A science fiction TV drama explores questions of slavery and self in the workplace
Severance Season 1, by Red Hour Productions and Endeavor Content, created by Dan Erickson, directed by Ben Stiller & Aoife McArdle, starring Adam Scott & Britt Lower, Apple TV+ (2022).
…the office is one thing, and private life is another. When I go into the office, I leave the Castle behind me, and when I come into the Castle, I leave the office behind me. If it’s not in any way disagreeable to you, you’ll oblige me by doing the same.
~ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Content warning: Mention of attempted suicide
A signature feature of professionalism is the separation of the “self” from the “worker.” Our histories, our opinions, these are not to interfere with our work performance. Our actual lives are a contaminant, and the fear of contamination flows both ways: we do not wish to bring our work home with us, either literally or metaphorically. The failure to do so is a trademark of the boomer mind, and the starting point for overwhelming tides of pain as the contaminated worker finds themselves loving an eldritch beast that cannot possibly love them back.
Intentionally or not we craft new personas for work. Usually more gender-conforming, more hierarchical, more dishonest, more polite than we would be in our daily lives. It is normal to adjust ourselves to fit our social context; work is only unusual in its large time commitment and lack of freedom. And though it may be normal, the differences between our work-self and our honest-self can be dramatic.
Apple TV’s Severance literalizes this split persona. The main cast are all “severed,” which is to say that when they enter a certain location at work, their memory switches over to a separate, parallel track. The memories they have at work and the memories they have at home are completely segregated; at work they have no recollection of life outside of work, and at home they remember nothing about work after they enter their elevator. The implications for privacy are made clear early: this is spun as a benefit to the workers. The benefit to corporate security is obvious but largely implied. The focus of the show is more on the small social effects of severance: what does this do to you at home, and what is done to the severed half?
The main character of the show is Mark Scout (Adam Scott, usually more associated with comedy but quite good at drama). The persona who lives outside of work, the “outie,” is a former history professor, widower, and alcoholic. He is barely functional as a person, and if his sister Devon (Jen Tullock) were not dragging him to social events and blind dates he would probably disappear completely. As it stands he is still insightful and sarcastic, surprisingly welcome at social gatherings as a prickly but ultimately interesting character – somewhat Daria-esque. His “innie” keeps the humorous bite but otherwise is very different, what with not being consumed with poorly-managed grief. Innie Mark, “Mark S,” is generally quite jovial, and able to use his cynicism to enhance that common workplace camaraderie of acknowledging that work does suck but you still just gotta do it. We see the two run converging tracks: outie Mark continuously circling oblivion, innie Mark bumbling through lower management problems, both slowly approaching similar conclusions that this cannot be sustained.
Severance opens with a conservatively dressed woman passed out, alone, in a conference room. She is awoken by a speaker asking her, “who are you?” The voice backs up and asks her to take a survey of five questions. She is confused and belligerent, but ultimately answers. The first question sends her into a spiral.
Q: Who are you?
A: I don’t…what is this
Q: In which US state or territory were you born?
A:Wait. I don’t know.
Q: Please name any US state or territory, first that comes to mind.
A: Fuck, I don’t know, Delaware, what is this
Q: What is Mr. Egan’s favorite breakfast?
A: I don’t – that one makes no sense
Q: To the best of your memory, what is or was the color of your mother’s eyes?
A: Okay, what’s hap- what’s happening?
Our protagonist then enters the scene to tell her, and us, that this is a perfect score.
This scene is perfect for setting the stakes and tone of the story, as well as laying out the major characteristics of our deuteragonist (Helly R, played by Britt Lower). Our main cast are profoundly ignorant, not quite tabula rasa but lacking in any knowledge of their own experiences, the recent past, or any sense of self prior to waking up in an office.
This is functionally Mark S’s first management task, onboarding a new employee. Helly R is aggressive and recalcitrant, openly disdainful of the job itself, and repeatedly attempts to resign. Her attempts at resignation are consistently denied, not by the managers but by her own outie. In a particularly chilling scene, Helly R watches a video message to her from her own outie, in which the outie lays out that it is not the innie’s place to attempt to refuse a job. Staring straight into the camera, both diegetically and in the more usual sense, she says “I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions. You do not.” Eventually she attempts suicide – specifically, attempts suicide in such away that her outie would wake up during the attempt.
