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Severance drills down into darker matters [Apple TV+ recap]


Severance throws a couple of funerals this week, but only one might be final. Apple TV + ‘s satirical psychological thriller about the hazards of compartmentalizing runs into a grim cul-de-sac in the episode, with some people giving up and others giving in.

The show’s purposefully lifeless world of corporate culture and suburban malaise find darker territory than ever this week as it becomes clear that each character, in their own way, will stop at nothing to do the job they deem most important.

Severance recap: ‘The You You Are’

In this week’s episode, titled “The You You Are,” Helly (played by Britt Lower) is being punished for trying to escape and breaking a window with a fire extinguisher. Punishment for insubordination at Lumon Industries is a grueling thing. She must read a prepared script as many times as her supervisor, Milchick (Tramell Tillman), asks her to – until he’s convinced that she means it.

Helly works at it most of the night. Then, when she comes back in the morning (rendered as a second-long cutaway, because this version of Helly only exists in the office) she must start over. The process is designed to break her spirit. She’s exhausted when she returns, but her conviction hasn’t changed.

Irving (John Turturro), Burt’s (Christopher Walken) acquaintance in Lumon’s design wing, swings by to invite him for a tour of his department, upon which he’s anxious to take him. He’s having a lovely time until Burt puts his hand on Irving’s for longer than a few seconds. Irving freaks out and flees.

But something catches his eye on the way back to his department – a book by Ricken (Michael Chernus), Mark’s brother-in-law. Mark takes it and says he’s going to turn it in. But then he takes to reading it in secret, and pays special attention to the passages about how a job can be a trap.

About that mysterious map

Helly finds the map that Mark (Adam Scott) found taped to the back of his office picture, left for him by Petey (Yul Vasquez) before he vanished from the office. Helly is astonished that Mark isn’t going to do anything about the map. (He goes so far as to shred it to prove he isn’t tempted to stop working at Lumon.)

So she does the next thing that comes to mind: She breaks into Harmony Cobel’s (Patricia Arquette) office, threatens to cut her own fingers off with a paper trimmer and demands to leave a message for her outie. She returns a few seconds later with a reply; her outie will not be letting her go home. This version of Helly is stuck here forever.

Mark goes to Pete’s funeral and endures an awkward encounter with his friend’s ex-wife and daughter. They know he’s from Lumon because he can’t remember them at all. They’re disgusted with Lumon, and Mark’s closest thing they’ve got to be a representative from the organization. Mark suffers a breakdown when he sees a video of Pete and his daughter playing guitar, so happy and full of life. His “best friend” living a life without him in it. What else is he missing?

Meanwhile, Mrs. Selvig – who claims she’s there because Pete used to frequent her shop, but really she’s there with orders from her corporate alter ego, Mrs. Cobel – shows up with a drill to remove the chip from Pete’s brain so they can run a diagnostic on it.

D is for Dreams, where it all begins

This episode of Severance is a lot more plot-heavy than the previous installments, and that suits the show as well as the more aimless, melancholy character of the first three. The bit with the funeral (which still has a pretty grisly button in the shots of Arquette drilling into the head of a corpse) are probably the closest in spirit to what’s coming before. There’s a really lovely sequence of Mark after the funeral just touching a tree, aware that he’s lost something, twice now, without really knowing what it is.

This show is built in such a way that there’s room for poetic longueurs every few minutes. The characters are being held captive by a capitalist death drive, but there’s the less-immediately articulated theme of the lost self and living without purpose.

About Helly’s outie

If you were someone who knew what you wanted from life, you probably wouldn’t have agreed to subject your body to hours of grueling labor without reprieve or sleep or really humanity as we understand it. I still don’t quite love the way they’re treating Helly’s outie version of herself, but I guess it’s meant to be a reflection of the way work and the boss mentality co-opts our everyday integrity as people.

Even still, there is something too pointedly cruel about her telling herself that she doesn’t get to make decisions and that she’ll punish her work self if she misbehaves. That seems shortsighted. And it’s a bummer that the writers, clever as they are about so many other things, can’t come up with something more than a dead end in the form of Helly’s outside personality. Even if there’s an endgame for it, I would think this person would use a little more cunning.

She simply refuses to acknowledge her struggle. That’s a little convenient, and it doesn’t show enough grappling with the compromises we make to get through the day. I kind of don’t believe that there would be someone so completely uninterested in what their own body is going through all day, even a hypothetical workaholic Type A like Helly.

Still, the highs outweigh the lows here. As usual, Severance remains a bewitching experience.

Watch Severance on Apple TV +

New episodes of Severance arrive Fridays on Apple TV +.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV +


Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.






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