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Severance Is the Best Show Nobody's Talking About

This week's episode, 'Defiant Jazz,' proves the show's power

Allison Picurro
Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, John Turturro, and Britt Lower, Severance

Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, John Turturro, and Britt Lower, Severance

Apple TV+

[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Friday's episode of Severance, "Defiant Jazz." Read at your own risk!]

Severance, Apple TV+'s workplace drama-sci-fi-thriller about a fictional company called Lumon that uses a surgical procedure to divide employees' consciousness between their work lives and their personal lives, is a show that rewards patience. The first season has taken its time laying the groundwork of the central mystery, building up the show's confoundingly eerie world and stretching out the growing, paranoid tension. Many episodes have ended on cliffhangers, and it becomes clear while watching the seventh episode, "Defiant Jazz," that this is what it's all been leading up to: a series of dizzying climaxes that set up several turning points in the story, and a satisfying convergence of the ideas Severance has been working toward.

All season, Severance has divided its time between two worlds, showing its central characters — Lumon employees who have been "severed" between work and personal selves, dubbed "innies" and "outies," respectively — wrestling with the conflict between their outies, who have the privilege of existing outside work, of having families and hobbies, and knowing how it feels to fall asleep at night, and their innies, who were created to exist and work exclusively at Lumon.

Early on, Helly's (Britt Lower) outie matter-of-factly informed her innie, via recorded message, that she wasn't a person after she attempted suicide to escape the monotonous fate she's been confined to; Dylan's (Zach Cherry) innie was disorientingly awakened in his outie's house after hours, only to be confronted with the information that he has a son he has no memory of. But "Defiant Jazz," masterfully directed by Ben Stiller (who directed six out of Season 1's nine episodes; Aoife McArdle directed the other three), is Severance presenting its themes in the plainest terms, via Karen Aldridge's Lumon defector, whom Mark (Adam Scott) meets up with in his hesitant search for answers. "He only exists because of you, and for all intents and purposes, he is you," she tells Mark's outie in response to his weak argument that his innie "gets to" live a life of his own. "Do you really think he's different down there?"

Tramell Tillman and Britt Lower, Severance

Tramell Tillman and Britt Lower, Severance

Apple TV+

The big set piece of "Defiant Jazz" is the disturbing, Ex Machina-esque "music-dance experience" that Lumon's Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) presents to the macrodata-refinement department as yet another infantile reward for Helly (kind of) meeting a work goal. (John Turturro's Irving points out that she's actually only reached 73% of the required 75% that typically warrants a celebration.) Milchick enthusiastically dances with Mark, Helly, and Irving to a nondescript jazz record, but the moment belongs to Dylan, who stares dead-eyed into his computer screen, haunted by the memory of his son's voice. When he finally snaps, he tackles Milchick to the ground, biting his arm until his coworkers pull him off. Later, the typically mild-mannered Irving hits his breaking point too, at Burt's (Christopher Walken) retirement party, which Irving correctly sees as an innie death sentence, and a definitive end to their fledgling, Austenian romance. Burt's outie will go the rest of his life with no idea Irving ever existed, while Irving's innie will spend the rest of his time at Lumon remembering what could have been. "You walk out of here with your memories, you carry them home with you every night," Irving tells Milchick. "No one can rip them away from you, snuff them out, like they never existed. Like you never existed."

In the episode's last scene, we see Mark tear up and subsequently re-tape a picture of Gemma, his supposedly dead wife. Here, Severance makes the lines between innie and outie even blurrier when the woman in the photo is revealed to be Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), Lumon's unsettlingly tranquil wellness director. We don't know what was done to her, or why Mark and everyone in his life believes her to be dead. We do know that the intense grief Mark felt over her death is the reason he decided to sever himself at all: so he could go to work without incident, so he could forget that she's gone for a few hours each day. He sees his dead wife very much alive every time he steps out of that elevator and into work for another shift, but through the eyes of his innie, she's nothing more than an odd stranger with a tree in her office.

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These moments add up to a sobering, riveting hour of TV, perfect demonstrations of what Severance has quietly been doing so well: giving satisfying morsels of context while holding back just enough to avoid over-explaining, making the wait for the next episode feel that much more excruciating. I've seen some comparisons of Severance to Yellowjackets, another recent series with a big mystery at its center, and while I think both are great examples of shows that thrillingly refuse to give all the answers, Severance is more cerebral, surer of itself, more artful about what it's saying and how it's saying it.

Severance premiered in mid February, arguably the dreariest, most meandering month of the year, which is fitting for a show that so deeply understands the torture of the mundane, and it feels almost criminal that it's been flying under the radar for so many weeks. Few shows are better examples of the magic that can happen when there's an ideal marriage of direction, writing, casting, and production design, and "Defiant Jazz" will make for a worthy Emmy submission when the time rolls around, as will basically any other episode. If you haven't dusted off your Apple TV+ subscription since Ted Lasso Season 2 ended, let Severance — the current frontrunner for best new show of 2022 — be the reason you do.

New episodes of Severance are released Fridays on Apple TV+.