Break out the maracas.
Created by Dan Erickson, Severance joins the ranks of the dystopian workplace series that have audiences pondering what it means to create work-life balance. The Emmy-nominated series stars Adam Scott as Mark Scout, an employee from Lumon Industries who agrees to sever his work memories from his nonwork memories. Over the course of the first season, he and his coworkers, played by Zach Cherry, John Turturro, and Britt Lower, discover things aren’t all that they appear with this decision they’ve made.
While the series stands out from its production design to its performances to its direction by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, it’s rare to be able to sum up an entire premise and season of television in a single scene. Yet Severance does this by way of the Music Dance Experience scene in Episode 7’s “Defiant Jazz.” As a constructed scene, it builds tension through the music that leads to an explosive climax altering the course for the rest of the season; equally, it epitomizes the themes explored in the series.
The cracks in this deeply unsettling solution to the work-life balance have been slowly revealed over the course of six episodes– the ethics, the limitations, etc. Helly Riggs has made her disgust with her job the most known, attempting to hang herself in the elevator at the end of Episode 4’s “The You You Are.” Mark’s innie is inspired by the words of his brother-in-law, Ricken Hale (Michael Chernus). The macrodata refinement department is introduced to the optics and design department thanks to the budding relationship between Irving Bailiff and Burt Goodman (Christopher Walken); Mark attempts to work with O&D to figure out what exactly they’re doing with their work. The more MDR keeps exploring beyond their office space, the more complicated and confusing they find their work at Lumon to be.
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However, the employee that really ramps up momentum is Dylan George. While his outie is at home during Episode 6’s “Hide and Seek,” Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman) contacts Dylan’s innie through the overtime contingency, a fail-safe for Lumon upper management to contact their employees during their off hours. Milchick reaches out to Dylan because Dylan took an infographic card from O&D. As Dylan is informing Milchick of the card’s location, his son comes into the closet where Dylan and Milchick are speaking. Apparently, his outie was playing hide and seek with his son (Blaze James Gorman), who embraces him when he sees him. This is a bombshell revelation that the wise-cracking man from MDR is a family man outside Lumon.
Now that Dylan’s innie knows, there’s no going back. Milchick greets Dylan the next day as Dylan enters the office and escorts him to his desk. Milchick explains the overtime contingency to him but asks him not to reveal this to his coworkers or his boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette). Dylan’s innie keeps trying to find out more about his son, just wanting to know his name. Milchick coolly denies him the answers he seeks, and something in Dylan’s innie begins to snap.
To cool things off with the macrodata refinement department, Milchick awards Helly, and by extension her coworkers, with a Music Dance Experience. In the past, this prize was given to an employee who reached 75% refinement. Helly chooses a maraca and the genre “defiant jazz,” which the episode gets its title from; Milchick switches on some colorful strobe lights and begins to fully immerse himself in the experience. Milchick’s demeanor is deeply unsettling, able to remain calm and severed from the events that have been shifting the dynamics in the office. Leave it to someone in a middle management position to try and smooth over a situation with a corporate activity and a smile on their face.
To the tune of “Shakey Jake” by Joe McPhee from the Lumon record player, Milchick begins to let loose and dances around each of the MDR employees. Only Dylan remains at his desk, attempting to refine. The more the music plays, the more agitated Dylan becomes until finally, as Milchick dances behind him at his desk, Dylan snaps and pushes him into the player for a true record scratch, demanding to know his son’s name. He even bites Milchick to the point of drawing blood. Milchick loses his composure and tells Dylan that he’s reporting him to Cobel; in turn, Dylan threatens to go with him and expose Milchick for using the overtime contingency without her permission. Milchick backs off, tells the employees that the MDE is officially canceled, and then leaves the room.
The genius of this dance scene is that it shifts the trajectory of the series. The Music Dance Experience takes place in the middle of Episode 7; by the end, Dylan and his co-workers band together to come up with a plan to connect their innies with their outies’ lives. They carry this out in the season finale, “The We We Are.” This leads to Mark’s revelation about his wife, Gemma (Dichen Lachman), being alive, as well as the truth about Helly’s identity. On another level, the dance scene acts as a microcosm of what the series has been about the whole time, working on multiple layers. Take the music for instance. Jazz as a genre of music is an act of rebellion. Musically, jazz is chaotic, as polyrhythms from different instruments merge and combine to make some sense of harmony. Because of this, it leaves room for improvisation, a major characteristic of the genre. Jazz music is hard to define because it’s incorporated various genres and has the freedom to live outside the parameters of structure. That and considering jazz’s own history of revolution for the Black communities who created the genre, it’s inherently defiant.
The strobe light effect in the office space also speaks to the nature of the series. For one, MDR had no idea that the lights had the ability to change like that, each of them genuinely surprised to see the red and blue lights come down from the ceiling. Then, the strobing effect is disorienting, changing the way a person sees movement around them. With each episode of Season 1, Mark, his team, and the audience are given more information about Lumon that continues to throw everyone off kilter. With the combination of music and lighting, the scene itself creates tension that only builds the longer “Shakey Jake” plays. Dylan’s innie can’t unsee his son, and no attempts from Milchick and Lumon can cool down his anger. The frustration from the lack of transparency from the higher-ups can’t be ignored. In Dylan’s case, now that he knows he has a family outside the office, his innie can’t separate that knowledge from his work.
Though the goal of severance is to create the perfect separation between work and life outside of it, the dance scene proves that it can’t be done. Regular life will find its way into the office. Dylan’s rebellion begins when he refrains from making his usual jokes, continues as he opts out of dancing alongside his coworkers, and concludes when he bites Milchick. The violent manner of the way Dylan attacks Milchick sparks a new revolution. Punctuated by the music and atmosphere of the Music Dance Experience, this scene in Severance is equally entertaining and indicative of its themes, making it one of the best scenes of TV this year.
Meredith Loftus is a Los Angeles-based freelance features writer for Collider. When she is not writing for Collider or watching movies/TV, she can be found running the live stream for Paramount and recording podcast episodes for Fangirl Forum. She enjoys baking, hiking, and explaining to others why the Mamma Mia movies deserves its own cinematic universe.
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