Co-written by site Editor Luke Knowles and Site Contributor Amy Beth.
*Contains spoilers for season one of Severance*
“You know, my mother was an atheist. She used to say that there was good news and bad news about hell. The good news is hell is just a product of the human imagination. The bad news is, whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.”
Boasting the perfect combination of an intriguing plot, well-rounded characters, stunning cinematography, and rich – yet somehow still mysterious – worldbuilding, Apple TV’s hit sci-fi Severance is quite possibly the best and most promising of its genre since Westworld. A fascinatingly complex watch, it will leave you with more questions than answers as the immense first season culminates in a nail-biter of a cliffhanger.
Apple TV+ has shown itself to be unique in the streaming space. It feels as if every week they launch another thought-provoking and discussion-worthy series. We’re all aware of the huge success of their flagship comedy Ted Lasso, but their output so far in 2022 has been seriously impressive. Murder mystery-comedy The AfterParty felt completely fresh and exciting. Gary Oldman led spy drama Slow Horses again felt like it had something interesting to say. The sheer amount of new shows vying for our attention across numerous streaming platforms can be daunting but Apple’s ‘content’ (I hate that word) always stands out. Their shows feel contemporary, self-assured and fully formed.
I’ve been telling everyone who’ll listen about the brilliance of Severance. How it’s the most exciting and properly intriguing show in recent memory. For those still to get around to it, let me be your guide.
Predominantly set within the imposing Lumon Industries building, the show follows the employees of the Macrodata Refinement department: newly promoted department head Mark (Adam Scott), rebellious newcomer Helly (Britt Lower), rule-abiding senior refiner Irving (John Turturro), and perk obsessed Dylan (Zach Cherry). Every member of the group has undergone the ‘Severance procedure’. A procedure unique Lumon, which places a chip in their brain. When they get in the elevator to work their work self or ‘innie’ takes over and wipes any memory of the people they are on the outside.
The Severed have never been above ground, seen natural sunlight, and do not know who they are, or even whether they have families on the outside. Their entire waking lives are spent in an endless corporate monotony, sorting encoded data into five categories depending on how the numbers make them ‘feel’. They are infantilised by their high-up handlers Ms Cobel (Patricia Arquette), Mr Milchick (Tramell Tillman), and Mr Graner (Michael Cumpsty). If they perform well, they earn ‘perks’ consisting of waffle parties, five-minute dance breaks, and finger traps. If they misbehave, or – accidentally or not – break one of the many rules in the company handbook, their punishment is a long stint in the break room, where they are psychologically broken, forced to repeat the same apology statement over and over for days on end, until they are deemed to be truly sorry for their misdeed. Kier Eagan – the founder of Lumon, long since deceased – is worshipped as a god, as are the Eagan CEOs that came after him. The Eagan word is treated as gospel, and a perpetuity wing hosts a family museum of sorts, including a life-sized replica of Kier’s house. Lumon is, quite simply, bizarre.
When it was first announced the series was described as ‘a dark comedy’. In truth, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what genre the show falls into. This only makes it more interesting.
In an era where streaming platforms are axing shows (we see you Netflix) Apple TV+ nurture their shows. Give their creators a freedom and announce a second season often before the first has gone out. Severance is creator Dan Erickson’s first series and the only credit on his IMDB page proving that Apple is willing to take a chance on a newcomer if the idea feels new and exciting. In a recent interview, Erickson said,
,” I worked a string of office jobs when I first got to L.A., and one, in particular, was in this weird little windowless office,” Erickson told Variety. “And I would be doing these sort of weird, seemingly meaningless, repetitive tasks all day long and it was just mind-numbing. And I caught myself one day walking in thinking, ‘Man, I wish I could just totally not experience the next eight hours. I wish I could disassociate and just have it be 5 and suddenly I’m going home.’
“And it occurred to me that that’s kind of a messed up thing to catch yourself wishing for, considering we have limited, precious time on this Earth, and here I was wishing I could give some of it back,” he continued. “It really was born of my own corporate misery.”
It’s an idea that feels so simple but one that is executed perfectly. I really admire all of Apple’s output because it feels so tangibly different to anything else. Their recent adaptation of the acclaimed novel Pachinko (also coming back for a second season next year) was praised for being so visceral you could smell the fish in the Korean fish markets where the story starts. That was a sprawling epic that chronicles the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family across four generations as they leave their homeland in an indomitable quest to survive and thrive. Much like Severance, the series felt fully formed, inviting us into a world and characters that existed and lived in their surroundings long before we got there. Apple has proved itself adept at telling interesting, surprising and tender human stories.
