Apple TV’s new series, Severance, was not something that drew my interest. I knew enough about the show to understand that it was a workplace drama. The title itself called to mind severance packages, which made it easy for me to ignore even though the show starred Adam Scott and was executive produced by Ben Stiller. Based on a friend’s recommendation, I was willing to give the series a shot although the first twenty minutes of the first episode are painfully slow. Deliberately, painfully slow. That said, the story gets more and more engrossing. The pace, faster and faster. So that, by the time you’ve finished the final episode, all you can do is stare at the TV screen in frustration that you won’t get another moment until Season 2 airs.
It's that good.
Severance is a dystopian drama that follows a series of workers who have chosen to literally separate their work lives from their home lives by undergoing a procedure called severance, wherein a small chip is inserted inside the worker’s brain. This chip triggers the shift between the work world and the outside world, an action that is set into motion each time the workers take the elevator to their designated floor. Ostensibly, the purpose of the severance is to allow the workers to fulfill their duties unhindered by thoughts or knowledge of who they are in the outside world. In return, their outside selves have no idea what they do all day at work, operating under the assumption that their work is both sensitive and extremely important. As the series unfolds, all assumptions about the purpose of getting the procedure begin to unravel.
We are first introduced to this world through the lens of Mark S. (Adam Scott), who has been severed for two years and has chosen this action so that he can avoid the trauma of his past. In Episode 1, we see Mark sobbing in his car before he enters his place of employment for the day, a sterile and ominous building owned by Lumen—the company responsible for the severance procedure. As he journeys on the elevator down to his designated floor and department—Macrodata Refinement Division (MRD)—his world shifts. He is no longer upset. His face is placid as he steps off the elevator and journeys down a series of blank hallways to a room with four desks clustered together in the center even though there is plenty of space to move the desks apart. The workplace itself is void of stimuli, and we slowly grow to realize that very few people work on the severance level at Lumen. Mark S. works with three other people: Irving (John Turturro), Dylan (Zach Cherry), and newcomer Helly R. (Britt Lowry). In fact, it is Mark’s responsibility as the newly promoted project manager to orient Helly to MRD after her recent severance experience.
Through Helly, we can observe the impact of being newly severed. She awakes alone in a conference room, disoriented and confused. Her first instinct is to fight her way out and escape what she feels to be imprisonment as Mark S. bumbles the orientation. While Helly’s state is equated to that of a newborn—for she has no understanding of the MRD world or anything beyond it—her actions seem more like those of a trapped animal: desperate and instinctive. Of the four workers in MRD, she has the most difficulty adjusting to her role because she understands that her work self is essentially chained forever to be at work, for the severance makes it seem that she is returning to work immediately upon leaving. In contrast, the other three have simply grown to accept the arrangement. In this, Helly becomes one of several disrupter figures to the MRD world. All are catalysts for the sequence of events that takes us to a truly gripping season finale.
I will not ruin your experience of the show by outlining those events in this piece. However, I do want to touch on some of the themes running through it in relation to the perception of self, the importance of memory, and the concepts of innocence vs. experience.
Early into the show, I was immediately reminded of a question posed by my old philosophy professor: If your brain is in a jar in San Diego but your body is in Texas, and if your brain can still communicate with your body, where are you? San Diego or Texas? My answer was always dependent upon what I felt I could perceive. As long as body and brain are connected, my experience is of Texas. So, I must be in Texas. The minute that connection is severed, I can only be in San Diego. While I can’t recall my professor’s answer, this quandary immediately connects to Severance because the procedure, in essence, has created two versions of each character. The “innie” version who only knows the workplace experience, and the “outie” version who knows everything BUT the workplace experience. Yet, it is the “outie” version who ultimately has control over the “innie” version. When Helly wishes to quit, she is shown a video of her “outie” version explaining why her termination request has been denied. In this, a clear hierarchy has been established wherein the “innie” version of each character is considered lesser than and is subjugated to the “outie’s” decisions and will. The “innies” are not considered real people and have no knowledge of their “outies’” history. They don’t know if they’re married. They don’t know if they have children. They don’t know why their “outies” have chosen to go through with the procedure. And they also don’t know the purpose of their work, which is equally mysterious.
