Severance Is the Rare ‘Galaxy-Brain’ Show Smart Enough to Blow Your Mind

SeveranceApple TV+’s new psychological thriller, “The Unexpected,” opens with an image that is both arresting and alarming. The image shows a young woman with red hair, who is dressed in office attire, lying on her back at a table filled with empty chairs. “Who are you?” a male voice asks, over a crackling intercom. The woman stutters as if drunken or on drugs, and lifts herself from the table. We can see that the institutional room she’s in has no windows. She knocks at doors, all of which are locked. A voice insists politely on giving a survey. As he proceeds with the questions, the woman is horrified to realize that she has no idea who she is, where she is, or what’s happening to her.
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As she becomes more lost, the show slowly begins to make sense. Nightmarish scenario? Check. Bland corporate backdrop? Check. Harsh lighting? Check. Stylized dialogue? This too. Yes, Separation, which premieres Feb. 18 on Apple TV+, is another one of those sci-fi series infused with mind-bending—if often oversimplified—ideas about the intersection of technology, capitalism, and free will. Also: Westworld, Made for Love, Peacock’s Brave New Worldadaptation. The American and British versions Utopia, the TNT adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s SnowpiercerToo many to list. Inspired by the memeification of thoughts so deep they’re shallow (or so shallow they’re deep) and borrowing liberally from social media, I call them galaxy-brain shows. You can also find them on Twitter. Separation It is a rare example of a product that actually lives up to its high ideals.

Lumon Industries is a show about a megacorp in America that’s set in a distant parallel universe. In recent years Lumon has pioneered a procedure known as severance, which allows the company to split employees’ consciousness for the purposes of conducting top-secret work. After they consent to having an implant placed in their brains, “severed” staffers essentially become two people. While they’re still the same person they always were outside of office hours, their second self exists only at Lumon. Neither half retains any memory of the other’s life. “Outies” wonder, with increasing anxiety, what their “innie” does at work; innies speculate on the very basics of who their outie is.

Apple TV+Adam Scott in ‘Severance’

Mark Scout plays the role of our everyman protagonist. A smartly cast, but unusually depleted-looking Adam Scott is the actor. He works as part of a four-person team, disconcertingly clustered at a single cubicle quad in the middle of a vast, otherwise empty office, assigned to clean data—an activity that resembles an Asteroids-era computer game and whose purpose remains unknown. For company, Mark has the prickly Dylan (Zach Cherry), who obsesses over the trinkets Lumon hands out to severed employees upon the completion of assignments, and Irving (John Turturro), a rigid true believer in the company’s self-mythologizing. Their mercurial boss Patricia Arquette informs them of the death of their fourth team leader.

The redhead is Britt Lower Maintaining High StandardsAfter a courageous performance that is her breakout, Helly R. was born into the world. Helly is her name (in an infantilizing twist, innies are called by first and last names, much like kindergarteners). And although we’re given to understand that orientation tends to be rough for the severed—who would take kindly to learning they’d been surgically altered and pressed into labor?—Helly proves to be extraordinarily intractable. For the newly promoted Mark S., she’s a nightmare charge, constantly making a break for the elevators.

“Am I livestock?” Helly demands at one point. Yes, it is. She’s not destined to be served up with a side of scalloped potatoes at anyone’s dinner table, but as an innie, she exists purely to create value for others, in the form of a salary for her outie as well as revenue for Lumon. You don’t need her comfort. She can’t even quit without permission from her outie, who doesn’t have a clue about what she’s going through.

Apple TV+Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman in ‘Severance’

Galaxy-brains revolve around huge, chilling “if” scenarios. To view the full article, click here Westworld, it was “What if automatons became sentient?” Made for Love asked, “What if people could read the minds of their significant other?” Questions like these are much easier to ask than to answer—and so the answers we get, often after building several seasons’ worth of suspense, are likely to be unsatisfying, more pass-the-bong catastrophizing and glib puzzle-boxing than philosophical revelation. Much of the time, shows like these proceed as though they’re blowing our minds when really they’re just causing unnecessary confusion around plot points that should be pretty straightforward. At this point, it’s impossible not to cite. Lost and its infuriating “OK, yes, the island is purgatory, but we’re not explicitly calling it that” finale.

SeparationIt is just as vulnerable to being copped out. This central question: How could we completely seperate our personal and professional lives? In all honesty, I didn’t have high hopes based on overly familiar early shots of the severed floor’s bright-white labyrinth of empty corridors and scenes where office workers behave as though they’re robots. Mark’s backstory comes across as a bit basic, though his outie’s obnoxious brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus), a severance skeptic and pseudo-intellectual advocate for the individual—a galaxy-brain guy, in other words—makes a brilliant addition. Some plot twists can feel more like holes rather than as blanks just waiting to be filled.

The show’s nine-episode debut seasons is a great start to a truly memorable finale. Execution is a key part of the show’s success. The acting is universally excellent, from Lower’s combination of willfulness and desperation to theatrical but nuanced character performances from the virtuosic Arquette, Turturro and, in a role I won’t detail for fear of spoiling, Christopher Walken. Ben Stiller, an actor turned director who got similarly show-stopping performances out of Arquette and a similarly talented cast in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, also deserves credit here—as well as for the dramatic contrasts in atmosphere he creates, between fluorescent-lit Lumon and the nighttime world outside, without sacrificing coherence. And this is not like other streaming titles. Separation It is understood that an edited episode of 40 minutes can prove more efficient than a superficial, indulgent hour.

Apple TV+Britt Lower in ‘Severance’

What makes the series great, though, is the interplay between first-time creator Dan Erickson’s grounded, character-driven storytelling and the philosophical elements he deploys. Instead of harping on the big what-if to an extent that, in the typical galaxy-brain show, quickly becomes repetitive, Erickson keeps it lingering in the background to fuel dozens of smaller questions: What is each character’s outie like? How are Mark S. and Helly R. actually doing at work? Was their leader ever fired? Why would anyone take the extreme step of cutting themselves off from a lifetime’s worth of memories for eight hours a day, five days a week? Humans should have the ability to subcontract their brains in exchange for servitude. What is the definition of the second self? And if so, shouldn’t that person have some right to self-determination? As season goes on, both plot-related as well as thematic questions merge in a way which enhances each aspect of the story.

There are a few blind spots; Erickson doesn’t seem particularly interested in the financial reasons why characters might consent to have their consciousness bifurcated, or in what Lumon is doing that requires such extreme secrecy. However, Separation The show has been renewed again for its second season. It should have plenty of time to cover these fascinating topics. In the meantime, as we ponder its big ideas, it’s our investment in the characters that should keep viewers in the show’s orbit.


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