Given the deluge of workplace dramas produced during the pandemic, grouping Severance with shows like The Dropout (2022), WeCrashed (2022) or Made For Love (2021) is a forgivable offence. But Severance is nothing like those other shows—namely because it’s much, much better.
Born in the interwar period, Film Noir often concerns itself with themes like surveillance, voyeurism, and identity. Severance hits on all these tropes in the first episode and doubles down as the series unfolds.
Shot on location in New York State, Severance was created by writer Dan Erickson and initially submitted on spec to Ben Stiller’s Red Hour Productions in 2016.
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Severance: Spoiler-Free Synopsis
Adam Scott plays Mark Scout, a widower and former college instructor now employed at a multi-national corporation called Lumon Industries.
While the exact nature of his duties are opaque, we soon learn that a condition of his employment is to undergo a controversial medical procedure known as “severance.”
“Severed” employees are fitted with brain implants that split their consciousness into two separate entities: a “sub-self” for work, and a “main self” for life outside the office.
The “sub-selves” that occupy the workplace (referred to as “innies” in the Severance lexicon) have no knowledge of their “main selves”, and no memory of anything that predates the surgery. “Innies” are essentially turned off every evening when their respective “outties” leave the building.
In other words, “innies” are basically slaves, trapped in a never-ending cycle of monotonous office work, destined for permanent shutdown when their “outties” retire or end their tenure at Lumon.
Although the full scope of Lumon’s business is unclear, the campus resembles that of a typical Silicon Valley tech company. Inside the campus, however, the aesthetic is spookily anachronistic.
The computers look like desktop units from the early 1990’s. The colour palette and the furnishings are distinctly 1970’s. The corridors and workspaces have a retro-futuristic design reminiscent of sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) or Alphaville (1965).
Within Lumon, Mark’s “innie” manages a team of three other “severed” workers. We see them at their computer screens, moving nondescript icons from one bucket to another in order to meet a weekly quota.
As audience members, we are never privy to exactly what these units represent. Strangely, neither are the characters.
With these innie/outtie storylines almost equally weighted, the way they intersect creates an amazing vehicle for the plot.
Critical Analysis: My Review of Severance
I think Severance is really about capitalism in the digital age. While the show explores many themes, the underlying message is clear: without stronger regulation, our present economic system has the potential to devolve into a totalitarian regime.
It’s easy to label Lumon as a tech company, but the show makes obvious efforts to negate simplistic comparisons.
Consider the anachronistic technology, the size and scope of the company’s operations, the cult-like adoration of its charismatic leader, the bunker style campus, the large team of human workers performing graphic design projects, the small team of human workers performing opaque digital labour of a nature so secretive they aren’t allowed to know what it is they’re actually doing?
Lumon is not an avatar for a specific corporation.
Lumon is an avatar for EVERY corporation.
In the real world, governments have been slow to regulate the tech industry. The results have been disastrous: toxicity, chaos, and widespread discontent.
The global commons have been commodified. Intellectual property rights have been trampled on. Monolithic corporations have captured public spaces, government programs, physical infrastructure and even social interaction. The nature of truth itself has been fatally polluted—all so a handful of companies can turn a dollar into a dollar twenty.
A privileged few have become incredibly rich at the expense of the common good. And yet, the incentive for tech workers to turn a blind eye remains incredibly high, while the damage done by their industry stays mostly invisible.
In other words, for workers, the opaque nature of digital labour makes it easy to slip into such a system, while the rewards make it difficult to slip back out again.
On Severance, these real world phenomenon are amplified in order to pose three important questions:
- What if workers had to bear the true cost of their professions?
- What if a company used advanced technology to obfuscate this cost?
- How dissimilar is our current situation from the sinister world depicted on the show?
In her 1968 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote:
“Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.”
But what if elites hide behind a veil of corporate secrecy? What if the masses are shielded by their digital avatars? What if a brain implant makes you unaware that you simultaneously belong to both groups?
