In the waning decades of the 20th century, the American labor force experienced myriad, well-documented changes that systematically disempowered workers across all economic sectors. Long-standing unions were either busted or saw their membership radically decline; wages stagnated even as the GDP grew at a steady clip; and politicians waged successful campaigns to cut taxes on capital gains. Income and wealth inequality skyrocketed, and higher profits emboldened employers to exploit workers even further. If workers had became alienated from the products of their labor during the Industrial Revolution, by the dawn of the 21st century they had became psychologically alienated from the labor itself, as its only ostensible purpose is self-perpetuation.
“Living to work” instead of “working to live” became the modus operandi for many, especially after upward mobility had long since ceased to be an achievable goal. Now not only is an American what they do, but their place of work is a “home,” even as it provides them with fewer protections and asks more of their time. “When you’re here, you’re family,” preached the famously cheesy Olive Garden slogan, but it chillingly doubles as the motto for the American workplace.
The premiere of the Apple TV+ series Severance benefits from good cultural timing, as many people have started to reevaluate their attitudes toward work and the workplace in the wake of Covid-19. There’s now a premium, however small it may be, placed on decoupling job satisfaction from one’s overall well-being. Fittingly, the premise of Severance asks: What if you could medically guarantee that you will never take your work home with you? In the series, one of the world’s largest corporations uses a surgical procedure to separate their employees’ work and nonwork memories, essentially splitting them into a work self (an “innie”), who “wakes up” every time they enter the office, and a personal self (an “outie”).
The series’ protagonist, Mark Scout (Adam Scott), works for Lumon Industries in the Macrodata Refinement division, having undergone the severance procedure after his wife died in a car crash. Severance opens with Mark trying to ease a newly severed coworker, Helly (Britt Lower), into the workplace after she wakes up on a conference table with no idea who or where she is. She’s set to replace Petey (Yul Vazquez), Mark’s best friend at the company, who was fired under mysterious circumstances; we quickly learn that Petey’s work and personal memories have been “reintegrated” via a controversial backroom procedure. A disheveled Petey eventually gets in touch with outie-Mark to inform him that Lumon, naturally and obviously, is not what it seems.
Created by Dan Erickson, and with Ben Stiller as executive producer, Severance uses its high-concept, Twilight Zone–like premise to explore dystopian corporate overreach. The series necessarily demands an immersive world rife with mysteries, and thus Erickson and Stiller have molded it to be artificial and stuck out of time, like Hell designed in the image of a Big Tech company. In fact, while Severance has been acclaimed for its “puzzle box” plotting—i.e., opening various narrative cans of worms to retain viewership—it is first and foremost a feat of production design. The interior of the Lumon offices eerily, effectively resembles what a prison would look like if an architect had designed it to evoke a mid-20th-century office building.
The warm yet ominous look of Lumon goes a long way toward lending credence to the Macrodata Refinement division’s revolt against its corporate overlords, who include the protagonists’ immediate supervisor, Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman), and acting boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette). Over the course of Severance’s debut season, Mark, Helly, and their fellow workers—the profane, smugly content Dylan (Zach Cherry) and the fastidious rule-follower Irving (John Turturro)—wake up to their employer’s nefariousness and reject the severance procedure. After this, they begin to feel the walls of their ostensibly safe workplace closing in on them. Though the series often bites off more than it can chew, Severance succeeds when it squarely focuses on Mark and his coworkers’ slow radicalization. Like many labor activists of yore, they’re spurred to take down the system by a piece of literature. Only it’s not The Communist Manifesto that wakes them up but, rather, in one of the best jokes of the year, a pretentious self-help book, the kind whose cover would make your eyes glaze over in a bookstore.
Despite Stiller’s involvement, which includes directing two-thirds of the season’s episodes, Severance isn’t a comedy, at least not in the traditional setup-and-punchline sense. Minor bouts of surrealism occasionally puncture the series’ sober tone, but it still retains a serious disposition appropriate to the disturbing nature of the premise. Yet this doesn’t mean the show is humorless. A lot of Severance’s best elements could be described as structural or even architectural comedy: Dark gags involving design and philosophy comprise the show’s foundation, which underscores the emotional substance of the characters who tread its ground.
Case in point: Mark’s pompous, touchy-feely brother-in-law, Ricken Hale (Michael Chernus), whom both Mark and his sister Devon (Jen Tullock) regard with eye-rolling acceptance, gives a copy of his new book, The You You Are, to outie-Mark. Before he can read it, it’s confiscated by Cobel, who poses as Mark’s well-meaning next-door neighbor to keep an eye on him outside of work. She brings it into their shared office space, where innie-Mark unexpectedly finds it and then hides it from his bosses. He and Dylan secretly read it in their spare time and start to absorb its corny if well-intended maxims. In one episode, we hear a string of excerpts: “A society with festering workers cannot flourish, just as a man with rotting toes cannot skip.” “What separates man from machine is that machines cannot think for themselves. Also, they are made of metal, whereas man is made of skin.” “Bullies are nothing but Bull and Lies.”