Severance cleverly puts you into the shoes of the constantly bewildered and unnerved employees. Their severance procedure prevents them from leaving of their own free will, and just like them, we’re clueless as to what Lumon are really doing.
For a show which feels so off the wall, it keeps itself grounded in reality. Mark, head of Macrodata Refinement, took the severed job at Lumon as a means to escaping his outside life. Recently widowed, outie-Mark’s grief is still raw, whilst innie-Mark is blissfully unaware of his suffering, or the fact that he even had a wife at all.
Innie-Mark’s slow journey to rebellion begins when he is informed by Ms Cobel that his best friend Petey (Yul Vazquez) has left Lumon with immediate effect. Hurt by the sudden loss of his friend, he asks questions but is given no further information. Upset, Mark breaks protocol and removes group pictures from the desks in the office. However, when new group pictures are issued, Mark goes to retrieve the frames from where he hid them in the supply closet and makes an unsettling discovery: Petey’s hand-drawn map of the Lumon building, which is very much against company rules. Mark discusses the map with Dylan and Helly, and decides to destroy it, much to Helly’s disappointment. The group then find a self-help book titled ‘The You You Are’ by Ricken Hale (Michael Chernus), addressed to Mark. Instead of alerting the higher-ups of contraband entering the building, Mark begins reading the book during his unending days at work, reverently taking Ricken’s words to heart.
This unexpected break from the monotony sees Mark and Helly grow closer, and he helps her evade wellness counsellor Ms Casey’s (Dichen Lachman) supervision by taking her on a forbidden walk around the building. He shows her that he’s been working on recreating Petey’s map from memory. Whilst exploring, they make a strange discovery: a one-man department where baby goats are being raised. The distressed man tells them, “You can’t take them yet, they’re not ready.” This curious incident leads to Cobel taking disciplinary action against the group, revoking their hallway privileges until they hit quota, and sending Mark to the break room. Later, in a wellness session with Ms. Casey, she reveals to Mark that she has been replaced and that her favourite part of her short life was the eight hours she spent in his department.
The final ray of hope comes to Mark when he finds Mr Graner’s key card in his pocket. Able to override any door in the building, the key card plays a big part in the group’s plan.
Helly’s hatred of Lumon is clear from the start. On her first day, she wakes up on a boardroom table, unable to recall her own name. After a disastrous orientation by Mark, she asks to leave, and is perplexed when she appears back in the corridor after each attempt. To try to settle her, Milchick shows Helly a video in which her outie-self excitedly talks about her upcoming severance procedure.
In the next episode, it is revealed that when innie-Helly continuously tried to leave the building, her outie-self kept running back inside. After every exit attempt, she is met on the outside by Milchick, who reassures her that it’s normal for her innie to find it hard to adjust. He says, “When we heard you were coming here, it was like a miracle. It’s amazing what you’re doing.”
Despite the video, innie-Helly is not placated. She writes ‘I QUIT’ on her arms, which trips the code detector and almost results in her being escorted to the break room until Mark takes the blame.
She submits a resignation request which is quickly denied by her outie, attempts to swallow a pen cap with a hidden message inside, and punches her fist through a glass door, the latter of which results in her first stint in the break room.
Pushed to desperation, she holds herself, hostage, threatening to cut off her finger unless Cobel and Milchick allow her to film a video and send it to her outie. Her outie sends back an equally threatening message, telling innie-Helly that she is not a person, and therefore does not get to make the decisions. If innie-Helly does anything to harm the body they share, outie-Helly will keep her alive long enough for her to regret it. Devastated that her outie is an unsympathetic jerk, innie-Helly attempts to hang herself, and lands herself under Ms. Casey’s constant supervision.
When the group’s plan is put in motion, Helly is excited, and she and Mark share a kiss before they part ways.
The brilliance of Severance lies in the fact that all the characters feel as uneasy about their situations as we do. Irving is perhaps the most content member of MDR. As a senior refiner, he can quote the company handbook from memory, and deeply respects Lumon and the Eagans. However, Irving is troubled when he discovers black paint under his fingernails. He begins having vivid nightmares of paint flooding the office, which leads to him being summoned to Ms Casey.
Whilst waiting for his wellness session, Irving meets Burt (Christopher Walken), an employee from the Optics and Design department. The pair quickly bond over their love of art. They grow closer over the course of the show, and while Irving is shy about taking things further, his sweet companionship with Burt is beautifully portrayed.
