Do you wish you had more free time? Do you wish you had more time to do the things you want to do, see the things that you want to see? Maybe, with all this free time, you could be with your family; with your friends; without a single obligation in the world. Life would be a day off that never quite ends, never quite begins, where you would want of nothing and nothing would want of you.
Do you like your job? Do you like your coworkers? Do you like the work that you do day after day? What would life be like if you could never leave your job, never leave your work? Every day, every waking hour would be spent at your job. You can check in, but can never leave.
That is the setup for Severance, from Dan Erickson, with Aoife McArdle and Ben Stiller directing. By day there’s Lumen employee Mark, played by Adam Scott, at work refining data on the severed floor. While at work, Mark and his coworkers cannot access the memories of their personal lives. Whoever they are beyond the confines of their cubicles and brightly lit office halls are mysteries for them to guess at. There is only the work and the celebration and idolization of the company they work for.
By night Mark lives in a small home, in a neighborhood of near identical homes. He does chores, he takes out the garbage, he squabbles with the neighbor. He has friends, he has family. He passes time. He doesn’t know what he does at work, and he doesn’t know who he works with, and they don’t know him. For the moment that’s okay.
At first it’s a slow paced show, taking its time to develop the characterization and worlds of both home Mark and work Mark, granting neither of the two importance over the other. The story wants to show you who home Mark is and why he chose employment on a severed floor, and it wants to show you who work Mark is, and how he and is coworkers deal with their existential reality. In doing so, the story sidesteps a problem that occurs with characters that have alternate versions of themselves, in that the existence of the alternate version matters just as much as the main version.
There are mysteries and oddities at Lumen, there are unknowns in home Mark’s life, but neither of them matter to the story as much as developing who Mark is, who his coworkers are, who his friends are. The mystery becomes something the show dances around, to the point where the answers aren’t as interesting as the intersections between his two lives.
All of this is built on the foundation of a fantastic production, with a keen eye for cinematography. Still geometrical shots and smooth tracking movements furnish the beginning of the story, emphasizing order and control. As control gives way to chaos the static shots turn into shaky handhelds running down the stark white corridors, into the unknown.
By the time the final episode begins, what once was a show that simmered now boils. There were quite a few episode endings this season that felt like a punch to the gut, a heavy reminder that it would still be a whole week before the next episode came out and whatever fresh cliffhanger would have to wait to be resolved, but as that finale moves on, the tension only grows and grows until there’s little time left, no time at all to possibly provide all the answers, all the resolutions, and when the tension builds up to its highest point, it’s done.