On Severance, the questions keep on coming. Like all compelling art, it’s up to the audience to provide the answers.
Part of the show’s appeal is the fact that it can be watched on several different levels: office satire, dystopian technodrama, political allegory, philosophical polemic, even detective mystery. Viewers of all stripes will find something they connect with.
The massive cultural shifts provoked by the pandemic will be the way in for many viewers. Work from home, hybrid work, isolation, return to office, corporate surveillance, quiet quitting—Severance speaks this language with intelligence, clarity and skepticism.
The show is very much concerned with cognitive dissonance. Nearly every character finds a way to ignore what’s wrong in their lives, whether that means coping poorly with addiction or grief, or using advanced technology to split their psyches in half.
The interplay between “severed” and “standard” versions of each character also presents the audience with an interesting thought experiment.
All of us become someone else in the workplace. We each possess a “work self” and a “non work self”. But at what point does this ability to compartmentalize become problematic?
If we spend most of our day at work, which of these selves is the “real” person?
Perhaps there’s no such thing as a real self.
Maybe we are capable of inventing any self we want.
Another prominent binary on Severance is the use of conflicting technologies.
There seems to be a mixture of both digital and analog gadgets, particularly inside the Lumon campus. This may be to convey a timeless quality, to point out that big corporations have been controlling average people since the early 1600’s. The digital/analog binary may also be a narrative device. The more clues we compile about this world, the more invested we become in the reveal.
But the most important binary on Severance is the relationship between freedom and surveillance. If there’s an aspect of the show that hits too close to home, it’s this one.
We all love our devices and we’ve grown accustomed to the conveniences delivered by ever-improving technology. But when we calculate the cost of progress, we rarely stop to think about what we’ve given up.
Corporate giants track our every movement. They know our likes and dislikes, when we wake up and when we go to bed, how much money we earn and spend. They know you’re reading this article right now.
It gets worse when you consider they didn’t steal this information from an unsuspecting public—we offered it for free.
The cost of living within this type of system isn’t financial. The cost is our freedom. The price is our humanity. We used to fear the Gestapo. Now we carry it around in our pockets.
I think Apple deserves a lot of credit here.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple TV+ productions, Severance is beautifully rendered, no matter what size screen you’re watching. The sound is particularly stunning, especially if you’re using Apple AirPods with Dolby Atmos.
Beyond these technical achievements, Apple should be commended for leaning into the irony that comes with their involvement.
The fictitious Lumon corporation is a global monolith founded by a visionary leader, a company so advanced in scope and capability that their operations resemble that of government.
I can’t imagine Disney or Coca-Cola being brave enough to produce an equivalent show. Maybe there’s still hope for Apple after all.
Is Severance Worth Watching?
As a younger man, I remember watching The Wire (2002-2008)(HBO) with such fervor that the show would slip into my dreams. One night I’d be Avon Barksdale, the next night I’d be Omar. I even found myself using Baltimore slang by accident during the daytime.
Years later, I became equally fascinated with Mad Men (2007-2015)(AMC). The series didn’t grab me at first, but once I discovered its many Film Noir characteristics, I was hooked.
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched anything as intently as either of the aforementioned programs—until now.
The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, Deadwood…and Severance?
Yes. And Severance.
With Patricia Arquette, Michael Chernus, Tramell Tillman, Dichen Lachman, Jen Tullock, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, John Turturro and Chirstopher Walken in supporting roles, the cast is as talented as any program on television. And Ben Stiller proves once again that his real talents lie behind the camera, not in front of it.
Patient and meticulous, Severance is built to last at least three seasons. It’s a smart show made for grown-ups, people who enjoy being challenged, people who still think deeply about what they watch.
If this sounds like you, be sure to check it out.
The first season of Severance is available to stream on Apple TV+.
In April 2022, it was renewed for a second season.
If Apple TV+ is your thing, read our article about Tehran.