In the first episode of Severance, Mark introduces Helly to her new workplace, where her work self starts an entirely new life.
This recap of Apple TV+ series Severance season 1, episode 1, “Good News About Hell,” contains spoilers.
The idea of hell in the form of lifeless corporate cubicles feels distinctly antiquated in today’s age of “the gig economy” and, more recently, the pandemic and mass resignations, something lost in the gap between Gen X and Millennial generations. The despair still presents in the cultural memory, represented in films like Office Space and Fight Club, can feel superfluous for those to whom a steady nine-to-five with benefits feels like a fantasy.
This outdatedness threatens to render Severance’s premise, in which workers can undergo an operation to mentally sever their work life from their home life, a bit of a stretch. But it’s through confident plotting, several stylistic touches from director Ben Stiller, and an enlargening mystery that the show isn’t swallowed up by the cleverness of its central concept.
Severance season 1, episode 1 recap
The most surprising thing about Severance’s admittedly very strong first episode is that it doesn’t beat around the bush as to Mark’s reasons for undergoing the title procedure. When we first meet him (in person, that is), Adam Scott’s character is crying in his car. His life outside is devoid of substance He lives alone in an insipid house, and the only important person in his life is his sister, who shows up to take him to her “non-dinner dinner party” (no wonder he’s so depressed!).
At the foodless occasion, the other guests dive into Mark’s past as the next subject of conversation, much to his evident disinterest. Until a few years ago he was a college professor, then his wife died and he moved, took a job at the big tech/pharmaceutical/whatever company Lumen, and underwent Severance. It’s suddenly very clear why he chose that last one; separating his lives, creating a personality that has no memory of anything but work means that for eight hours a day he doesn’t have to think about his dead wife.
This all goes to explain why the Mark we see inside Lumen (his benevolent employer) is chipper and amiable. Each day he sits in a pinwheel cubicle configuration, sifting through data with the only other friends he knows. Whereas outside he is a grieving widower, unable to move on or find joy in anything, inside he finds joy in work, the sort of dystopian idea the show is (successfully) reaching for.
Mark’s ease at his severed condition (at least at work) makes for a contrast with the Severed department’s new recruit. Helly (Britt Lower) is brought in to replace a man named Petey (more on him later), whose abrupt removal jars the other employees — but not so much as to make them question their mission.
It’s through Helly’s eyes that we’re introduced to this world. Lying disoriented on a conference table, a disembodied voice makes her do a brief survey (after she’s pounded on the walls and the door, trying to get out). She’s horrified by her ability to answer basic personal questions, and when Mark walks in she asks him first if she’s grown to make food (“why would we do your nails?”) and then if she’s in hell.
While the latter is heavily implied, it’s still a workplace with tasks to be done. But a mentally newborn Helly has no interest in that, and she asks to leave (like Beetlejuice, she has to say it three times). Mark leads her to an exit, but she somehow can’t manage it. Finally, she’s shown a video of herself apparently agreeing to undergo Severance, and resigns to her new task of “macro data refinement” — whatever the hell they do.
The horrible implication of this procedure is that while part of you no longer has to deal with the difficulty of the horror of work, you leave a version of yourself who’s trapped there. Your work self only knows work. They cannot go outside or do anything but whatever the company. And while for a moment it seems like there’s no way out, it turns out that Petey no longer shows up as he’s managed to escape. He tracks down Mark at a diner, telling him of something nefarious going on. But the Mark he meets has no memory of him and has little reason to be concerned with his work self at all. To him, work Mark is an entirely different person.
- Stiller’s direction is pretty damn great for someone whose last work was Zoolander 2. Some neat overhead shots make the characters and their environment look like a sort of game, and a creeping piano score makes everything feel slightly off.
- The other workers are played by John Turturro and Zach Cherry, who don’t get a ton to do this episode, although they do get some good lines.
- Mark’s steel-haired and steel-tempered boss is played by Patricia Arquette, who’s keeping an eye on him by posing as his neighbor.
- In a neat bit of world-building, the “dinner party,” the other guests go silent when Mark mentions Severance, showing that it goes a lot wider than Lumen, and with some controversy in its wake.
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