In a future that’s closer than you think, a company called Lumon Industries has invented a technology known as “severance”. Enabled by a chip that is inserted into the brain, it effectively severs your mind into two selves, referred to whimsically as “innie” and “outie”. Your “innie” is who you become when you’re working on Lumon’s “severed floor”. That self has no awareness of who you are outside of work, but it does remember everything else you’ve learned (how to walk, talk, eat, etc.) When you leave work, you transition back into your “outie”, who has no knowledge of what transpired during the day. Think of it as compartmentalization on steroids. If this technology had been invented by Apple, I’m confident they would have called something catchy like “iDissociate”.
For people like Mark Scout (Adam Scott in Alan Alda mode), working at Lumon as a severed employee lets him earn a living without his lingering grief over the death of his wife affecting his performance. He’s able to put in eight hours a day as a member of the Macrodata Refinement Division completely unaware of his wife or her death. The benefit of the arrangement to Mark seems straightforward, but how does Lumon benefit from it? This critical question is one that Mark and his colleagues Irving (John Turturro in sweater vests!), Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Petey (Yul Vazquez) are not concerned with asking. All they (and we) know is that they are segregating “troubling data” into digital files, a task that supervisor Mr. Milcheck (Tramell Tillman) and manager Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) confirms it is “important work”. Why does it look like they are playing an arcane puzzle game on computer terminals straight out of the Eighties?
When the season opens, Mark’s choice to coast through life is disrupted by events that shock both his innie and his outie. Petey abruptly quits, and Mark is put in charge of training the new employee, Helly (Britt Lower, red-haired and feisty). Helly is confused and angry and only wants to leave, but her outie refuses to let her quit. (The reason for her situation is made clear in the last episode.) Helly’s increasingly desperate actions garner Mark’s sympathy, to the point where he wants to uncover what his job actually means. At home, Mark is confronted by Petey, who says he has undergone a procedure that has reintegrated both of his selves. (Something Lumon claims is impossible.) Petey dies before he can tell Mark what he knows, but Mark’s curiosity is finally piqued to figure out what Lumon is up to.
Severance is a puzzle show, like Westworld (HBO), Homecoming (Amazon) or Archive 81 (Netflix), where you have to be content to wait patiently for answers to the (many) questions it raises. Unlike those other shows, Severance reveals little by the end of its first season, which was frustrating but thankfully there will be a season two. In place of answers, the show unspools a very intriguing story, one that deftly blends multiple genres while skewering big companies and corporate work culture from multiple angles. Additionally, it raises some interesting metaphysical questions regarding work and life. Is the ideal employee someone who can do their job with no personal baggage? How important is compartmentalization to human existence? Are all technological advances eventually used to the detriment of humankind?
Severance also features top notch acting throughout the cast, which also includes Christopher Walken in a very disarming supporting role. The direction from Ben Stiller and others is excellent, as is the production design and sound design. Severance is one of the few streaming shows I’ve seen that I would have appreciated seeing in a theater. While the pacing of the show is extremely deliberate (or slow), the storytelling is so richly layered I never found my attention wavering. I liken it to wandering through a museum filled with interesting pieces and equally interesting guests. Recommended.
Severance is, generally speaking, a puzzle-plot television series. These shows shroud the plot with secrecy and delay the big reveal(s) until the very end. Along the way, the audience rides shotgun while the characters try to figure out what the heck is going on. With each episode, clues are revealed that help to explain the larger mystery, which result in simultaneous “a-ha!” moments shared between the viewer and the characters. The unspoken promise made by these shows is that by the end of the season or the series, all will be revealed and the time spent will have been a worthwhile investment. While the first season of Severance does include a few significant reveals in the last episode, the larger questions remain unanswered.