The You You Are’s laughable prose would be roundly mocked by outie-Mark, but innie-Mark and his compatriots find genuine inspiration in a book that preaches worker liberation, however clumsily, through New Age vernacular. Severance underscores this gag by implicitly contrasting it with the teachings of Lumon’s founder, Kier Eagan (Marc Geller), who dispenses his cult-like, conformist rhetoric via a workers’ handbook that doubles as a bible. The series thankfully doesn’t hang a lampshade on the contrast, but the joke is that Eagan’s proselytizing, while more refined and better written than Hale’s, is infinitely more insidious. In one episode, Irving recites two quotes from the handbook: “Be content in my words and dally not in the scholastic pursuits of lesser men” and “No workplace shall be repurposed for slumber,” which translate to “Don’t listen to outsiders” and “Never nap at work.”
Severance’s most effective bit, however, is the labyrinthine design of the Lumon building itself, specifically intended to confuse and trap the workers within. Mark and his colleagues spend most of their time in the Macrodata Refinement section—a massive low-ceilinged room whose sterile atmosphere uneasily clashes with its homey decor and kitschy, anachronistic technology—but their floor is made up of endless, identical white hallways that seemingly lead everywhere and nowhere. Lumon forbids them to map the office, and though they are aware of the existence of other departments, it’s unclear how many or exactly where they are. As director, Stiller pulls off a neat trick in a late episode when he briefly tracks Mark and Milchick down a hallway, but as the two take a right, the camera moves left. The white wall fills the entirety of the screen for a brief second, until Milchick enters from the right. Stiller’s camera, still tracking left, eventually catches up with Mark, but the disorienting effect speaks volumes: Even we don’t know in which direction they’re going.
Severance literalizes many similar Dilbert-esque jokes about office culture. It’s impossible to leave the building before quitting time. The “break room” is a torture site. The work that Mark and his colleagues do is comically meaningless—dragging and dropping random sets of numbers on a computer screen—which is fitting because “Macrodata Refinement” is so vague as to mean nothing. The team ostensibly works for depressingly banal perks: finger traps, dance breaks, crystal cubes, egg and melon bars, a “waffle party” that’s also a burlesque show. They’re cheap distractions to stop Mark and the others from asking what many white-collar workers have asked in their own lives: What exactly do we do here?
Following in a long line of conspiracy-driven shows, Severance asks more questions than it answers, teasing clues about Lumon’s influence and its toxic objectives. It’s somewhat impressive how much runway Erickson gives himself for future seasons. For example, the series has only started to touch on how the severance procedure impacts the outside world. Mark lives in a Lumon-subsidized town that’s clearly being surveilled, and the company’s political influence, which extends to state senators who want to combat public distaste for the procedure, has yet to be explored. Mysterious figures, like an unseen “board” that communicates approval or displeasure through a surrogate, remain unexplained. Late-season twists indicate that Lumon has been hiding considerable collateral damage from the public. We don’t even yet know how many other floors, departments, or workers lie within the company’s building.
This caginess can be frustrating, in the sense that it’s a toss-up whether the answers to these questions will ever satisfy. It’s tempting to read this type of opaque plotting as protracted wheel spinning, and in its worst moments and digressions Severance does feel like it’s stalling for time. But as is the case with most television in this vein, the journey tends to be more rewarding than the destination. In the beginning, the series was compelling because it withheld basic information about its very premise, and when viewers were finally provided with enough to feel grounded, its direction and performances became the draw—at least save for Arquette’s, whose acting choices slowly grate more and more over the course of the season. Severance doesn’t reinvent the wheel narratively—there are the expected reveals and twists that arrive at their prescribed moments—but it follows through on familiar motions with enough energy to qualify as lively.
The glaring issue with the series is not its lack of answers or specificity but rather the more existential query: why any corporation would offer the severance procedure in the first place. Severance more or less asks viewers to take it on faith that Mark’s decision to sever his memories as a byproduct of grief passes muster despite its shaky emotional reasoning. (Would any halfway intelligent person agree to accept the incoherence of self so that they would only experience sorrow half the time?) A similar leap is asked of the viewers when it comes to his co-workers, whose decisions to sever are only hinted at but appear to be similarly trauma-motivated. Even from the perspective of the most hyperbolically evil corporation, the benefits of having complete control over its employees hardly outweighs the enormous liability of dissent catalyzed by anyone asking any questions about the company or pushing back on the merits of severance. Lumon resorts to psychological torture and a covert surveillance operation to keep its workers in line, and yet for that very reason it prompts suicide attempts and outright disorder. From a credibility standpoint, the company’s medical intervention just doesn’t seem like the safest bet when there’s such a high likelihood of anarchy.
Granted, crying foul with regard to plausibility in fiction, especially when it comes to the shortsightedness of corporate entities, might be foolhardy. But if the series wants to tackle the exploitation of labor, even in its own exaggerated way, it usually helps when the authoritarians’ methods of oppression make sense—logically and emotionally. Severance can have its characters ask “What are we doing?” and “Why are we here?” all it wants. It would be better for the show to ask itself, “Why do I exist?”