Severance had a memorable first appearance at SDCC 2022, from the super-immersive activation that saw eager fans lining up every day, to their fascinating panel in Ballroom 20. While it was still too early for much in the way of news on season 2, Subjectify was there to find out everything we could about the making of Apple’s groundbreaking new drama.
2022 is the first year that Apple TV+ has brought properties to Comic-Con, and as soon as Subjectify hit the ground in San Diego, it became clear that the streamer was going to be this year’s one to beat. The cast of Apple’s newly Emmy-nominated hit Severance appeared in Ballroom 20 on Thursday, and their panel was one of the most popular of the whole weekend — like, line up overnight to get a good seat level popular. Moderated by actor, comedian, and Severance super-fan Patton Oswalt, the panel welcomed executive producer and director Ben Stiller, creator and executive producer Dan Erickson, and cast members Adam Scott (Mark Scout), Britt Lower (Helly Riggs), Tramell Tillman (Seth Milchick), Dichen Lachman (Ms. Casey), and Jen Tullock (Devon Hale) to discuss the first season, which wrapped up on Apple TV+ back in April.
Full disclosure: Until about two months ago, I had been under the impression that Severance was a straight workplace drama, and had been putting off watching until I was in the mood for something set in the real world. Oh, how wrong I was.
While the series does take place in a workplace, and there’s certainly a lot of dramatic tension, it defies just about every attempt at categorization.
It’s a thriller. It’s a comedy. It’s a drama. It’s science fiction. It’s a mystery. It’s a study in grief and consent and personhood. It is in equal measure delightfully unhinged and depressingly credible. It is (hopefully not) a chilling look at things to come.
For those unfamiliar with the show, I do hesitate to spoil it. When I hit play on the pilot early last month, I did so without knowing a single thing beyond the title and the fact that a whole slew of my favorite TV writers had been singing its praises on social media, so the revelations in episode 1 were especially gasp-inducing.
Still, in case there are any potential viewers reading this who need a little extra push before they’ll start watching a new show, here’s a quick rundown to bring you up to speed on what has quickly become one of my favorite series of the year.
Set in a world more or less identical to our own, Severance follows the employees of Lumon Industries, a company so secretive about its purpose that an entire floor of their building is restricted to “severed” personnel–people who’ve undergone a procedure which splits their memories between work and home, via the surgical implant of a chip.
Once severed, these people carry on their personal lives as “outies”, living basically as normal, but with no knowledge or recollection of anything that happens to them at work. Meanwhile, their “innie” self is only aware while they are within the halls of the company during their shift, and has no idea who they are on the outside. For all intents and purposes, innies cease to exist once they step into the elevator to go home, and only re-emerge once they’re on their way back in.
Meaning: they’re always at work. Forever.
‘Severance’ at SDCC 2022
During SDCC weekend, Apple TV+ invited Subjectify to take part in their booked-solid offsite activation “Lumon Industries Orientation.” Developed in partnership with the series’ executive producer and director, Ben Stiller, the immersive experience took place at the Hard Rock Hotel in the Gaslamp District, and gave fans some deeper insight into life as an employee on the severed floor, while also allowing us to interact with real props from the show.
Just like Helly in the series pilot, our experience kicked off in the boardroom of the severed floor, where we found our employee handbooks and access cards waiting for us in Lumon-branded tote bags. Within a few minutes, the intercom came to life with the voice of Mark asking the room at large, “Who are you?”
The correct answer of course, considering that we had been severed from our outside selves at this point, was “I don’t know.”
And this is when the immersion really got underway. A Lumon security guard entered the room to let us all know that we were the newest batch of macrodata refiners, and greeted us all by our new “innie” names, and more than one person visibly stumbled over the impulse to correct him.
(Do you think I could remember my newly assigned innie name to save my life? Absolutely not. Do you think that several minutes later, when another Lumon employee asked who I was, I felt fully immersed when I genuinely didn’t know what my new name was? You’re damn right I did.)
