The work is mysterious and important.
I am a person. You are not. I make decisions. You do not.
I frequently reference Vincenzo Natalie’s seminal 1997 film Cube, and it was at the top of my mind when watching the first four episodes of Severance. In Cube, a group of strangers wakes up in a square room, each wall bearing a door to another, similar cube. Some of these rooms come with traps that cause horrible deaths. They do not know why they are there, and try to find a way outside – which the remaining survivors eventually, if barely, do, without giving us a glimpse of what that outside looks like. At some stage during their ordeal, one of the prisoners reveals that he has worked in the construction of the outer panels of the structure – at the time having no clue what he was working on, hinting that construction was so divided that nobody would have much of an idea of what the ultimate product would look like. And, to answer the question of why they were there – maybe it’s just because the cube exists, and therefore, people must use it, lest it was built in vain.
Cube is of course a version of Lord of the Flies, or the classic teenage novel House of Stairs – the prisoners will inevitably turn against each other, the precarity and seriousness of the situation bringing out the worst in them, so that at some stage, the traps are only one of the things that are killing them. The “Innies” in Severance may be there voluntarily (as far as we know), but apart from that, their situation mirrors the prisoners of Cube. At some stage during their lives, they have decided to undergo a surgical procedure called severance, which creates the ultimate work-life-balance – when they are at work, they remember none of their life outside of it. When they are outside, they do not remember anything about their work life. This means that each of these characters – and our main character, who leads us through the story, is Adam Scott’s Mark – gets to live a life of leisure in the sixteen hours that they are not at work, but for their work selves, the day never ends – it just becomes an endless span of time that begins as soon as it ends at the doors of their office. These work selves are technologically unable to communicate with their selves on the outside, with the exception of a formal, bureaucratic process, and they have no clue who they are on the outside – all markers of their identity is gone.
This sounds like a great deal for their “Outies”, but Mark has chosen it because of his unprocessed grief over the death of his beloved wife – it means eight hours less of suffering, and he drowns the remaining ones in sarcasm and alcohol. We meet him years into this deal, right after his promotion when his friend and team leader has mysteriously disappeared. He is guiding a new recruit through the process, and it is through Hellys’ (Britt Lower) eyes that we get to witness the true horror. From day one, she hates it – the bureaucracy, the mysteriousness of their work (staring at numbers and categorising them by the feelings they evoke – each of them has a different theory about what this is for, and likely, none is right), the endlessness of their days. Like David Worth in Cube, they are working on something far greater than themselves, and it has been abstracted to the point of being unrecognisable as meaningful, constructed work - an abyss of meaning that Lumon paints over with ideology. To make up for the lack of an outside life, the office has a number of strange rituals for team bonding, but the more we discover about Lumon Industries, the company that employs them, the weirder and more threatening it gets. Helly is tasked with finding numbers that cause her an indescribable sense of fear, but instead of succeeding at that work, the unease sets in about the environment she’s in, to the extent that she becomes obsessed with communicating to her outer self that she wants to quit. This is repeatedly refused, and any attempt to smuggle out a message to convey her misery is thwarted – eventually, by sending her to what can only be described as a torture chamber, where she is asked to read a statement of apology again and again until she is deemed to mean it (it takes her more than 1,000 tries). The company itself resembles more a cult, the founding family revered, the current CEO treated like a religious figure, the lore of the founding like a religious text. There is a whole theme park within the office dedicated to them, glorifying paintings are specifically rotated to all the departments by a dedicated idolatry section of the company.
One of Mark’s colleagues hates the two people that work there, another builds a tender relationship with Christopher Walken’s Burt, opening up the question of whether true emotions can exist in this corporate purgatory.
A mysterious corporate therapist (played by Dichen Lachman, who would have well-deserved her own show after her break-out in the doomed Dollhouse, but is terrifyingly unsettling here like everything else about Lumon Industries) provides sessions when the employees are deemed to require them, dispensing non-descript facts about their outside selves as balm for their identity crises, reminding them not to get too excited about any specific one. Severance perfectly captures this corporate speak of motivation and wellness that borders on the obscene.
It is an interesting show to watch in contrast with both Inventing Anna, about Anna Delvey, a con artist who tried to fake herself into the upper echelons of New York society, and The Dropout, about Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos Industries, which never managed to make the technology work in spite of its billion dollar evaluation. Severance is working up to being a mystery about the nature of Lumon (in that way, it feels like connective tissue that Dichen Lachman is there – I’m sure there is something truly horrible at centre of all of this, much like there was in Dollhouse), but in at its core, it’s a show about the meaning of work. It is almost conventional in its portrayal of office culture, stripping the aesthetic markers down to the essential, almost like a minimal theatre set, but as in Inventing Anna and The Dropout, the work that is being done appears to be meaningless – it serves to take up eight hours a day, create the well-known routine, but is empty at its core. Both The Dropout and Inventing Anna have a similar emptiness at its centre, where what successful work signifies – a place in society, money – is the goal, even if how it is earned is through a con job. Delvey understands the class markers that buy entry, she knows how to sell a story. Holmes wants to be obscenely rich like her role models, but what product she invents is ultimately unimportant – what matters is the appearance of success, so much so that dropping out of a prestigious school is almost better than graduating from one. All three of these shows ask questions about what work is now – if it has any meaning at all when so many jobs are, as David Graeber said, Bullshit.
The meaninglessness at Lumon is hungry, the rituals created to mask it turn sinister, and Innie Helly can’t cope – she, unlike her colleagues, understands herself to be a prisoner. She threatens to hurt the precious body, create an undeniable record of resistance, to be allowed to communicate to her Outer self through a video, but what comes back is a culmination of horror – Outie Helly appears to be a monster, denying that her work self has any agency. Devoid of memories, with no markers of identity, Helly realises that her other self is terrible, and the only thing she has to fight back is their shared body.
Severance (2022-), created by Dan Erickson, starring Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, Tramell Tillman, Jen Tullock, Dichen Lachman, John Torturro, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Walken.
The Dropout (2022), created by Elizabeth Meriwether, starring Amanda Seyfried, Naveen Andrews, Anne Archer, Michaela Watkins, Laurie Meltcalf, Stephen Fry, Bill Irwin.
Inventing Anna (2022), created by Shona Rhimes, starring Julia Garner, Anna Chlumsky, Arian Moayed, Katie Lowes, Alexis Floyd, Anders Holm, Anna Deavere Smith.