Our relationship to the workplace has always been curious. It’s a place we devote a third of our lives to, and a place that pays us money to be there. It’s an adjunct to our homegrown “family” lives — usually described as a “team” that we’re meant to bond with — yet these people are usually diverse, non-DNA-sharing strangers. It’s a hellish place for some, an escape from the outside world for others.
Severance stretches this work-life balance to even stranger dimensions. The Apple TV+ streaming series explores what goes on inside Lumon Industries, a secretive techie workplace in which employees have voluntarily elected to separate their work lives from their outside lives via radical surgery: an implanted neural chip makes it impossible for Lumon workers — “Innies” — from remembering anything about their outside personalities — their “Outies” — once they ascend the elevator to the parking lot each night after 5 p.m., and vice versa.
It’s the ultimate NDA. Employees’ thoughts, actions, and experiences are reserved for Lumon offices only; non-disclosure is enforced through surgery.
Why would anybody sign on for such a thing? Severance only doles out pieces of the puzzle in its first season. Mark Scout (Adam Scott) plays a bland but increasingly curious office drone with a scintilla of management responsibility. His boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) trusts him enough to make him head of his division after a certain employee, Petey (Yul Vasquez), is let go.
Mark oversees the arrival of a new employee, Helly (Britt Lower), who wakes up post-surgery lying on a conference table and asks groggily, “Am I livestock?” Seen too many horror movies, we can’t help thinking. Entering the Lumon workforce is destabilizing, like being “severed” from the womb, then being asked your name, and what you remember from your past. Helly’s first instinct is to flee, but she soon learns this is impossible. Instead, like her new co-workers Mark, Irv (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry), she learns to accommodate herself to the work at hand: a daily series of computer-based number-sorting tasks that they — and we — understand little about.
Let’s face it, there are people who escape into their work lives, simply because it’s a place where things make some kind of sense, or at least have a predictable structure.
As a dystopian sci-fi series, this could all be painfully predictable. It isn’t. Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, Severance taps into the real anxieties of a workforce brutalized in many, many ways: by the shrinking economy, by multitasking demands (the way work now follows you everywhere you go, via cellphones), by the anxiety of returning to an office post-pandemic. It’s no wonder so many employees in the US have opted not to resume the 9-to-5 life. It’s hell out there.
And we don’t quite know what fresh hell Lumon is all about, but as we are drawn tighter into the suspicions of Mark, Helly, Irv and Dylan, it becomes clearer — and weirder. Mark’s deeply scary and disturbing overseer Mrs. Cobel is herself under the magnifying glass of an unseen Lumon Board. And on the Severed Floor where Mark works, employees pay daily homage to their pseudo-mystical long-dead founder, Kier Eagan, through cult-like devotion to sculptures, paintings, and books.
Most people sign on for “severance” to escape the outside world. Mark, we learn, is mourning the death of his wife. But why the rest want to work there remains largely a mystery. Then there’s Christopher Walken as a kindly, but somewhat inscrutable older gent in another department who gets a little too free-ranging for his own good.
One thing that seems very relatable to millennial viewers of Severance is its fixation on office perks. Everything from Waffle Day to the coveted Egg Bar to the monthly Dance Party are trotted out, usually by office supervisor and employee wrangler Milchick (an unnerving Tramell Tillman), who brings in the treats on a cart when Mark and his crew meet their task quotas. (There is little as unnerving as Milchick transforming himself into a wind-up groove machine and dancing in Helly’s puzzled face during the five-minute Music Dance Experience.)
As Mark’s office team grows more apprised of strange goings-on at Lumon, they become that rare thing in today’s ominous work environment: empowered. They start roaming around from section to section (a Lumon no-no) and grow increasingly curious about their Outie lives. Perhaps the scariest moment comes when Mark accidentally calls his work boss by her Innie name at a friend’s book launch party in the Outie world. Suddenly, the realization that his severed self is wandering around outside of Lumon offices, wide-awake, is made crystal clear to Arquette’s character — with chilling consequences.
What is Severance ultimately about? The creeping imbalance of our work-life existence? The unusual and sometimes empowering bonds that can develop in the workplace? A far-reaching psychological experiment charting people’s response to pointless tasks? The joy of Egg Bars?
We can’t get all of the answers in season one, though it’s a slow burner that revs itself up to a hell of a cliffhanger ending (directed by Stiller, BTW).
If there’s an underlying theme coming into focus here, it’s about our compulsion to forget — to block out things from the real world when they become more and more unbearable. Let’s face it, there are people who escape into their work lives, simply because it’s a place where things make some kind of sense, or at least have a predictable structure.
It’s real-life that presents uncertain challenges — whether it’s personal trauma, family matters, or a growing reluctance to engage with just how bad and weird the world has become. Severance reminds us of the deep necessity of our remembering.