Puzzle-plot shows certainly are nothing new. Before there was Westworld and Lost, there was The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone. What distinguishes Severance from those shows is its decidedly low-boil approach. While there is action and several intense moments, the overall tenor of the series is casual. Severance spends the majority of its time focusing on character and atmospherics. With each episode, we learn more about the central players and the strange world they inhabit, but little in the way of why that world is so strange or why all of the characters made the decision to be there in the first place. Given how the first season ends, I can imagine that some viewers may feel that they’ve been led on, or jerked around, and that the roughly nine hours they’ve invested in the show has basically resulted in quirk for quirkiness’s sake. I realized after the third or fourth episode that whatever Severance was going to reveal would happen on its own terms, at its own pace, and resigned myself to go with the flow. None of this is to say that Severance doesn’t reveal anything. The underlying concept of the show is explained fairly explicitly, even if the “why” is only vaguely alluded to.
An uncanny world
Severance takes place in what looks a lot like the present. People drive normal-looking cars, watch television and use iPhones (product placement!). What distinguishes the show’s reality from ours is the company known as Lumon and the technology they’ve developed. That technology–delivered via a chip inserted into an employee’s brain, enables the company to completely sever the employee’s mind from all of their personal knowledge. They would still know facts and figures, like the names of states, but not their father’s name. They would also retain all of their physical capabilities while the chip is active, so they can talk, eat and type. When they leave the “severed floor” of the building, the chip is automatically deactivated. The employee can then recall their personal memories, but have no knowledge of what they did at work that day, or any previous day. While on the job, employees are referred to as “innies”, and their external selves are called “outies”. (Try not to picture either belly buttons or oranges whenever these terms are used.)
What Lumon employees actually do at their job is a mystery. While their tasks are depicted vividly, they look nonsensical without context. Mark S (Adam Scott), the show’s central character, works alongside Irving (John Turturro), Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Petey (Yul Vazquez) in the Macrodata Refinement division. Using computer terminals from the old mainframe days, they scroll through a series of random numbers. When a particular grouping of numbers makes them feel anxious, they drag them into a digital folder. (The answers the guys have as to what they are doing are equally nonsensical.) The only other division that is revealed is Optics & Design, whose employees manage the company’s large collection of original artwork and make things like watering cans. Obviously, there is more to what these divisions are doing than meets the eye, but after nine episodes, those answers never came.
Fortunately, Severance explains just enough so that the show doesn’t come off as an exercise in absurdity. Mark S (Adam Scott) took a position at Lumon to escape his grief over his wife’s death. (He formerly was a teacher.) As a Lumon employee, he’s able to detach from his grief for eight hours a day and earn a living. Mark’s after-work life is listless and meandering, consisting primarily of watching TV or spending time with his pregnant sister Devon (Jen Tullock) and her husband Ricken (Michael Chernus). Mark is happy with the innie/outie arrangement because he doesn’t know how to move forward with his life. Devon invites him over to non-dinners with her husband’s sycophants, and Mark tolerates the experience because he knows his sister is trying to keep him from closing himself off to the world.
The season opens with several events that disturb the equilibrium of both of Mark’s lives. Together, they shake Mark out of his complacency and force him to question what he is doing at Lumon. At work, Mark is told that Petey has resigned and that he’s being promoted to Petey’s former position of department head. This comes as a shock to Mark because he and Petey were good friends and Petey never mentioned he wanted to quit. Mark’s first assignment is to train the newest member of the team, Helly R (Britt Lower). She is confused and angry about the situation and insists on quitting, but her outie rejects her resignation. After work, Petey contacts Mark’s outie and tells him that they worked together at Lumon. Since Mark’s outie has no knowledge of what happens during his work hours, Petey is a complete stranger to him. Petey tells Mark that he’s undergone a procedure to reintegrate his outie with his innie, and is hiding from Lumon security. Unsure of what to do, Mark lets Petey stay in his basement.
