Severance Review: This Mind-Blowing, Unpredictable Series From Apple TV+ Is A Must-Watch

"Severance" is not a comedy. Those who hear that the show is executive produced/directed by Ben Stiller and stars Adam Scott might make that assumption, but as Apple TV+'s marketing materials keep reminding us, the show is a workplace thriller — no funny business found here.

But "Severance" does have funny moments, as great dramas often do, and it's also much more than a straightforward workplace thriller. The show, written and created by Dan Erickson, meets the qualifications for that genre with a gripping, ever-escalating plot that leaves you clambering for answers each episode. "Severance," however, is also a deep character piece and a commentary on capitalism — how much does where we work dictate our lives, and how far will a corporate conglomerate go to achieve their so-called strategic vision?

The crux of these issues is explored via the speculative premise of the series — Lumon Industries, a hundred-plus-year-old venerated corporation, has created a technology that severs a person's memories. Lumon then looks to hire people for "severed" positions, where the new Lumon employees willingly undergo a procedure where the company inserts a probe-like object into their brain that effectively cleaves their minds in two.

We're introduced to Lumon through Mark (Scott), a man who has faced great grief in his personal life and decides to be severed to escape his pain for at least eight hours a day. Through Mark, we get one answer to one of the many questions that come up on the show: What would drive someone to willingly cut their life in half?

The Terror of Corporate Culture

Mark's work persona, Mark S., has no memory of his past, and no knowledge of what goes on when he leaves the office. All Mark S. ever knows is his life inside Lumon's windowless corridors. He doesn't even know the respite and relief of sleep since his "outie" — the severed's nickname for their outside selves — takes on all the sleeping responsibilities. Conversely, Mark outside of Lumon's walls has no knowledge of his "innie's" life. Mark's workplace persona could be psychologically tortured all day and he'd be none the wiser. The commentary on capitalism here is pretty clear — in this world, your employer literally owns and controls you from 9 to 5 — and the show hammers this point home.

So why would anyone choose to do this? We get Mark's answer early on, but we don't know at first what drove Mark's severed colleagues, played by John Turturro, Zach Cherry, and Britt Lower, to undergo the same procedure. What we do see at the beginning of the season is their work environment. The four make up Lumon's Macrodata Refinement team, and spend their entire existence sitting in their own cubicles in a white-walled, windowless room undergoing computer tasks they don't understand.

The look of Lumon's severed floor is highly stylized, making for some stark and surreal imagery. One of the things that's so chilling about the show, however, is that the life for the innies at Lumon is too recognizable for comfort: the corporate-speak; the forced social functions; the endless identical corridors; the seeking of refuge and a veneer of privacy in a bathroom stall. Many who have worked a corporate job will see familiar flickerings of it here.

There are also moments when the stylization gets turned up a notch or three, and it's these scenes that showcase how effed up this all is. (Not that we needed that reminder, but those psychologically twisted moments, such as the sanctioned dance social replete with maracas and blinking colored lights, serve their purpose in profoundly freaking us the hell out).

The Emotional Underbelly of Macrodata Refinement

What truly sets "Severance" apart, however, is when the show delves into the psyches of the series' ensemble cast. We get ample time with Mark, yes, but we also get deep emotional moments with his Macrodata Refinement co-workers.

And then there's the unsevered who supervise them. Mark's boss at Lumon is Patricia Arquette's Ms. Cobell, an intensely complex individual who contains multitudes. Arquette is masterful in this role, and I'll be surprised if she doesn't get all the awards for her performance. The way she softly says, "Mark," to Scott's character, for example, emotes a sinister faux-concern that chills you to the bone.

Arquette is only one of many fantastic performances in "Severance." Scott's conveyance of both Marks is uncanny, and Turturro, Cherry, and Lower also bring nuance to their severed characters. Dichen Lachman and Christopher Walken also touchingly play severed Lumon employees while Tramell Tillman plays another complex and intense unsevered supervisor. Rounding out the impressive cast is Mark's sister and brother-in-law, deftly portrayed by Jen Tullock and Michael Chernus.

As the episodes progress, we learn more about these characters and what may be going on at Lumon. What we find out, however, is never enough. "Severance" is a show that gets more mysterious the more it reveals, and the last two episodes of the season had me so anxious that my dog started whining at me in concern.

My biggest critique of the show, if you can call it that, is that the first season is incomplete — the first act in a much larger story that doesn't give you any closure or satisfaction on where things are left. If Apple TV+ doesn't pick this up for a second season, I will write a strongly worded letter to their manager.

Season 1 of "Severance" premieres on Apple TV+ on February 18, 2022.