Apple TV+ have a knack for picking shows and stories that are impossible to predict. Shining Girls from South African author Lauren Beukes is another example. The story centres around a woman who is abused and left for dead. She survives, changes her name and gets a job as an archivist at a newspaper. She discovers other women have been attacked and killed by her attacker and joins forces with a reporter to track down the other women and bring the vicious attacker to justice. From my synopsis, you could brush it off as another by the numbers crime drama. That’s not what Apple TV+ make. This story has another intriguing and unique twist at the centre. We meet the killer (Jamie Bell) at the start of the series. The twist here is that the killer appears to be able to travel through time, never changing his appearance and he is seemingly able to predict things that his victims will do before they do them. Like Severance, it’s a premise that could easily fall apart but, like Severance, it’s expertly handled by all involved and helmed by an intensely moving performance from Elisabeth Moss. Like a lot of Apple’s ‘content’, It’s not a show that lays out for its audience what the story is. Apple’s model of dropping the first two or three episodes at launch and the rest weekly allows for word of mouth to spread as these shows slowly reveal themselves. There’s no way Severance would have garnered as much praise and excitement from fans if it had all arrived at once. A new episode each Friday allows for time to digest shows and in the case of Severance, Shining Girls and even The After Party that week-long wait between episodes made them feel even more special.
By the midway point of its first season, Severance had morphed into a different show from the one we thought it was going to be at the start.
It’s passive Dylan who is the key to the group’s plan to break free of the Severance program and meet their outies for the first time. The Dylan we meet at the show is the most content at Lumon. He enjoys earning perks, mainly consisting of snack based celebrations and miscellaneous desk accessories, and fantasises about his outie-self competing in muscle shows. However, when Dylan is awoken at his outie’s home one night by Milchick, his entire outlook changes drastically. Approached by a little boy, he realises he’s not the cool ladies man he’d imagined, but a family man instead.
It’s a twist that shakes up everything we’ve come to believe about the character at this point and one that empowers him to change. At work the next day, Milchick tells Dylan that to wake him up on the outside, he used something called the Overtime Contingency. Dylan, unable to stop thinking about his newfound son, asks questions, but Milchick tells him to keep quiet and not mention anything to the rest of the group.
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Finally, he snaps and attacks Milchick, having to be pulled away by the rest of the group. When Milchick leaves, Dylan tells the group about what happened to him, and with the knowledge of the Overtime Contingency and Graner’s key card meaning they are able to open the security door where the switch is kept, they plan to wake themselves up on the outside. When they realise one of them will have to stay behind to operate the switch, nobly Dylan volunteers. Mark, Helly, and Irving leave the building at the end of their shifts, and Dylan flicks the switch, launching what is quite possibly the best season finale of 2022.
Tense, chilling, heartbreaking, and chaotic: episode nine of Severance will leave you desperately wishing that season 2 was wrapped and ready to go. It also clocks in at a tight and concise 40 minutes which is another reason to love it. Awake in the outside world for the first time in their lives, Mark, Helly, and Irving learn some shocking truths.
When Mark gains consciousness, he’s at a gathering surrounded by people. He’s starstruck to see the author of the book that meant so much to him at Lumon. Ricken Hale, he learns, is his outie-self’s brother-in-law. This makes for some much needed comedic relief amongst the tension, as outie-Mark is somewhat of a pessimist, and thinks of Ricken’s wannabe-hipster lifestyle unfavourably, leaving Ricken hilariously suspicious when innie-Mark suddenly starts showering him with compliments.
However, Mark sees another familiar face in the sea of strangers, one he’s much less pleased about: Ms. Cobel. Panicked, he tries to find a quiet moment to talk to Ricken and his sister Devon (Jen Tullock), but as he frantically attempts to alert them about who he is, Cobel corners him. She pries Mark, already quite certain of what has happened, but the final nail in the coffin comes when Mark – not knowing his outie-self knows Cobel as his neighbour Mrs. Selvig – casually calls her by her Lumon title. In her cold, calculating way, she watches Mark walk away, unaware of the fact that he’s just put himself in great danger.
Finally able to talk to his sister, Mark tells Devon that that she needs to send inspectors to check out every inch of Lumon. She reassures Mark, and tells him that the reason his outie decided to undergo severance was due to being unable to cope with the grief of losing his beloved wife. He’s troubled by this, but still manages to inform Devon that Ms. Cobel – who she knows as Mrs. Selvig – is a high-up employee at Lumon.
Whilst exploring his sister’s house, Mark stumbles across his wedding picture and learns that Gemma, his supposedly deceased wife, is actually alive – but Mark knows her as the wellness counsellor, Ms. Casey.