As is typical with movies or television shows that explore the possibilities of technology, Severance methodically reveals that the severance procedure isn’t as benign as employees are made to believe. For example, the only employees at Lumon who are severed are the “staffers”. This makes it possible for Lumon management to exploit their employee’s lack of awareness outside of work. For example, Ms. Cobel lives next door to Mark and spies on him in broad daylight. She also ingratiates herself into Devon’s life by pretending to be a wet nurse. (Why she does this is not made clear.) Additionally, Lumon management has the ability to withhold or lie about what happened to an employee on the job. Mark’s outie isn’t told that his head injury was due to Helly throwing an intercom at him, but that a box fell on him instead.
The commercial application of the severance technology beyond Lumon employees is only hinted at in this season. A senator’s pregnant wife uses it so that her innie will experience all of the pain of childbirth, while the outie gets to enjoy the child afterwards with no memory of the physical pain involved. Lumon essentially owns the town and presumably is a very profitable company. Why they are pushing this particular “product” is one of the show’s biggest questions.
The season ends with two incredible revelations. If you’ve read this far, I shouldn’t have to warn you about spoilers, but here they come. According to Mark, his wife Gemma died in a car accident, which explained both his grief and the choices he’s made after her death. While Mark’s innie is out in the real world, he discovers that she is actually alive. Gemma is former Lumon employee Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachma), who worked in the Wellness room. This raised so many questions that my head was spinning. (Didn’t mark see her body after her death? Wasn’t there a funeral? Is the arrangement something she wanted, or is it a diabolical plan on Lumon’s behalf?)
Then there’s the other big reveal, that Helly is a member of the Eagan family. For some reason, Lumon patriarch Kier Eagan is using her to sell Severance to the public. Companies have long used family members as the focus of marketing campaigns, but this situation is much different than selling cars or floor wax. To Helly’s shock, Lumon is presenting a completely fabricated version of her innie existence, one where her death attempt never happened. That Kier Eagan would have Helly continue with the project after that event is just diabolical. Unfortunately, we have to wait a year (or more) for season two to drop to find out what happens next.
What I appreciated about Severance is how intricate and layered the storytelling is. The series reportedly spent several years in development, and it shows throughout the first season. I would be hard-pressed to identify a throwaway sort or line in any of the episodes. Every aspect of the show comes across as very deliberate and intentional, including the acting, the set design, the lighting and especially the sound design. Severance is made for people who appreciate thoughtful, well-crafted series.
Severance is also one of those rare shows that attempts and succeeds in genre-hopping. It’s a curious melange of drama, mystery, comedy and psychological thriller, where several aspects are at play within a single scene. Some perhaps would accuse the show of having “tonal imbalances” or a “schizoid nature”, but I believe that the series benefits tremendously by having multiple tones and genres in play at all times. This keeps it from feeling one-note, which is what I felt kept a series like Homecoming from being more than a minor curiosity. Or Archive 81 from feeling drawn-out and slight. The richness of Severance is in large part due to its artistic diversity, and played a significant factor in retaining my interest in spite of getting few answers to what it is all about.
Among the several themes explored in Severance is the strangeness of corporate work culture. The show views both of them not just through one lens, but several by my count: physical, satirical, absurdist, psychological and metaphysical. As someone who has worked for several large companies throughout my professional career, I appreciated how the show repeatedly skewers what employees accept as normal but what would come off as odd and/or creepy to outsiders. No aspect of corporate work culture is left unscathed. With a jeweler’s eye, the show touches on the inherent bizarreness of everything from the physical layout of work spaces, vapid corporate philosophy, hierarchical induced paranoia, the irony-free jargon, mandatory fun, and so on.
The show’s depiction of the physical aspects of the Lumon corporate building was particularly deft. From the outside, it looks like just another nondescript office building. This naturally is a pretense intended to give outsiders the impression that the company is just like any other company. (It definitely is not.) Inside, the “severed floor” is an endless maze of white walls, flooring and luminescent lighting. Employees need a supervisor to lead them wherever they need to go, or else they will get lost. The employees in the Macrodata Refinement division have what looks like an entire wing to themselves, but instead of having separate desks or offices, they are curiously grouped together in a single four-person cube. The paintings hung on the walls are intentionally designed to stoke fear between the divisions. While the production design clearly mocks the typically bad architecture and design utilized by many corporate office buildings, it draws attention to how they work just like a casino floor. Employees who become confused and disoriented whenever they leave their prescribed work area are effectively discouraged from going anywhere else, and resign themselves to spending all of their time with their colleagues.
