The Weirdness that is 'Severance'

Severance is about breaking down facades and confronting old models that were once frameworks of our lives. The somewhat subtle message to me is it’s never too late to fall in love, no matter your insecurities. 

Josh Halpern
Josh Halpern
April 19, 2022

The Season 1 finale of Severance aired recently and Apple TV already picked up the series for a second season.  The final episode delivered, one hundred percent.  We’re left with our main character Mark (Adam Scott) running to tell his sister a crucial discovery he has made, before returning back to his severed self, or ‘innie.’ 

Severance is truly captivating and original.  It succeeds at combining dramatic elements with a bit of humor and satire while enthralling audiences with all the makings of a psychological thriller.  We are with this eclectic cast of characters at Luman Industries, figuring out things as they go along.  Just what’s around that next office hallway corner is anyone’s guess.  The possibilities are endless.  Much like the plot, the odd mix of characters are filled with layers of mystery and intrigue.

All of the characters in Severance function with some level of detachment.  Not only literally, as most Luman employees lead a work life mentally cut off from everyday existence, but also metaphorically as each of the characters are somewhat lost and incapable of expressing their emotions.  As if the job produces a dull, limited engagement not only with their work but with themselves.

Mark’s ‘outtie’ lives in a generic residential community. He’s typically moving about in darkness, a stylistic choice that emphasizes Mark’s loneliness.  I like this bit of world-building.  I believe it’s one of the stronger aspects of the show.  The sparse, wintery setting makes me want to curl up under a blanket and get comfy and cozy.

Innie life is the exact opposite.  Cold, white, bland phosphorescence practically bleaches the space and everyone in it, a clever metaphor for the sort of brainwashing these characters must deal with every day.  

 

Mark (Adam Scott), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), Helly (Britt Lower)

Mark (Adam Scott), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), Helly (Britt Lower)

 

Everyone at Luman is in a fractured state.  You literally have to have brain surgery in order to work for this company.  But consciously choosing what you will and will not see or believe in life is its own sort of brainwashing. Some of these characters are dealing with unexpressed pain, unable or unwilling to confront things in their lives that are challenging or even troubling.  

Luman is a perverse escape, a company preserved in time with a focus on tradition and familial pedigree.  In appearance, it’s a company trapped in the 1970s: the computers, chairs, and filing cabinets look like vintage items from another era.  Get Out had a similar artistic scheme in its mind-altering basement scene, embracing a 1960/70s set design that added to the horror embedded in that story.

Aside from the creepier elements, one might call Severance satirical, a commentary on the life-draining, soul-crushing elements of the of the old and musty 9-5 desk job, and what a person is willing to do to provide a false sense of security, to not deal with the obstacles in a modern world.  And then what it takes to break out of those constructs, to poke a hole in the bubble.  

These are people mutilated by their jobs, unable to express themselves to a degree.  Cogs in the machine.  Emotion seems beaten out of each of them until all that’s left is a serious, work-driven employee.  Many of the relationships feel awkward and undefined, vague and mysterious.  A number of these characters lead divided lives, incomplete in their search for connection and love.  

Irving, played by John Turturro, is a pencil pusher.  His outtie leads a somewhat lonely life either walking his dog or painting the same image of a dark hallway and door at Luman Industries over and over again.  His interactions with Burt, played by Christopher Walken, start out simple.  Burt shows Irving some art, explaining his role at Luman.  Soon Irving touches Burt’s hand and you understand their developing attraction for one another.  There is hardly any evidence at first because Irving can barely express his feelings.  In observing his spartan existence, one might think he’s never felt any sort of love for another man.  Hence his trepidation and nervousness in seeking out Burt and the secretive nature of their bond.  It’s a surprising element of the show because it’s John Turturro and Christopher Walken, two actors better known for domineering straight male roles.  But their gay identity is just one piece of the puzzle.

Burt (Christopher Walken) showing Irving (John Turturro) some art

Burt (Christopher Walken) showing Irving (John Turturro) some art

Their relationship is child-like in that neither seems equipped to handle such emotions.  Nor is their connection quite developed. It’s secretive because of who they are and the challenges they face at Luman.  It feels awkward, unsteady, and strange because Irving and Burt are somewhat off characters.  To acknowledge the pun, everyone at Luman is slightly off.  

But what fits best and what I find quite brave in the apparatus that is Severance is the age of these two gentlemen.  Rarely before Severance have I seen a same-sex attraction between older males.  The somewhat subtle message to me is it’s never too late to fall in love, no matter your insecurities.  Two old men expressing fondness for each other is rarely represented in the mainstream.  The choice by the writers is courageous however stuck the characters might be in their lives.

Is this a crucial element of the show?  By the season finale, we’re not entirely sure.  The attraction exists in conjunction with the show’s themes of self-discovery and identity.  Severance is about breaking down facades and confronting old models that were once frameworks of our lives.  In facing such dilemmas, you’re bound to discover something new, and scary.