In a way, the severance allows each character a freedom from his or her past in that they are not restricted by a previous perception of self. Helly has no qualms about breaking the rules because she has no loyalties. The only person she needs to answer to is herself. At the same time, as we discover more and more about the characters’ lives in the outside world, we can see the damage the severance has created, especially for Mark S. His sister believes the severance makes it so he can’t move past his trauma. Another side effect is that he appears to have lost some of his memories in that Mark, a former History professor, has difficulty discussing historical events with any great details. Irving, in particular, is a fascinating case. The severance appears to have caused him to hallucinate, or so we are to believe in Episode 1. By Episode 7, we see that both of Irving’s persons are trying to show him who he is on the other side. For both Irving and Mark, their “outie” lives are not better. Their “outie” lives understand that something is missing or that something has been lost even if they don’t have the memories to corroborate this. Both adopt unhealthy patterns to cope with this loss, though Irving’s appears to be much more purposeful. Ultimately, what we see is how difficult it is to function when half of one’s experience is missing. You end up living half a life.
This brings us to the concept of innocence vs experience.
I’d like to shift for a moment to the His Dark Materials series, written by Philip Pullman in the 1990s. Though Pullman had several literary inspirations, a key influence was John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a book-length poem about the fall of Adam and Eve. From Pullman’s perspective, the state of innocence is one that we need to outgrow, which is in direct contrast to the Biblical story. Through his series, which was intended for children, Pullman created a new telling of the story of Adam and Eve—there is an ”Eve” character, an “Adam” character, a “Satan” character, and a symbolic “Fruit of Knowledge.” However, he’s based it in a world that is different from our own. There has been no schism between religion and government, witches exist and are known in this world, and each person’s soul exists outside his being in the form of an animal, called a daemon. The relationship between a person and his/her daemon is considered a sacred thing, and there are specific rules regarding person/daemon interaction. More importantly, if a daemon wanders too far from his/her person, it creates unbearable heartache for both.
The first book, The Golden Compass, centers on three important issues: an introduction to the story of Lyra (the series’ protagonist and Eve character), the discussion of a mysterious substance called Dust, and an experiment that has recently been sanctioned by the Magisterium (the ruling entity) wherein children are being severed from their daemons through a procedure called intercision. The person behind the experiments, a woman identified as Mrs. Coulter, describes the procedure as “just a little cut.” When the intercision occurs, the children become lifeless—like zombies—and they often eventually die. Yet, the intended purpose of the intercision is to create a way where innocence will be a permanent state of being, which is why the procedure has been sanctioned even though people are often horrified when they hear of the act. What Lyra eventually learns is that knowledge, which is often acquired through experience, is a necessary component that allows a person to grow up into a healthy adult.
At one point, I did wonder the extent to which Severance might have been influenced by Philip Pullman’s series.
Like Pullmans’ intercision, the experience of severance in the AppleTV show returns the “innie” version of each character to a state of innocence. In addition, there are clear connections to the story of Adam and Eve. Helly R. is the Eve character in that her entrance to MRD is a catalyst for change while Mark S. would be the Adam character in that he and Helly are the leaders of the MRD group when they start to question their environment. As the series unfolds, we see the “innie” characters long more and more for a knowledge they are unable to attain UNTIL Irving stumbles across a book that was accidentally left in their vicinity by a careless security guard. At first, they think they should report the book’s existence because they’ve accepted their boss’s need to keep them in an ignorant state. However, the characters keep the book, each reading it in secret without telling the others. This book has a red cover, which stands out against the blues, whites, and greys of the MRD world. It is the Fruit of Knowledge.
Interestingly enough, it does not appear that MRD—this place of innocence—is intended as a replication of The Garden of Eden. The severed workers take the elevator DOWN to MRD, and the longer we see them working in this world, the more it seems like it could be hell (as possibly reinforced by Helly’s name). This factors into our understanding of paradise and hell in relation to our understanding of innocence. Perhaps it touches on the notion that one needs experience or knowledge to understand one’s own situation—good or bad. At the same time, no one would look at the sterile and cold world of MRD and think it an ideal place in which to exist.
Throughout the series, more and more questions arise on the part of the viewer, and while some of those questions have been answered in Season 1, the finale literally leaves you in a pivotal moment for Mark S. along with more questions regarding the nature of MRD, the reason severance is being touted as such a revolutionary procedure, and what will happen next for Mark, Helly, Irving, and Dylan (along with the other characters we’ve met along the way—including a man named Burt, played by Christopher Walken). There are some series that are good at hooking us in the first moment but then fizzle out over time. I much prefer a show that pulls me in further and further with each episode. Severance is purposeful, engaging, and intricate with some truly bizarre moments along the way.