The real-life model for Lumon appears to be inspired by IBM. The company’s policies and procedures are stored in several large hardcover manuals. Employees like Irving and Burt know the philosophical teachings of Lumon’s founder Kier Eagan by heart and can recite them freely during conversation. Employees are very aware of the members of the Eagan family, who also served on the board of directors. The town where Lumon is based is even named after the company family, similar to how Armonk, NY was synonymous with IBM. Lumon even has its own corporate song, just like IBM. The computers the macrodata refinders use reminded me of what computer programmers called “dumb tubes” back in the day, devices that could only connect to the corporate mainframe. (IBM essentially was the mainframe computing market for decades.)
Severance makes ample use of metaphors to explain the counter-intuitive nature of working for a big company like Lumon. Since only those at the bottom of the hierarchy are severed, they are essentially on a “need-to-know” basis in regards to information that doesn’t directly relate to their job. Divisions are kept apart in “silos” to discourage fraternization and collaboration. Getting help or information requires navigating an endless series of hallways, or a maze. The show also playfully satirizes the seemingly innocuous jargon that permeates big companies. The wellness center is used to alleviate employee anxiety and reaffirm their commitment to the company. The break room is where employees who have misbehaved are sent to be psychologically broken.
Severance lobs some of its sharpest barbs at corporate idolatry. Not content with having photographs or portraits of the company’s leadership, the Lumon building contains a “Perpetuity Wing” that contains statues of Kier Eagan and his heirs. In a nod to modern-day tech companies (who shall remain nameless here), the philosophy of the company’s founder is a mixture of business aphorisms, positive thinking and unitarian religious homilies. Since the employees (innies) literally have no lives outside of work, they readily accept that the ideal way to comport themselves is by following the noodlings of a successful businessman to the letter.
I really enjoyed how Severance pokes holes in the rigidly prescribed nature of corporate mandatory fun. When Helly hits her quota, she and the others get to engage in a “Music Dance Experience”. As per policy, Helly can select one musical instrument and one type of music to be played. When the group hits their quarterly numbers, the team gets to engage in an “Egg Bar Social”, where they partake of a variety of deviled eggs under colored lights. The weirdest company perk was the “Waffle Party”, one that really doesn’t have a direct analogy to anything in the corporate world that I know of. (At least not for staffers.) The point driven home by these examples is that having fun in a business setting is nothing like having fun anywhere else. It’s awkward because it involves people you work with who you probably aren’t friends with, and requires corporate oversight, so that nothing gets out of hand.
Severance also highlights the insidious psychological aspects of corporate work culture. The physical structure of the workplace, the hierarchical structuring of the employees, the subliminal artwork, the wellness center and the break room all serve to keep the employees subservient, content and completely dependent upon their management chain for everything. Additionally, managers and supervisors freely utilize intimidation (physical and mental) to keep employees in line. At one point, Ms. Copbel throws a coffee mug at Mark, with no concern that he would complain to HR. Mr. Milchick is so physically intimidating that he is only physically challenged once, and that is after he repeatedly taunts Dylan.
Since innies have no lives outside of work, they are completely dependent upon their management chain for everything. The power dynamic is completely skewed towards management, and where employees are completely vulnerable to the whims of their superiors, with no recourse when they are treated badly. Severance presents the ideal scenario for an employer, where something bad can happen (like Helly hitting Mark with an intercom) but it never needs to be acted upon because the incident leaves work.
All of this dovetails to one of the main questions posed by the show: what is the ideal employee? From Lumon’s perspective, that employee is someone with no personal life, someone who leaves whatever is troubling them at the door, works for eight hours and leaves, no fuss, no muss. Additionally, it’s someone who asks no questions over what they are doing, inherently trusts their management chain, and causes no problems. The ideal employee also can be treated however the company wants to treat them, because that employee has no recourse.
