ve recently learned about the ways in which big corporations treat employees and keep tabs on them in strange ways.
Sims: The whole thing has the vibe of every corporate horror story you’ve heard about, just dialed up.
Gilbert: The nature of the office comedy or the workplace drama hasn’t really changed. But at the same time, everything is just so much higher tech now. There’s so much more information and data than ever before. And in that sense, I think this show is brilliant. The idea of bifurcating your brain kind of neatly gets at the idea that you are two selves. You are your work self and you are your free self.
I very much love my job and find creative fulfillment in it, but there are still pieces of this that resonate, if not necessarily with me, then with the idea that we’ve all felt during the pandemic that companies want to own more of you than just your 9 to 5. The broader experience of what work means, what a career means, what a job means has been slightly tweaked in ways that we’re still coming to terms with. And so you see these pieces about burnout and professional malaise and everyone just being exhausted all the time because it feels like, for a lot of people, work never ends. There’s no delineation anymore between when you’re doing work and using that part of your brain and when you’re not. And now I will go and watch three hours of TV for work. [Laughs.] Just kidding. Wine. Wine is my delineation. When you have a glass of wine, you know you’re no longer at work.
Kornhaber: I think we’re really in for a turbulent chapter of history if we no longer believe work provides any meaning in people’s lives and is just a reason to get a paycheck.
Gilbert: Well, I don’t think Severance is saying that. I think it’s more like an attempted corrective to the narrative that we’ve had for the last few decades that work is everything. It’s your identity; it’s your friends circle; it’s your meaning as a human being. I don’t see Severance as pushing a message that we should all quit and go start subsistence farms upstate or whatever. But I do think it’s an interesting reminder to be slightly more aware of what we ourselves have come to accept about work.
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