‘Severance’ Is the Year’s Best Series So Far Because It’s Not a Puzzle. It’s a Portrait.
Phenomenology and Existentialism
Near the start of “Severance’s” penultimate Season 1 episode, the Macrodata Refinement division reaches an important milestone. After sweating their quota all quarter, the newest (and most reluctant) team member, Helly R. (Britt Lower), reaches 100 percent on her refinement file. Finally. They’ve done it. With one last click and drag of her cursor, the four-person team has met their high-pressure, oft-belabored, months-in-the-making goal.
And in return, they get to watch a video.
“I knew you could do it, Helly R.,” says the animated man on Helly’s screen, standing on top of a mountain. “Even in your darkest moments, I could see you arriving here. In refining your macrodata file, you have brought glory to this company and to me, Kier Eagan. I… I love you. But now I must away, for there are others who need me around the world. Goodbye, Helly R. And thank you.”
The video is weird. Very weird. No weirder than what comes at episode’s end — the long-teased and absolutely-worth-it Waffle Party — but it’s still striking on a number of levels. Why does the video look like an ’80s arcade game? Why does Helly’s hovering “100%” completion text morph into a flock of birds? If this is the same recording everyone sees, why would the Lumon founder assume each employee overcame “dark moments” just to make a quarterly quota? Why did he pause before saying, “I love you”? Why did he say “I love you” at all?
Plenty of moments throughout the inventive first season of “Severance” raise similarly bizarre questions, and the internet has done its best to explain them — unearthing a number of fun details tucked into the production design, from the cubicle construction, to the computers’ functionality, to the “historical” paintings, and more. Speculation abounds over what Lumon actually does, since all we really know about MDR is its day-to-day functions — dragging “scary” numbers into numbered bins, basically — and what little we’ve learned about other divisions involve plants, inter-divisional warfare, and baby goats. Such fevered probing over creative choices is both befitting a TV mystery told in 2022 and proof of its hard-won excellence. After all, if the show wasn’t smart about its storytelling, no one would care enough to study it.
But unlike so many other TV shows devoured by Reddit sleuths, “Severance” doesn’t need any additional explanation to appreciate its point. Dan Erickson’s Apple TV+ original isn’t driven solely by its mysteries. Though it may fit the description, it’s not a puzzle box show. It’s a character drama. “Severance’s” peculiarities — from Kier’s animated video to what Lumon Industries actually manufactures — are icing on the cake. The series’ unbelievable tension, mounting from the second that video ends and running through a pulse-pounding Season 1 finale, stems from the people who go to work every day feeling like they never left. You’re not waiting to get answers you need. You’re dying for each MDR employee to get the answers they need.
To see where “Severance” invests its drama, just look at that scene again. Helly making her quota isn’t written to reveal secrets about the lauded, mysterious, founding father of Lumon. The animated video isn’t a key to deciphering how or why Kier built his empire. But it is densely layered with purpose. Its most basic motivation is to set the plot in motion. The MDR division had to hit their quota to earn a Waffle Party and set their escape plan in motion. (See: Episode 9, the finale.) Yes, it helps build Lumon’s cryptic aura, but it’s crucial the audience feels the company’s constant, peculiar, far-too-intimate presence (“I love you”?!) in order to appreciate how the characters must feel living under it. (Also, not for nothing, the video is funny. And it even gives die-hard fans an enticing, completely trivial Easter Egg: The voice of Kier? That’s Ben Stiller.)
The scene also imparts telling, identifiable character traits. Right before Helly reaches 100 percent, she tips off Mark (Adam Scott), who bolts out of his chair to see the final scary number drop into its sorting bin. When the triumphant music starts, Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irving (John Turturro) come running in from the kitchen to watch the video. As it plays, Stiller’s camera captures their reactions: Mark is flat-out elated; so radiant you can see the screen reflected in his wide-eyed delight — that old Lumon loyalty that’s kept him complacent all these years painted across his face. Irving nods along with Kier’s acknowledgement, soaking in the gratitude of a CEO he practically worships. Even Helly, the department’s greatest skeptic, offers a radiant smile.
Wilson Webb / Apple TV+
Only after the video ends — when Helly stands up and shakes off her nerves and Irving confirms with Mark, “So, it’s on now?” — does their childlike glee shift back to reality, back to the mission at hand, back from the brink of accepting a corporate pat on the back as their just reward for an all-consuming, never-ending cycle of work.
It’s easy to see how, in the past, this would’ve been enough for the group. Paired with the melon bars, Chinese finger traps, and 3-D glass photographs, yes, a special message from their flying, digitized leader would have sparked enough sensed satisfaction to keep them from asking for anything more. I mean, how could they? One of them is still getting a waffle party! The video scene provides a brief but affecting window into what life has been like for the Macrodata Refinement division before Helly stirred a rebellion; before she reminded them of their true value; before they recognized all these incentives were literally worthless outside the meaning Lumon gives them. They’re not promotions. They’re not time off. They’re not raises.
Season 1 paints this picture in full, tragic detail (like Burt’s least favorite painting, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design”). Its message is equally clear, not some obtuse reference to existentialist ideas or a mystery so dense it takes the full nine hours just to dump all the exposition necessary to understand it. “Severance” is about our time. About what gets it and why. About who controls it and why we’re willing to give over that control.
As the powers-that-be revoke Americans’ rights to safety, to healthcare, to autonomy, examining why some people are uncaring or even willing to let go feels all the more critical. The series is set within the confines of a dangerous corporation, but it’s a study of personal responsibility as much as a castigation of how big business can create, manipulate, and feed on fear. Whatever Lumon does, whatever those numbers are for, whatever the creation date on that video, none of it matters as much as whether these workers regain their full selves.
There is not a secret code or hidden combination that will unlock an answer to all that. “Severance” is the code, just not to one answer — to an awakening.
“Severance” is available on Apple TV+. The series has been renewed for Season 2.