While watching the show, the thought of soldiers engaged in drone warfare came to mind. The military has the technology to kill an enemy combatant from thousands of miles away, with little risk to the soldier who pushes the button. The only problem is the guilt and remorse soldiers may feel when doing this. What if the military had a soldier who had no problems with pulling the virtual trigger, because when they leave for the day, they have no recollection of what they did? That area of their mind is essentially sectioned off and can be “retired” when the soldier has met their service agreement.
Even though Severance is primarily a meditation on work, it also manages to pose philosophical and even metaphysical questions relating to the nature of human existence.
If you had the option to compartmentalize the difficult aspects of your life to another part of your brain, would you do it? How much influence does your personal history have in terms of the person you are? If that was taken away, what sort of person would you be? I appreciated how the show gently nudges the viewer towards self-reflection and awareness instead of providing specific answers.
I also found the show’s examination of modern spirituality particularly inciteful. While Severance doesn’t mention any specific religion, it does speak to how humankind has turned to work and technology to fill the spiritual void that once was filled by religious faith and practices. Instead of religious texts and prayers, employees have mission statements, policies, procedures and mandatory training. Instead of saints and prophets, we have chief executives and gurus. Instead of weekly services, we have meetings. Cobel, with her alter to all things Lumon, is offered as a sly commentary on how corporations have replaced established religion for many people. Fortunately, Severance does believe that individual spirituality is possible in the modern world. Mark’s entire character arc is basically a spiritual awakening. Similarly, the show also makes a point of showing how a chance encounter with a book or a person can change our life, provided we are open to letting those experiences change us.
The concept of how technology changes humanity, often for the worse, is a topic that is frequently explored in science fiction movies and television shows. Generally speaking, when I write a review, I try to avoid making explicit comparisons as much as possible. That said, given how Severance and Westworld are playing in the same philosophical and metaphysical sandbox, I’ll go on record for stating that I appreciated the former’s more thoughtful, almost careful approach to the topics it raises. Westworld, even with its shameless grand guignol aesthetic and overall depravity, lost me with its heavy-handedness. I’ll always choose the scalpel over the meat cleaver.
What it all means
If I had a guess as to what Lumon is up to, it is coming up with technology that it can sell commercially with the promise of protecting consumers from the painful things they need to do. This all fits with what the media was telling us about how Covid was showing us our future. Why risk catching a virus by going outside when technology offers us the option of never leaving home again?
Technology has a funny way of providing us with alternatives to real life, but are actually only poor simulations of it. Severance shows us a world where technology goes far beyond changing how we listen to music or read a book: it can control how our mind works. As I mentioned above, this has profound implications for employers and employees. What it means for human beings in general is even more concerning. Would we willingly choose to segregate our own mind to alleviate ourselves of the pain, a defining factor of human existence? Severance implies, with appropriate concern, that the answer would be yes.
So what do I think of what Mark and the other macrodata refiners are doing? Or what Burt and the other members of O&D are doing? Or the room where someone is taking care of goats? My guess is that everything that the employees are doing while at Lumon is all part of testing the chip. They’re all secretly beta testers for the chip, being put through a series of psychological tests to make sure that nothing they experience at work leaks out when they are not at work. This would explain a lot of things, like why Ms. Cobel’s sadism is allowed, why Helly’s suicide attempt doesn’t result in her being taken out of work, why O&D are making watering cans, and so on.
This theory would also explain why Mark’s presumably dead wife Gemma is still alive and working at Lumon. If Mark can regularly interact with his dead wife and be none the wiser, that would serve as iron-clad proof to any doubters. If his innie doesn’t recognize his (former) wife when he sees her, then the chip blocks everything, even something as personal and intimate as your marriage. Of course, I could be completely wrong here, and the squiggly numbers on the computer screens actually mean something.