In the era of binge-watching and television seasons suddenly falling away, severance pay feels unique: it’s a show you definitely don’t want to see in one sitting. Despite the veneer of a banal work drama, severance pay is an incredibly suspenseful sci-fi horror series in which that tension only builds over the course of the show’s nine episodes. Each new chapter is an opportunity to confuse a little more and discover the dark depths into which the capitalist machine wants to sink. You’ll want some space in between to take it all in — and maybe catch your breath a little.
This article contains spoilers for the first season of Severance.
severance pay starts quite slowly. The show revolves around a relatively new procedure called a natural layoff that splits an employee’s brain in two. This essentially allows people to skip work eight hours a day and focus on their outdoor life. The work itself, meanwhile (the two are colloquially referred to as “innies” and “outies”), is stuck in a life that is nothing but work. Their whole life takes place in the office. Thanks to technology, memories can be spatially dictated. Your life and memories are yours until you jump in the elevator at Lumon Industries, go to the broken open floor and get to work. From then on, your time and memories belong to your innie — and to Lumon.
We are introduced to the concept through Mark (Adam Scott). On the outside, Mark is grieving the loss of his wife, and he’s signed up to be divorced in hopes of avoiding those feelings for at least part of the day. Inside, he’s the department head of the macro data refinement department at Lumon, where he and three other associates—Dylan (Zach Cherry), Helly (Britt Lower), and Irving (John Turturro)—spend all day working on… something . It is never really clear what their job is, although they are reassured that the work is mysterious and important. It usually involves finding “scary” numbers on a mind-boggling grid.
At first, it’s easy to see the pull of divorce. Work sucks. Who wouldn’t want to cut that toil out of their life and focus on the good things? But it soon becomes clear how untenable the solution is. For the innies it is a real nightmare. Their lives exist only within the gloomy walls of Lumon’s cellar. When they leave work, their next reminder is to arrive the next day. They feel the effects of sleep, but never experience it themselves. Things get so bleak that collecting office trinkets like Lumon finger traps becomes a real incentive. At one point, a smuggled book of New Age philosophical gibberish enters the department, and the refiners treat it as the most important piece of literature ever written. After all, if all you’ve ever read is an employee handbook, everything would be fine by comparison.
The sense of discomfort – and eventually outright terror – grows as the show progresses, and you learn more about Lumon and what life is like in the basement. The company itself is a bit like Amazon was run by Scientologists, only much worse. We were told that it is a pharmaceutical company with its hands in many different industries. Much of the staff – at least the ones we see, including Mark’s boss, played with terrifying intensity by Patricia Arquette – worship the founder as a religious figure, right down to the constant repetition of dogmas† In the optics and design department you will find disturbing paintings in the romantic style of wars between the departments, a version of Wanderer above the Sea of Mistwith Lumon founder Kier Eagan gazing into the great unknown.
severance pay thrives on mystery. Like it Lost and yellow jacketsIt’s a show that likes to throw inexplicable curveballs at viewers that are sometimes explained, sometimes not. In severance payThose strange twists and turns are often the reason for the steadily creeping sense of dread. Part of this comes down to the way the show looks: the severed floor is like something from a parallel dimension. It’s almost like a cubicle farm ripped out of the 1960s, but with weird retrofuturistic computers, winding hallways designed for maximum confusion, and a canteen that doubles as a psychological torture chamber. Oh, and there’s a room full of baby goats. It’s the kind of show where a celebratory waffle party inevitably turns into something bizarre and awkward.
This sense of mystery is enhanced by the dual nature of the severed characters. Each actor essentially plays two different people with conflicting desires. But due to the nature of their surgically altered brains, they only know half the story. Outie Mark has no idea what really happens during the hours he is in the office, and innie Mark knows literally nothing about the outside world and the impact that widespread adoption of layoffs could have. You may be confused while watching, but the characters in the show have it much, much worse. I should also note that severance pay‘s creators have a clear predilection for artistic cliffhangers from the “Not Penny’s boatvariety. This extends to the finale, which, while answering some key questions and offering some explosive revelations, also leaves very much be discovered in severance pay‘s recently confirmed second season. You may yell at your screen when the credits begin.
Put it all together and you have a show that paints the darkest possible portrait of how mega-corporations think about and treat their employees. We’ve all seen the stories of what tech giants get away with in the real world; severance pay envisions a future where they can literally do everything in secret because employees have consciously signed up to be lab rats. When things go Lumon’s way, no one will ever know about the goats or the cafeteria. However, the tension and terror are worth it. The first season of severance pay is stressful, but it’s also much more fun than a Lumon assigned Music Dance Experience.
The first season of severance pay now streaming on Apple TV Plus.