How Severance Perfectly Parallels the Absurd Speakership Debacle

Filmmaker Deborah Goodwin unpacks the uncanny echoes of TV’s best show she found in Kevin McCarthy’s bumbling bid for power.

[Warning: SPOILERS ahead!]

Severance, the excellent Apple TV+ show created by Dan Erickson, reveals character and the nature of evil like nothing on TV now.

John Turturro acts with his nose and his flawless instincts and gives an amazing, deeply moving performance. Adam Scott embodies our modern Chaplin, his eyes doing all the acting while his Snow White face remains impassive and his body seems to resist existence. Patricia Arquette does something so unmanageable with this role through laser purity of intent, she deserves to win every acting award she’s eligible for.

Season one of Severance dares the viewer to engage and then delivers so hard. In terms of recent TV, its only rival has been C-SPAN last week, as the scavenger hunt for the Kevin McCarthy speakership dragged on. The story in Severance revolves around the show’s workplace, where “mysterious and important work” is carried out in a monochromatic labyrinth that is masterfully lit.

Adam Scott, John Turturro and Zach Cherry in Severance.

This mysterious and important work will prove to be a nightmare sham, and possibly lead to the destruction of all humanity (oops, spoiler – my apologies!) much like the “mysterious and important work” of our government, which was held hostage by the Grand Old Party last week, while one supremely selfish and ridiculous cardboard cutout of a man chased down his dream of the speakership and other supposed colleagues and lawmakers squabbled, groveled, backbit and squealed at one another under the all-seeing eye of the C-SPAN cameras. For days.

In Severance, things are not as they seem, and yet they are exactly so.

We are introduced to ominous works of art that render the early struggles for control within the severance movement. Depicting violence and cannibalism amongst staff departments. (GOP check.) The “founders” of Severance’s Lumon Industries have an ironclad philosophy that masquerades as lofty but reveals its terrifying, depthless cruelty, which has zero accountability for any failure. (GOP check.) In Severance, family, friends and loved ones are left to re-examine their relationships with those they hold dear, as painful questions of autonomy, dignity and veracity are held up to light. In our American government right now, though, there is no such mechanism of even fictional transparency. The events of January 6, 2020 may have shattered our faith in the rule of law and torn the fabric of our democracy, but this shambling speakership race did something even worse: it exposed the fundamental ineffectiveness of our two-party system not as a flawed equation of right and left, but as a crippled centrifugal force that is sucking our nation into a vortex.

While McCarthy placed his own ambitions ahead of the oath, the actual business of the nation was halted. An inactive congress and senate languished alongside unpaid staff for more than a week while this pitiful man’s desire to hold the speakership was pursued at the expense of all else.

John Turturro, Britt Lower, Christopher Walken and Adam Scott in Severance.

In Severance, there is a “governing body” that is literally bodiless and voiceless, except for a strange ominous muttering that must be translated as directives, through a “receptionist.” Presumably, this is the sought-after role of the GOP speakership.

Does anyone honestly believe McCarthy has any skill at consensus-building after this hollow victory? Like a man declared the winner of a fixed prize fight, he is with his title to the idiotic machinations of the people who backed him (cue Marjorie Taylor Greene’s illegal use of Dr Dre).

In Severance, those who have chosen to be relieved of their pain are, in the process, made oblivious to the harm they are causing around them by remaining pain free. They know not what they do. By the same token, the un-severed know not what they are missing … As in, the blissful ignorance of how much shit they are stirring while seemingly oblivious to their plight. It is a strange and synchronized algorithm of mutual destruction that is both dull and appalling in equal measure. That is what it feels like to watch our nation reel and tilt and bob about under the subjugation of the pettiest of human traits and the rules and regulations from a tainted past (yes, Slavery is our tainted past). The fictional Lumon Industries handbook is frequently referenced in the show; when any character shows some insight or free will, the rules are used to box everyone back in. If they are challenged, there is a punitive “break room” to reckon with.

Adam Scott in Severance.

Now, here’s an idea worth exploring in the House’s “new rules.” Let’s just imagine for one delicious moment that instead of a fine (that goes unpaid) or a demotion or being sidelined from some committee, there was instead an “inter-party break room” where members from either side of the aisle were sent to contemplate their behavior and must remain to confess aloud a list of the mischief and mayhem they have caused while carrying out their duties until – and only until – their voice registers a sufficiently authentic level of contrition and, dare we say, repentance.

In Severance, objects and people appear paralyzed as they are consumed by a thick, dark, viscous substance that roils and undulates, terrifyingly slowly and inexorably. Our seat of democracy was similarly paralyzed by the farcical speakership display. In round after round. Until the deed was done.

Image of Kevin McCarthy via Gage Skidmore / Flickr.

Deborah Goodwin is a writer-director-producer whose work in film and television began as a development executive for Sanford-Pillsbury Productions (Desperately Seeking Susan, River’s Edge, How to Make an American Quilt). Deborah’s Urbanworld Film Festival Best Screenplay win for her darkly provocative family drama Cherrys launched her filmmaking path. She has written for Emmy-winning and Independent Spirit Award-nominated producers, and for shows like the cult favorite horror series Tales from the Cryptkeeper. She is a Film Independent and IFP lab fellow and an ABC and NBC diversity showcase director, best known for her horror fable Vampires in Venice and her action/drama The Pastor, released by Fathom Events and AMC. Her Icelandic noir Snaeland, which she co-wrote and produced, premiered at the Vail Film Festival and screens in the Brooklyn Film Festival 2020. Deborah is a Sundance Collab advisor and screenwriting professor at Brooklyn College, and a newly minted co-creator and writer of the noir-crime-thriller series Hot Freeze, with Canadian producer Nomadic Pictures (Hell on Wheels, Van Helsing, Fargo).