‘Severance’: the dystopia of work-life balance

What if Ben Stiller, the actor, the unanointed head of the Frat (some would say interchanging the ‘a’ and the ‘r’ would be mot juste) Pack figured out a way to cleave his brain to—in a life lived in parallel—go behind the camera to fill a directorial canvas of stunning, cerebral output? (Escape at Dannemora, anyone?) Oh wait, that sounds like something Stiller, the director, offers in one of 2022’s best shows, Severance. And it looks like that intervention wasn’t needed after all. For, the nine-episoder is a dystopian work of white-knuckled art, a force of creative Cubism onscreen, melding the chillingly clinical offices of biotech major Lumen Industries to the work and personal lives of its employees. If the premise—a severance medical procedure to partition work and non-work memories of its select employees—sounds like a two-line idea with no legs, Stiller (along with director Aoife McArdle) has some chilling surprises for you. 

Adam Scott: WFH (work from hell)

The series traces the arc of the freshly minted supervisor of the Macrodata Refinement division Mark Scout (Adam Scott in a tender, vulnerable, and beautifully shuffling act), who’s faced with the worst managerial nightmares of them all—an obstinate, corporate-process defying new employee. Britt Lower plays Helly Riggs with a terrific punch, steeling her defiant character with such helpless frustration it touches a nerve: where you’re stuck in a job you hate and have no way out. And that’s precisely why Severance works at so many levels. It offers the future of work-life balance in an option miles away from the much-vaunted hybrid model. Where’s the conflict when you don’t have any memories of work at home and vice-versa? As the series unfolds, plenty and dark ones at that, you realize. Mindlessly stabbing at keyboards (that, in a design element steeped in horrifying irony, have no Escape button) in siloed departments with no ‘big picture’ epiphany to let the keyboard warriors know why they’re doing what they’re doing. It could be lines of code. It could be refining data and pushing bytes and bits into listless folders. It could be me. It could be you. All this, with a company vision and manual emblazoned in words meant to rouse and rise, but really: do they mean anything at all? In addition, management’s looking at askance when there’s some interdepartmental interaction, and you almost want to think that the severance process may not be such a bad thing after all. And that’s just the work side of it. There’s a familial side to it and a price to be paid by every member. The series is fraught with the tension these two sides bring to the fore, every pull on each side causing an equal—and more violent—from the other.

Britt Lower: employee’s nightmare.

Creator Dan Erickson, writing with Mohamad el Masri, Anna Ouyang Moench, Chris Black, Andrew Colville, Kari Drake, Helen Leigh, and Amanda Overton, marinates the series with corporate allegories dressed up in stunning sets (Angelica BorreroAndrew Baseman) and cloaked in marvelous cinematography (Jessica Lee GagnéMatt Mitchell). Surrounded by scintillating music pieces (Theodore Shapiro), the series boasts an outstanding cast that levitates it to a cloud-like, floating observation. Zach Cherry and John Turturro play Dylan and Irving, co-workers to Mark; the former plays his Barmecide-happy role superbly, while Turturro’s act is coated in a code of conduct that’s hauntingly devastating when it isn’t laughably pedantic. Christopher Walken as Burt, the chief of the Optics and Design department and who’s slowly magnetized by Irving (and vice-versa) shines with wisdom and empathy; Dichen Lachman playing Ms. Casey, the wellness counselor of the severed floor, is unnervingly good, her act haunted by a past that’s roiling her mythical present. Patricia Arquette as Harmony Cobel, Mark’s boss, is icy-cold compelling, both in her work and outside self (‘outie’, as they’re called) roles; Tramell Tillman as Seth Milchik, the supervisor, moves with menacing grace on the work and dance floor.

Zach Cherry, Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Christopher Walken: life in a corridor.

As Mark’s soon-to-deliver sister Devon, Jen Tullock is a lovely, comforting presence, while as her husband Ricken Hale—a self-help author—Michael Chernus’s act is the poker-faced comic and the profound philosopher, whose words—deeply stirring, the ultimate antivenin to Lumen’s mass-hypnotic manual—eventually launch a series of nail-biting events, hurtling the show to a cliff-hanger of an end. 

In director Ben Stiller’s stellar, sharp vision, do you see the future of bit-sized work and its impact on home life. When you want balance in this deeply interconnected world, how do you maintain any semblance of it? Irreparably and irrevocably, no matter how tightly compartmentalized Lumon’s employees are, both sides bleed into each other: a dark, plasmatic matter crawling into unsuspecting visions. For, a severance chip can neatly demarcate your cubicle and outie memories. But what do you do about your unfettered subconscious?

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Severance is streaming on Apple TV+ and rated A (Adults only) for violence, language, and work-life imbalance.