c/o Rotten Tomatoes

c/o Rotten Tomatoes

A few days ago, a friend of mine, in the midst of a messy breakup, held her head in her hands and groaned, “I don’t know how I’m going to go to class tomorrow.” Last month, another friend stared blankly at his wall after finding out his cousin fell into a coma, trying to figure out how he could get through his shift the following day. “I won’t be able to focus on anything else,” he said. When I told him I was sure his boss would understand if he stayed home, he shook his head. He needed the money, badly.

Everyone has been there at least once or twice in their lives and will certainly experience the same thing many more times in the future. How do you get through the miserable mundanity of class or work when tragedy strikes in your personal life? Or even vice versa, how do you retain healthy relationships with loved ones when you’re so severely overworked and stressed that all you want to do is snap at everyone and go to sleep?

This is where the “severance procedure” comes in, according to Lumon, the fictional company at the center of Apple TV+’s stunning new series “Severance.” The procedure entails, in Lumon’s own words, “a minimally invasive surgical technique” that alters your brain “so that, essentially, you’ve got a part of you that works and a part of you that plays.” As disturbing as this might sound, it would be a lie to say that it doesn’t sound a little bit appealing.

“Imagine being able to come into work completely uninhibited by your home problems. Or imagine being able to go home and never think about work,” Lumon’s company statement reads.

This would, quite literally, be life-changing. Even though I’m sure many of us would balk at the surgery and ethical considerations, I think the offer would tempt us more than we might let on. In fact, when I surveyed around 70 peers through a Google Form a few weeks ago, nearly 40% said they would at least consider undergoing the procedure.

“Both my work and home life are not very good, and I think worrying about my home life at work and vice versa contributes greatly to the quality of both,” one peer said. “It’ll probably decrease my stress levels by a lot which is the main reason why I would consider doing so.”

“Severance,” created by Dan Ericksen and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, devotes nine expertly written, beautifully shot, and carefully constructed episodes to showing us the deep-seated dangers inherent in this line of thinking, and even worse, the effects of the procedure itself. The show follows four Lumon employees who have been “severed” and now work in a strange office space, where they sit in front of oddly retro computers all day engaged in a tedious, inexplicable job called “Macro Data Refinement.” 

We watch in horror and intrigue as these workers grow more and more desperate to break out of their self-inflicted prisons, knowing that they must continue to come to the office each day because their outer selves have no way of knowing how unhappy they are while at work, something that Lumon guarantees through a variety of ethically dubious means. 

“Every time you come here, it’s because you chose to come back.” Mark Scout (played by Adam Scott) says.

This is a terrifying implication, particularly because the question of how to define the word “you” is a point of extreme contention throughout the show. Which you is actually you? The “outie” who lives at home and made the decision to undergo the procedure in the first place, or the “innie” birthed from the severance process, forced to live for eternity in a brutally minimalist office, empty save for four cubicles? Are you Mark, the “outie” who underwent the procedure due to his debilitating grief over the tragic loss of his wife, or are you Mark S., the “innie” loyal to Lumon practices because he doesn’t know any other way of being? Can you be both? Or are the two selves entirely different people? Should one self undergo what is essentially endless psychological torture in order for the other to live happily? 

“Severance” raises numerous ethical dilemmas of this sort regarding the self, memory, technology, capitalism, labor, love, grief, trauma, and the possibilities of resistance, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat, making you deeply invested in the lives of the characters, and entrapping you within the discomforting and almost sterile symmetry of the office cinematography. It is a show that truly has everything, from extraordinarily disturbing “waffle parties” (if you know, you know) to inexplicable baby goats tucked away in one of the small rooms of Lumon’s maze-like building, to characters played by John Turturro and Christopher Walken in the slow-burn love story none of us knew we needed. From cultish company lore to deviled eggs being crushed inside handbooks to murder to found family to intimidating dance displays to black goop to terrible self help books to very nonsexual neck biting, there is not a single wasted moment in any episode.

The pilot is immediately engrossing, dropping you into a fascinating world so close to our own that the differences feel all the more present. The dialogue comes easily, the characters are firm in their personalities and relationships with one another, and the questions, mysteries, and implicit promises the pilot lays out leave you desperately wanting to keep watching. 

It’s a show that encourages you to theorize as you watch, but the twists never feel too obvious (or obvious, at least, in an unsatisfying way), nor do they feel out of left field or done solely to surprise the audience. “Severance” is funny, fascinating, disturbing, satirical, emotional, and so remarkably devoted to the characters it created and the world it is set in. The jaw-dropping season finale came out Friday, April 8, and, despite the frankly cruel cliffhanger, it was enormously satisfying and left its audience desperate for the release of the recently confirmed season two. It’s been a long time since I’ve found a new show I’ve been this excited about, possibly since the first season of “Succession” in 2018. 

“Severance” is the best show you’re not watching, and I know most of you aren’t because 68.4% of the people who took my survey assumed I was talking about an actual potential procedure rather than recognizing it as the premise of a critically acclaimed but somehow still largely unknown show. Ever read Foucault in a Wesleyan class? (Actually, scratch that, it’s Wesleyan. I know you have.) This show is the perfect illustration of the panopticon of capitalism taken to an extreme, and is not an unbelievable one. It takes the dehumanization of workers by massive corporations to the next level, literally depriving the characters of any life outside of work. The merging of surreal science fiction and real-world consumerism is part of what makes this show so spectacular.

What would you choose? If new technologies gave us the chance to fully separate our work lives from our home lives, would you do it? At what cost? And if you underwent the procedure not knowing the consequences, would the memoryless blank slate “innie” waking up inside the doors of Lumon fight back, or would they fall in love with the Lumon philosophy, the only one they’ve ever known? How far would you go to avoid dealing with the consequences of trauma and grief? What if corporations could maximize profit by turning their workers into literal drones devoid of any personal life outside of work? When will the horrors of capitalism end? Why the hell is there a guy in a suit feeding baby goats in a tiny white room? Will John Turturro and Christopher Walken ever kiss? Why is there goo dripping from the ceilings? Oh sweet Jesus, that’s what a waffle party is? 

If you find any of these questions intriguing, try out “Severance.” The show, not the procedure, that is. Please, for the love of God, don’t try the procedure.

Casey Epstein-Gross can be reached at cepsteingros@wesleyan.edu.

Comments are closed