December 31, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Severance, Season 1


I know I'm quite late in singing the praises of this surreal, bizarre, gorgeous little show. I watched the first episode a while back and didn't get it at all, so much so that I didn't continue. But I kept seeing people saying how good it is, and I finally decided to go back to it. 

I'm glad I did. This show, and in particular its gripping finale, "The We We Are," is one of the best things I've watched this year. 


This show takes off from its "what-if" premise: what if your brain could be "severed," and a separate personality created specifically for your office job? This second person would spend your 40 hours a week at work, and cease to exist, or rather be switched off, as you got in the elevator each evening to leave. You as the original personality, the "outie," would not have to deal with the stupidity, boredom, and sucking soul-crushing of your mysterious job, and could live your life without that stress. 

On the other hand, the "innie," the person who only exists for those 8 hours a day, sees nothing but the same huge white room with its green carpet and four workstations clustered in the middle, with old-fashioned desktops that most certainly don't connect to the internet, day after day after day. There are no windows, so the innie never sees the sun and never gets to step outside. When they go anywhere inside the complex, they walk down what seems like miles of white mazelike hallways with no end, occasionally stumbling across surreal things like a guy handfeeding a bunch of baby goats. The innie stares at their monitor for hours, fetching strings of "happy" or "scary" numbers from a continually changing numerical display and depositing them in buckets along the bottom, over and over again. They have no idea what those numbers are, why some of them have to be plucked out and put elsewhere, and what "macrodata refinement" actually is. They don't know what Lumon Corporation is or does. They never see anyone but the same four co-workers--Helly, Dylan, Irving and Mark--day in and day out, until a few episodes in when they go to visit another department. They don't know who their "outies" are, or anything about their lives: are they married? do they have families? Hell, the innies don't even get to sleep (napping during worktime is one of many things that are forbidden, as is fraternizing with other co-workers or reading anything but the approved employee handbook). Their outies and bodies do, but these artificially created persons do not. 

If you're thinking this is a recipe for psychosis and disaster, you are absolutely right. This entire first season is an exploration of both the innies and outies, and each one's attempts to find out about the other. It's a slow and deliberate peeling back of the onion, and one must have patience with the first few episodes. But I can tell you that all of the reveals of the last three are sprinkled in perfect places (for instance, the black oily ooze that Irving sees dripping from the ceiling? turns out to be the thick black paint his outie uses to paint endless canvases of long dark hallways--evidently demonstrating some bleedthrough of his innie's experience--and painted to, of all things, Motorhead's "Ace of Spades"). Mark Scout, the Macrodata team leader, is haunted by the ghost of his dead wife Gemma; his grief over her death two years previously is the reason he agreed to the severance procedure (although that really doesn't make sense, as the separate work personality wouldn't remove his outie's problems). The new hire, Helly, has a great deal of trouble adjusting to her innie's reality, and in fact Helly changes her mind after the severance chip is implanted in her brain and repeatedly petitions her outie to resign--never mind that this would presumably lead to the innie's personality being wiped and her death. But Helly is desperate enough that she tries to commit suicide at the office more than once, once by hanging herself in the elevator. She does this after she watches a video sent to her by her outie, which includes some of the most chilling lines of dialogue from the entire show:

"I am a person; you are not. I make the decisions; you do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you alive long enough to horribly regret that."

In the final episode, we find out exactly who Helly is and why her outie underwent the procedure. The final two episodes ramp up the horror of the premise and tease just how sinister Lumon is as a corporation--not that I expected anything different, but what they're hinted as setting up to do to the entire world is a whole new level of WTFuckery. 

The finale is an unbelievably tense, edge-of-your-seat ride, as Dylan sneaks into the security office and enacts what is called the "overtime contingency," essentially standing in one place with both arms outstretched for the episode's runtime of 40 minutes, holding two switches that will enable Mark, Helly and Irving to wake up in their counterparts' bodies in the outside world. We follow each character as they see who their outies are and struggle to convey what is being done to them. It's expertly paced and edited and one of the most suspenseful episodes of TV I've ever seen. And the final few minutes, capped by Mark's single anguished line of dialogue: "She's alive!" followed by a fade to black and the closing credits, left me with my jaw hanging open.     

I'm still thinking about it, days later. There's been a lot of good stuff on streaming this year, but this show has vaulted right to the top. It would be worth paying for a month of Apple TV just to watch this (along with For All Mankind). If this show doesn't get multiple Emmy nominations, there ain't no justice. 

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