Sigmund Freud opened his curious 1919 essay “The ‘Uncanny’ ” – on the particular sense of “dread and creeping horror” evoked when the familiar turns unfamiliar – by framing it as a matter of aesthetics. “It is only rarely,” he began, “that a psychoanalyst feels impelled to investigate the subject of aesthetics even when aesthetics is understood to mean not merely the theory of beauty but the theory of the qualities of feeling.” If there is a recent television show that gestures towards this feeling better, or more elegantly, than Apple TV’s Severance, I haven’t seen it.
Created by Dan Erikson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, Severance follows a biotech employee, grieving widower Mark Scout (Adam Scott) of Lumon Industries. He has chosen to undergo “severance” – a surgical procedure in which his work memories are neatly and permanently split off from his personal memories. Like the rest of his closely monitored, data-processing co-workers on “the severance floor”, he has no access to the motivation or circumstances of his “Outie” self who made the decision, and doesn’t know what lies in wait after he transitions out of his work day in the elevator to the lobby.
“I can’t help but feel this isn’t the same as healing,” Mark’s sister, Devon (Jen Tullock), tells him in an early episode. Each side of himself unavailable and unknown to the other, we watch Mark as he gropes across the chasm of his bifurcated work–life worlds to follow the tentacles of the company’s dark conspiracy.
Episode one opens with an aerial shot of Mark’s new co-worker, Helly (Britt Lower), face-down on a boardroom table, limbs askew like a fledgling fallen from the nest. This room is – in the words of the show’s superb production designer Jeremy Hindle – “the womb of the office”, and it is where the just-severed Helly is reborn as an “Innie”. “Am I livestock? … Did you grow me for food?” she asks the infantilising, invisible powers-that-be on regaining consciousness.
Soon, to her shock, she is played footage of herself giving informed and willing consent to the gruesome brain-altering procedure. While this is apparently what she has freely elected to do, she can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right. Helly’s ensuing attempts to resign or escape lead her exactly nowhere in a hermetically sealed Kaufmanian/Kafkaesque existential nightmare made more menacing by the mid-century Modernist honesty of the Lumon workplace aesthetic.
This eerie undercurrent is heightened by the enforced corporate cheer and mandatory gratitude policed by supervisor Milchick (a radiant Tramell Tillman), and the panoptical gaze of the higher-ups hovering nefariously at the edges. With co-workers Irving (John Turturro as the nebbish ne plus ultra) and Dylan (Zach Cherry), Mark and Helly toil busily but inexplicably at their quartet of desks clustered together on an otherwise vacant floor. We meet Burt (Christopher Walken), who runs the Optics and Design sector with laconic glee, and the sheer scale of the Lumon labyrinth starts to reveal itself.
Everything – technology, fashion, furniture and the paintings of Lumon’s hallowed founder Kier Eagan (which reference Francisco de Goya and Caspar David Friedrich, and were described in detail in Erikson’s scripts) – is closely curated but temporally unlocated. The result is a deceptive familiarity – this could be set in the dark future or the present, as the inevitable extension of a wilfully forgotten past. Here, amid the absurd corporate trophies populating Mark’s desk and the dangling carrot of a waffle party at the end of the quarter, enters the uncanny.
An emotional fixture of Gothic storytelling, including the sleek world of Severance, the uncanny, Freud wrote, “is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old – established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression”. You can lock the door and avoid dark alleys but the monsters that terrify us most are the ones we already know.
When he is not half-heartedly socialising with his sister and her husband, Mark, in his Outie iteration, spends his leisure time parked on his exhausted couch in bleak corporate housing, the pieces of his former life stored in his basement. Unknown to him, his neighbour, Mrs Selvig (an exquisitely weird Patricia Arquette), is spying on him. She is also his – notably unsevered – boss, Harmony Cobel. Out of nowhere, a man known only to Mark’s Innie turns up at his home claiming to have reversed his own severance and to be suffering from “reintegration sickness”, where the past intrudes on the present. “It’s like having two different lives suddenly stitched together, but the relativity’s fucked,” he explains to Mark. In or out, wherever Mark goes and whomever he encounters, a sense of atomised isolation and foreboding infuses everything as he – and we – try to piece together just what the hell is going on.
Ultimately snapped up by Stiller’s production company where Erikson had submitted his script as a writing sample, the first version, written about eight years ago, ended up on Hollywood’s Blood List – purgatory for unproduced horror and sci-fi scripts. Given that knee-jerk taxonomic classification, it’s interesting to consider that Erikson’s inspiration stemmed from his experiences of working in an office that made and repaired doors.
“I was in this little underground office cataloguing different hinges for eight hours a day,” he told entertainment website IGN. “I would walk in in the morning and be like, ‘God, if only I could jump ahead to the end of the day and just skip the next eight hours, I would totally do that’ … [T]hat’s a messed-up thing to catch yourself wishing for. Less time on Earth basically.”
This relatable sentiment ultimately resulted in a series that discomfortingly hits closer to home than much horror or sci-fi – not quite tragedy, not quite comedy, but somewhere in between, where most of modern life takes place. Severance is perhaps less about work–life balance and more about the Orwellian hypocrisies of the phrase when understood in the context of the violence wrought on the psyche by late capitalism’s increasing atomisation and commodification of human life.
It’s noteworthy that, despite delivering optical riches through staging that frequently calls as much attention to itself as possible, the writing and the acting shine brightly, each element is reinforcing the others. From Oliver Latta’s magnificent opening credits – an original feat of complex, compressed animated storytelling in their own right – to its perfect establishing shots, frame after frame of Severance delivers a fearful symmetry.
We are wired to associate such pleasing proportion with beauty, and the eye certainly seeks that reassuring balance amid the confusions of our current global moment. But, as each of these episodes reveals, too-clean exactitude is the chilling domain of the carceral, the clinical, the corporate and the commercial – bureaucratically brutal everyday spaces deliberately unconcerned with the inescapably unified field of human reality. As Helly intuitively knew – and Freud spent the better part of his career telling us – suspiciously tidy minimalism in the spaces where we spend our inner and outer lives is a sign that something’s deeply wrong.
Looking away solves nothing. As Mark ponders at one point – being severed means “you go to two separate hells”. And yet, whether it arises as a self-protective but pathological, psychological defence against overwhelming trauma or is motivated by a ravening drive to maintain social hierarchies at the service of insatiable appetites for profit, the strategy of splitting reality to repress the confronting consequences of truth-telling has proved too immediately useful to be left to the realm of dystopian fiction.
In Severance – as in, to some degree, everyone’s interior psychic terrain – everything old is new again. However, while it references the style of Wes Anderson, the genuine hilarity of both series of The Office and the unnerving emotional texture of Maniac, Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, this is a show that – in a stunning feat of originality and excellence – manages to be only itself. It does so through a rare, granular attention to unifying details: the small things that, together, are everything. And it’s brought to you by the Apple corporation, streaming now through those sleek and shapely minimalist devices in everyone’s hands and homes.
Severance is streaming on Apple TV.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Fear ful symmetry".
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