Depart to sever

Express News Service

Severance, the Apple TV series from Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, uses great formal distinctions to expand upon its intervening themes of science fiction and work-life balance. Every nook and corner of a scene is defined by minutest detail and the closeups—there are a lot of them—composed with care. When severed employee of Lumon Industries Mark Scout (Adam Scott) goes up an elevator we see his face in the centre gradually losing his outside version, a capillary vessel in his head switching him over to his work self. The claustrophobic elevator closeup further disorients with a zolly effect as the camera dollies on with the zoom in to create the effect of transformation. It is still Adam Scott playing Mark Scout but not the Mark Scout who walked into the elevator. A man scout, nonetheless. 

Memories of his outside life are wiped out and he can now work without any interference of his “outie” avatar, both physical and mental. He walks to a neatly arranged set of four cubicles where the employees of the Macrodata Refinement division sit. They are all severed employees—John Turturro’s aging Irving, Zach Cherry’s nerdy Dylan and newly severed employee Helly R (Britt Lower)—of Lumon Industries. Tramell Tillman’s Mr. Milchick babysits them from time to time, he can be the stern disciplinarian or the party hat wearing entertainer, and he’s the boss Ms Harmony Cobel’s (Patricia Arquette, chewing the best of interior scenery) eyes and ears.

The show is beautiful to look at, its production design impeccable if not downright disturbing with its themes. The “innies” and “outies” are mutually exclusive beings sharing a physical body. They enter staggered around 9 AM, travel the elevator to become the “innie”, work their day crunching numbers, quite literally, and walk out around 5 PM as their outie selves. Cinematographers Jessica Lee Gagné and Matt Mitchell differentiate the outdoors and indoors with distinct compositions. In the corporate setting of Lumon Industries, mechanical and fabricated, the show opts for wide angles and close ups. There is a liberal use of anamorphic lenses in these portions with the distortion wreaking havoc on both the characters and the viewer’s minds. Macrodata Refinement’s office is at the endpoint of a long, winding maze of corridors and walkways which are impossible to navigate.

The corridors are all white and the use of colour in the office setting is deceptive. It looks and feels colourful with the green carpet and well stocked kitchen, but minus a splash of variety. The use of colour is limited and stands out only in contrast to the outside world which uses longer lenses with more medium shots and minimal lighting, be it Mark’s house or the restaurants or underground amateur metal concerts. Severance uses an innovative technique of following the employees as they walk the corridor, a corridor dissolves into another or the employee makes a turn, and the previous corridor disappears behind to make it look like the person we are observing just entered another dimension. For all practical purposes, Lumon Industries offices are a different reality dimension for the employees, and all of this is accomplished by the series through sheer imagery.

In the office parts, it resembles The Matrix what with the employees having mechanical jobs with the only difference being that they are happy and satisfied with it unlike one Mr Neo. It’s because they have chosen to go through severance to separate their personal life and work life. A spanner is thrown when Helly is unable to accept the reality and is behaving like a scab in incubation. 

The whole point of Severance is to create scabs, foster a world where endless profits is the goal with no transparency at any stage of the process from production to distribution. Lumon Industries invented an automated union busting tool. Labour force is kept in check without their own knowledge. 

It can be scary how eerily close Severance comes to reproducing an everyday corporate job. Mark, Dylan and Irving wonder what is it that they do with the numbers. Where do the numbers come from, where do they go? They have their own theories. Dylan thinks they are readying the ocean for terraforming because the earth is in its deathbed.

“A society with festering workers cannot flourish”, says a character. The Eagan family and its progenitor—founder of Lumon—is like a cult that’s adored by every employee. His quotes and adages adorn walls with a museum dedicated to the family in the office premises. But Severance scores when it makes no effort to distinguish the outie’s life with the innie’s. If Mark is squirming through narrow hallways in his office, he is negotiating cul-de-sacs as an outie. 

His home is an abode for darkness, dim and lifeless. Even his dates are shot in restaurants with seemingly bad lighting, surely intentional. Innie Mark Scout and outie Mark Scout may only appear different, the show wants to tell you that they are one and the same, and we are already in the age of Lumon Industries. Work is home. Home is work.

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Series: Severance

Streaming on: Apple TV