Cobel alerts Milchick that the Overtime Contingency is in motion, and drives manically through the streets of Kier (yup, you read that right – the entire town is named after Kier Eagan) to make it to Lumon. At Lumon, Milchick pleads with Dylan to open the door, bribing him with the promise of any perk he wants. Dylan tells Milchick that the only thing he wants is to remember his son being born, and Milchick uses this vulnerability, telling Dylan that his outie-self has two other children, and he’ll disclose their names if Dylan agrees to open the door.
From here on out, the scenes of Mark, Helly, and Irving on the outside are periodically cut between Milchick getting closer and closer to opening the door. The stakes are high, and as the gut-punching reveals come one after another, the thought that the innies’ time on the outside could soon be over for good is never far away.
When Helly wakes, she immediately learns the reason her outie-self is so entitled, and we learn why Milchick told outie-Helly that her being at Lumon was a ‘miracle’: she’s an Eagan.
Like Mark, Helly also finds herself at a gathering of sorts, but this one is held in the Lumon building and is attended by rich members of the company. Helly is gobsmacked when she is led to an impressive exhibit featuring her outie-self, complete with pictures of her working on the severed floor at Lumon, and interviews of her excitedly talking about her procedure. Helena Eagan would never ask her employees to do something she wouldn’t do herself, and thinks a severed job ‘sounded awesome’.
Overcome by the situation, Helly escapes to the bathroom, but is quickly found by an elderly man she learns is her father. Like all the higher-ups, he’s eerily strange and somewhat robotic in his speech and mannerisms, and tells Helly he ‘cried in his bed when he found out what that innie did to her’, referring to the attempted hanging. He says, ‘The Grandfather would cherish what she’d done’, and reminisces about showing Helly the first severance chip when she was a child. She’d said everyone in the world should have one, and he tells her that now, because of her, they will. ‘They’ll all be Kier’s children.’
Later, whilst waiting in the wings to make her speech as Helena, Helly is grabbed by Ms. Cobel. She tells Cobel that she is going to kill the company, and Cobel reminds Helly that she’d be killing her own company. Cobel says that soon innie-Helly will be long gone, but promises her that the other innies will be kept alive to suffer because of her actions. Helly walks onto the stage.
Irving’s awakening is maybe the one that unearths the most questions. He finds himself at home in front of an easel, on which a fresh painting shows the long, dark corridor that leads to the testing floor at Lumon. Irving, to our knowledge, has never seen this particular corridor. When exploring his outie-self’s house, he finds further evidence that there might be more to his story than has already been revealed. In a locked chest, he discovers piles of information about Lumon, including articles, road maps of the surrounding area, and curiously, a list of severed employees complete with random facts about them and their addresses. Why would Irving have access to this information, and how does he know about the testing floor? All evidence suggests to him having been severed more than once, or perhaps even ‘reset’ to a lower-level role, if such a thing is possible. Could his subconscious be trying to alert him to this in the form of his dreams, and is this why his dozing on the job is taken so seriously? It’s just one of the many things we’re left to speculate about.
Finally, Milchick breaks open the door to the security office. Mark screams that Gemma is alive, Helly tells the guests about the true torture of severance, and Irving shouts for Burt. As Milchick tackles Dylan, the switch turns off, and the screen cuts to black.
This abrupt ending as well as the many unexplained plot points has left fans begging for more. The good news is: that season 2 is coming. In the meantime, Severance has already amassed a large online fandom, including a Reddit forum of over 60 thousand members. Not bad considering the show only premiered three short months ago. It isn’t surprising that a production of this calibre has amassed such a large following. With a gripping plot, likeable characters, and the most original premise television has seen for quite a while, it’s difficult to stop thinking and theorising about what could possibly happen next. Will the innies be reset, left with no memories of their short time on the outside? Will the Gemma/Ms. Casey situation be explained? Most importantly, will we find out what the hell is going on with those baby goats?
Severance is perhaps the best example of why Apple TV+ stands out in a field packed with options. But there are more examples of shows that Apple has tried that no one else would attempt. Anthology series Roar, which is a set of female-led fables on womanhood is an interesting, if not uneven series. For All Mankind has quietly become a critical darling and Ted Lasso an awards favourite. Unlike the other streaming platforms, Apple doesn’t have library content of existing shows to lure you in but they’re building an impressive roster of originals that are discussion-worthy and in a lot of cases, bonafide hits. Apple TV+ is by far, the most exciting streamer at the moment and although it’s understandable that most folk won’t see adding another streaming bill to their list of outgoings if you were to, we’re confident you’d find a lot to enjoy.