Severance: lest we forget


Here at There’s Always Room For One More I usually focus on books, but I’ve been meaning to wrap up my thoughts on some of the TV I’ve enjoyed this year too. With the end of 2022 at hand, I want to at least make time to yell from the rooftops about my show of the year – AppleTV’s unnerving, perfectly controlled Severance.

2022 has been a lot and while my beloved can crash in front of a movie any night, I often struggle to muster the concentration. If I want to see it, I want to watch it – staying awake and paying attention – which has made I’d like to see that but not tonight perhaps the most frustrating contribution I make on a regular basis. An episode of tv is less commitment, with the happy result that we’ve found a heap of new favourites.

My personal favourite by a huge margin was dystopian office technology drama Severance. This is a must-see for lovers of genre: smart, assured and gleefully embracing the absurdity of office life. In this parallel timeline, big tech have pioneered the ultimate in workplace security – the ability to sever an employee’s consciousness, dividing what they know and do at work from who they are when they leave the office. These workers have no concept of family or children and are physically incapable of stealing company secrets; and they can’t bring work home… although we meet widower Mark sobbing his heart out in the office car park. Severance is not quite the perfect antidote to his grief that he hoped when he signed up; is it even a reprieve if you can’t remember the allegedly happy hours you spent at work?

The opportunities for corporate abuse are obvious, but the show zeroes straight in on the concept of consent. New girl Helly wakes up on a boardroom table, a disembodied voice asking odd questions she can’t answer over a speaker. Helly has no idea who she is, where or why – and when she finds out, she’s none too keen on the job. But she doesn’t get to make that decision; her contract is signed by her outie self, whose motivations she can never know and who has zero sympathy for Helly’s protests. Remember, when you find yourself here tomorrow you chose to be here is the most devastating line delivered on television this year for my money (and has been a biting refrain to my own struggles to adapt to a new company over the past few months).

The show follows Helly’s struggles to come to terms with her new existence and Mark’s battle with depression, closely observed at work and at home by their managers. Told primarily from Mark’s point of view as he slowly comes to question the strange situation he has sold himself into, we learn about social resistance to the severance process and start to get a sense of the company’s ambitions for it in the future. The result is a paranoid conspiracy drama where the viewer always knows more than the characters – who can only ever half half the story – told with razor sharp wit and a surreal flair that reminded me of classics such as Brazil.

The visual storytelling is just as much a treat. This is a show that has been designed within an inch of its life, with sets that are almost characters in their own right and exquisite shot choices and lighting. The office is a perfect metaphor for the employees’ severed brains – sterile, painfully false, with terrible secrets hidden in the basement – while the outer world is seen largely at night, smothered in snow. It’s beautiful and terrible, much like the script. The performances too are pitch perfect, from Mark’s awkwardness to Dylan’s desperately aggressive focus on achieving milestones, Milchick’s mannered interactions and the entirely fabulous Patricia Arquette swerving from ruthless cruelty to fear of being sidelined. Watching her be nice to people in the outside world may be the most unnerving scenes in the show.

I love everything about this show: the dysfunctional office team, the inanity of their mysterious departmental task, the creepy middle managers and terrifying museum memorialising the owners’ family, Mark’s supportive sister and her self-absorbed self-help husband, the slowly unfolding plot that suggests that yes, severance is crossing every boundary you would assume as a genre viewer, and of course the sweetest forbidden workplace romance between John Turturro and Christopher Walken (which isn’t a sentence I ever expected to write, but trust me, it is everything). It has ruined the concept of corporate wellness for me for life …for which I am largely grateful, I think.

I cannot wait to see where its slowly-unfolding plot goes in season two. The first season has served up brilliant ideas, sliced my heart to ribbons and left me realising I still don’t actually know why half the team chose to be severed in the first place. I have nothing but conspiracy theories, which is entirely appropriate to the show. I spent most of the series yelling what the FUCK at the screen, utterly absorbed – I expect to yell it more often, and louder, and possibly with more rage when the second season returns to AppleTV in 2023.

Content warning: self-harm, suicide attempt