'Severance' Brings r/antiwork to Life in a Thrilling Workplace Nightmare

Directed by Ben Stiller

Starring Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Zach Cherry

BY Alex HudsonPublished Feb 7, 2022

In theory, the idea of a brain chip that separates your work self from your home self doesn't actually sound all that bad. It certainly would make it a lot easier to unwind after a hard day's work if you couldn't remember anything that happened in the past eight hours. 

Severance takes this idea and runs with it for nine brilliant episodes, following its sci-fi concept down a disturbing, claustrophobic rabbit hole that resembles a particularly excellent episode of Black Mirror or top-tier LostAdam Scott stars as Mark, a subterranean office worker at a mysterious company called Lumon Industries, where he and a few colleagues spend their 9-to-5 pointlessly moving around numbers on a screen.

As a "severed" employee with no memories of the outside world, Mark seems happy enough, but the sudden departure of his best work friend Petey (Yul Vazquez) and the arrival of a dissatisfied new colleague Helly (Britt Lower) exposes the job for what it is: a prison he can never leave, where his inside self (his "Innie") is a slave to his outside counterpart (his "Outie"). The employees are essentially babies, having only had a consciousness for a few years at most, but they're still compelled by immutable human urges: love, creativity, compassion, despair, connection.

Mixing the quirky workplace drudgery of The Office with the dystopian dread of 1984 — plus the coolest sets this side of Squid GameSeverance is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. The boring office, with its talk of "melon bloat" and "waffle parties," initially seems innocuous enough, but it grows increasingly disturbing as the world is fleshed out. Let's just say the "break room" doesn't mean what you think it does. John Turturro plays a by-the-books senior employee who finds joy in the tiniest moments of his mostly flat existence, while Zach Cherry is the comic highlight as the snarky office know-it-all. Patricia Arquette disappears inside a brilliant double role as the domineering boss and the batty next door neighbour, and Christopher Walken plays, well, Christopher Walken.

As bleak as the Lumon office is, the outside world isn't a whole lot better. Mark is a widower who drinks alone and totally crashes and burns on dates, and he chose severance as a way to forget his grief for eight hours a day. As the show progresses, he grows increasingly suspicious of Lumon, and both Innie and Outie try to break free of the hold their job has on them. It's like r/antiwork was turned into a TV show.

Largely (but not entirely) directed by Ben Stiller, Severance is the best kind of sci-fi, as it takes a plausible futuristic concept and warps it in unexpected new ways, showing the wild future that could conceivably await humanity. It asks profound questions about what it means to be human and how we find a sense of purpose in our everyday lives — but also offers the visceral excitement of a mysterious thriller. The banalities of everyday life have rarely seemed quite so fascinating and ultimately suffocating.

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