Once outside the boardroom, our group made its way through the brightly-lit halls of the severed floor until we were stopped by a man from the Optics and Design Division–if you’ve seen the show, you’ll know that’s the domain of Christopher Walken’s character, Burt G.
Though I caught a quick glimpse of the O&D office he was leading the group into, my wandering eyes caught the attention of a Lumon security guard, who sent me and a couple of my new coworkers to the Break Room.
While that might sound innocuous, or even pleasant, those familiar with Lumon Industries will know that it doesn’t mean taking a break. It means being broken.
In a dimly lit room at the end of a long, dark corridor, we found a sobbing severed worker being directed to recite an apology like the one Helly read during the series third episode, “In Perpetuity”. After several minutes of silent observation, we were warned that next time we found ourselves in the Break Room, we wouldn’t be mere observers.
On that foreboding note, we headed out through a side door and into the Wellness Room, where a counselor read out a list of pleasant qualities possessed by the outie of one of the people in my group, before giving each of us a Lumon pin. The emotional whiplash of listening to the eerily calm delivery of a long list of perplexing compliments after watching a man weep through the increasingly desperate repetition of an apology certainly added to the feeling of something being not quite right, which continued all the way through the rest of the experience.
From a brief stop in the security office, where we assisted another Macrodata Refiner in activating the overtime protocol, to a few minutes in the Smile Room (passing the still-mysterious Goat Room along the way), every single moment at Lumon felt like stepping into the world of the series.
In the final section of the experience–the Macro Data Refinement office–we were invited to pose for a group photo, had the opportunity to use a Lumon meal token to buy ourselves a package of pretzels (buttered) or raisins (shriveled), and then moved to the workstations to begin searching for scary numbers.
While I didn’t manage to locate any (because of who I am as a person, I find all numbers equally terrifying) I did find a copy of Dylan’s Lumon bingo in the desk drawer, just in time for the group to be treated to a musical dance experience to mark the end of our first shift in MDR.
(I did not record any video of myself dancing. You’re welcome.)
One swift trip in the elevator later, and we were released back into the streets of San Diego with all the spoils of our innie’s hard work.
The Severance SDCC activation put on by Apple TV+ was every bit as immersive as I’d expected, and ultimately made me realize that the most unsettling thing about the dystopian concept at the center of the series is that it seems wholly possible. Perhaps the technology isn’t quite there yet, but according to comments from Ben Stiller during the panel, it’s close enough that they had a real neurosurgeon on set during episode 2 to show them how this kind of implant would work in reality. No thank you.
As many fans have pointed out, it doesn’t exactly feel far-fetched to imagine that some CEO might be watching and taking notes–not that the show doesn’t make it abundantly clear that it’s a horrible and unethical idea rife with issues of autonomy, but to quote an unfortunately evergreen tweet, there’s seemingly no end to the number of times some company will proudly announce “At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create The Torment Nexus!” without even a hint of irony.
Though heavily stylized–at least within the walls of Lumon–it’s the realism of Severance that makes it so unsettling. That’s likely thanks to the fact that his own experiences working in the worst parts of the corporate world were the source of creator Dan Erickson’s inspiration.
“The whole thing was just born of my own corporate misery,” Erickson explained at the Severance SDCC panel. “I was working a string of jobs when I first moved to L.A–a string of just, various weirder and weirder office jobs–and caught myself sort of walking in one day and was like… God, I could just, like, skip ahead eight hours and just be done with this, and I would totally willingly give up that time of my life, you know? That precious time here on Earth. And that was kind of a messed up thing to catch myself wishing for. So I was like, that should be a show.”
He also cited films like The Matrix, The Truman Show and Office Space, “Where it was all about sort of breaking out of a reality that you were trapped in,” as important influences on the story.
Ben Stiller, who serves as an executive producer through his production company Red Hour Productions, and directed six of the nine episodes in season 1, also mentioned Office Space when talking about his initial reaction to the pilot script, which reminded him of some of his favorite workplace comedies such as both versions of The Office and Parks and Recreation.
