What Severance Tells us About Ourselves
Written and created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller, Apple’s TV’s 9-part series Severance follows four workers during their days at Lumon, a fictional corporation that severs people’s work memories from the memories of their personal lives, presumably to increase efficiency and happiness. No one’s really sure.
While Lumon’s technology harks to a distant future, the set and costume take us to an indeterminate recent past with late 70s/early 80s computers, mid century modern corporate furnishing, and early 2000 flip phones. The story seems set in any place where corporations dominate the lives of white collar workers with the promise of a better life spent behind a desk.
Part thriller, part very dry comedy, Severance captivates because It is a story about the overworked American, meaninglessness of the modern workplace, and the dangers of losing ourselves in our work. Arriving at the heels of the Great Resignation, and numerous union fights, Severance questions our collective commitment to work.
Mark S. (played by Adam Scott) who has just been named Head of Macro Data Refinement, doesn’t mind his work at Lumon. To him, it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t know exactly what the company does.
Dylan (played by Zach Cherry) meanwhile gets through his day with small victories including office giveaways and accolades. Cynical to the core, Dylan knows there’s nothing more than tchotchkes and office parties.
Rejecting Dylan’s superficiality and cynicism, Irving (played by John Turturro) is a veteran at Lumon, fully indoctrinated into the company’s philosophy. “Rise from your death, more perfect for the struggle,” Irving says, quoting the Kier handbook, which reads like the Bible meets the Communist Manifesto. For Irving, his work and loyalty to the company are all he needs. Never mind that he’s restricted by the company from reading any other book besides the handbook.
Enter Helly, the new hire (played by Britt Lower). The only woman in the four-person department, from the first very moments of the series, Helly Wants Out! Although Mark might be the main character of the series, Helly is the inciting moment and fulcrum of the show.
Through Mark who is happy to be there, Irving who cares too much, and Dylan who gets off on “fingertraps” doled out to him by Lumon, the characters remind us we should not care too much about work. Indeed, the characters in the series don’t know who they are, because their memories have been erased. They don’t know if they have kids, if they are married, what hobbies they pursue, what car they drive, where they live, or even if they are royalty.
Severance suggests there are dangers inherent in splitting work from the rest of ourselves. Every morning Mark cries in his car in the parking lot before going to work, mourning the death of his wife, but as he ascends the elevator at Lumon, his eyelids flutter and he is born anew, without worry or grief. Doing so, however, the series suggests that Mark is never able to properly process his wife’s death, so every night he numbs himself with more whiskey.
The other characters at Lumon also seem to be running away from something. Every night, the philosophical, high-minded Irving turns up the hard rock music in an attempt to get away from something.
Ultimately, in Severance, our work self is a slave. The procedure, which severs our work selves from our personal lives, presumably allows for greater efficiency. Through severance, workers can focus completely on work without the distraction of kids or spouses calling with emergencies. No longer will we have to consider the potential ethical implications of what we have to do for work. In Severance, the worker becomes a slave to the corporation, unable to get away from it even if (s)he wanted to.
In Severance, our work self can’t help but be a liar and a fake. All of the characters at some point lie to their bosses. Helly has to say she’s sorry even though she’s clearly not. Dylan apologizes, “Sorry, I love the work!” as a ruse to stay late and snoop around. Even Ms. Cobel has to lie to her boss in a feeble attempt to stay out of trouble.
Our work selves even lie to themselves. When Irving says, “There is a lot unknown to us as well but we keep plugging along. It’s important work obviously.” Believing in the corporate dream, Irving has been deluded to believe he’s doing something important even as the other characters ask, “What is it we actually do here?” and Helly, the most clear-eyed of all, calls out the ruse for what it is: “The work is bullshit.”
It is Helly’s outside self who makes the boldest claim of all when she tells inside Helly: “I am a person. You are not.” The Helly on the outside believes slave Helly on the inside, the character we’ve gotten to know and like, is a non-entity. As a worker bee, Helly is a nobody, because as a worker, she doesn’t make any decisions for herself. Only bosses do that.
The show reminds us of the precarity of our work identities, regardless of our rank. Though she is the feared boss at Lumon, Ms. Colba (played by Patricia Arquette) still has to take orders from a glorified secretary (played by Sydney Cole Alexander), who is acting on behalf of “the Board.” [SPOILER!] When Ms. Colba is quickly dismissed, it is Milchik, her underling (played by Trammel Tillman), who has to escort her out. He too is a cog in the system, it seems. Meanwhile, when the Wellness Counselor (played by Dichen Lachman) is dismissed, Ms. Colba quips that, well, she was “just” a Wellness Counselor.
Interesting things begin to happen when personal lives encroach on work lives. Irving starts hallucinating black paint dripping from the ceiling onto his desk. It is the paint that he paints with every night at home, but he doesn’t know it yet. In a glitch at the company, Dylan is momentarily pulled out of his cubicle and placed in his house where he meets his son, a revelation which changes his attitude toward Lumon forever.
Meanwhile, one day, Mark finds an all access pass to Lumon in his pocket. The pass has been placed there by his outside self, he knows. Finally, Helly keeps trying to make contact with her outside self only to be rejected over and over again. What Helly’s outside self doesn’t know is that Helly has carried her character’s core sense of entitlement even into severed indentured servitude. Worldly master of the universe, Helly would rather die than find meaning in the inanity of Lumon’s “work.” Inside Helly is no different.
The thrill of the final two episodes comes as the characters [SPOILER] begin to find out who they are: a father, an artist, a widow, and daughter of the company president. As they uncover the details of their personal lives, they realize they have more agency than they ever imagined. Irving has a long list of people who had the severance procedure. He even has a published map of the Lumon corporate campus, something one former employee at the company died trying to create. Meanwhile, Mark [SPOILER] discovers his wife may not be dead after all.
As the characters uncover the truths about themselves, they unwittingly uncover important details about the world of Severance, information which will hopefully play a key role in Season 2, when viewers will find out how everyone, including the general public, will respond to everything that just happened in the season 1 finale.
Lingering questions, which will hopefully be answered in Season 2: What are the employees at Lumon working on? What does the severance procedure have to do with two mothers looking alike? (Is severance technology related to cloning?) What does the severance procedure have to do with Mark’s wife, who died and became the Lumon Wellness Counselor? Does “retirement” from Lumon = death? And why does Helly always wear blue?
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