“This is like a genre of comedy that’s developed over the last 20 years, and it’s so much a part of our comedic language. That’s what I saw in the script,” he told the crowd, going on to add that what he finds most interesting and inventive about the series is how Erickson flipped that genre around. “This feels to me like, reminiscent of a scene from Parks and Rec or The Office, except these people have no idea who they are, why they’re there, what they’re doing, or any of it–they just don’t know. So it’s like this abstract level of, you know, like an Ionesco play or something.”
The kind of absurdist humor he mentioned is certainly a notable part of the show–from the goat room to the “music dance experience” the severed employees are treated to as a prize–though Erickson notes that in comparison to the original script, it’s much more subdued. “The original was a little more acid-trippy,” he said. “At one point there was a pair of disembodied legs that ran by in the original pilot, and the legs didn’t make the cut. They were good, but they just weren’t good enough.”
Of course, the majority of the tension in Severance comes from the characters, their relationships, and the way they view the procedure that Lumon provides.
Speaking about his approach to playing Mark S, Adam Scott mentioned that it ended up being a kind of math problem where he was adding and subtracting life experience depending on which version of Mark he was playing. Scott explained, “Eventually we figured out it was important to Dan and Ben and me that it feel like the same guy, but just like different parts, different halves. Almost like one of them has 40 odd years of life experience, and like sorrow and joy and all the stuff that goes into that, and the other one’s like two and a half years old.”
That got a laugh from the crowd, but the horror of the life of a severed employee can take a moment to sink in–Mark’s innie is two and a half years old, has only ever existed at work, and if his outie were ever to resign his innie would simply not wake up again. At the beginning of the panel, Oswalt described the show as “the scariest novel that Philip K. Dick never wrote,” and it’s things like this that make me wholeheartedly agree.
Within the world of the show, Britt Lower’s Helly R is the first severed employee we meet who does not immediately fall in line with the behavior required by Lumon–though as an interesting note, Erickson mentioned that in the original pilot, her role and Mark’s were the other way around.
Lower spoke a little about how Helly’s rebellious streak is what initially drew her to the role–in which she was cast after a self-tape so intense that she says there are still foot marks on her bathroom door from kicking it as part of the audition. “She really becomes this catalyst, waking everyone up to what it is that they’re doing, and the ethics of being kept somewhere against one’s will,” she said, adding that she sees it as a relatable experience. “She’s trapped, she’s isolated, and her freedom and autonomy which are paramount to her have been taken away, so you see the depths to which she goes to fight for that freedom.”
In response to an audience question concerning the portrayal of PTSD on screen, Erickson talked about how some people within the show use severance as a tool to disconnect from pain and trauma. This is especially true for Mark, who we learn fairly early on has chosen to become severed after the death of his wife, and–big spoilers ahead–is likely to have a lot more trauma to deal with after learning that she is in fact alive and working on the severed floor.
“I don’t want to get into specifics of where things are going in season 2, but I think that the story lends itself to that kind of examination for sure,” Erickson said of the topic.
This wasn’t the first time during the panel that he mentioned the second season, which is currently being written, but details are scarce. One thing we can expect, though, is for the world to open up a little more, and to see more of the wider effects of the severance technology on a societal level. “I’ve always loved sci-fi that gets into sort of– the social elements of something, like movies like Contact and stuff, where it’s more about how it affects people. And so you know I was so excited to write things like the non-dinner party in episode one where we just get to just hear people debate this, and– hearing people in some cases being insufferable as they debate this, you know, iis really interesting. So that’s something that I’m excited about moving forward, going into season two.”
All too soon–because I could easily have listened to the cast and creators talk about this show for another hour–the panel ended with a one-line wellness session compliment, requested by an audience member, thought up on the fly by Dan Erickson, and delivered by Dichen Lachman.
“Your outies are really good for masking up for this,” Lachman told the crowd, slipping perfectly into character as Ms. Casey. “And for being here today with us.”
I have to second the sentiment!