The other two employees that Mark S manages provide us with a rather direct set of opposites. Dylan G (Zach Cherry) is competitive, comical, and prone to conspiracy theories. He is, of the characters, the most nakedly motivated by extrinsic rewards, placing great value on the various perks Lumon bestows on employees for hitting records. A mildly viral gif of him ignoring a particularly nightmarish bit of mandatory corporate bonding (a “Music Dance Experience”) stands as the character’s breaking point in the first season. Irving B (John Turtorro) is our martinet, and a true believer in the corporate ideology of Lumon. He expresses frequent awe at things that could be described, generously, as chintzy. He has an epiphany when he throws a tantrum at the retirement party for his romantic partner, Burt G (Christopher Walken), recognizing finally one of the things most people figure out quite quickly: that retiring from this job is an actual death sentence for the innie, something that takes the possibility of him losing his lover to recognize1I must take a moment to break my usual writing style to confirm something for my audience: yes there is an onscreen romantic relationship between John Turtorro and Christopher Walken, and yes they absolutely bring their A-game..
The actual nature of Mark S’s work is simultaneously inscrutable and familiar. They refer to it as “Macrodata Analytics,” and it consists of staring at a swimming screen of numbers and clicking on numbers that provoke specific emotions, like a specific “4” might be “scary” or “playful.” When they try to train Helly R, she understandably finds this baffling. And yet, for the large number of Americans who work in what seems to be our primary productive industry – spreadsheet mining – this makes a perverse degree of sense. Become familiar enough with the specifics of your employer’s payroll or invoice data and you too can read dozens of rows of excel in seconds and confidently go “wait, that 2 shouldn’t be there” at a glance. In a series about the eeriness of everyday workplace experiences, they nail that one of the major job skills of the modern workplace is somehow both hard, repeatable analysis in theory while resembling a ouija board in practice.
The series gives us a set of three critics who confront Mark over the course of the season, each proposing their own alternative to Mark Scout’s severed job: June Kilmer (Cassidy Layton), Alexa (Nikki M. James), and Ricken (Michael Chernus).
June is the daughter of a deceased severed employee, Petey Kilmer (Yul Vazquez).
June and Mark meet at Petey’s funeral, where June is confused and aggressive about Mark’s relationship with Petey – after all, isn’t the whole point that Petey and Mark would never remember each other once they are outside? June stabs blindly but successfully at the heart of Mark’s motivations, criticizing her father and collaterally Mark for using severance as a means of escaping the flaws of their daily lives. ‘Men would rather create fully new identities in a quest for self obliteration than go to therapy.’ The alternative she suggests is the most perfunctory: simply don’t seek obliteration through work. Spend time with your family, be present for them. While it’s not bad advice, to be honest I just don’t see how applicable this is. Petey worked a 9-5 job, and that time plus commute goes into the bonfire anyway. Doing that job with a continuous memory would still be throwing those 40something hours a week in the trash no matter what, and people do that and much longer while being parents all the time. Is this critique meant to extend to anybody who has children without aristocratic wealth?
Alexa is a doula that has a brief romance with Mark. The conversations between them serve as some of the most tense moments of the series, going deep into the series’ strongest critique of severance: what do you talk about if you don’t talk about work. Alexa is very present and invested in her work, and derives great emotional satisfaction from helping pull life into the world. It is central to her identity, a distinction with Mark that is sharp, overwhelming, oppressive in most of the scenes they share. Alexa is happy and vivacious, with a clear sense of how she fits into the world, Mark is empty and shallow, a broken man with no purpose other than annihilation. The chemistry they have is very yin and yang, the thanotic Mark’s destruction serving as a compelling void to draw the bright and full Alexa forward.
Ricken is introduced early, in the first episode, but his presence becomes more significant as the series goes on. He is Mark’s brother-in-law, and is a powerful foil. Mark is a great example of a guy you invent to get mad at: “the bitter loser,” sarcastic, insightful, unhappy, funny: a person who cracks critical jokes at the expense of “winners” in order to mask their own emptiness. Ricken is of course how such Bitter Losers view the alternative: Panglossian, bloviating, cheerful, annoying—an empty head vomiting bromides without any ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Ricken is responsible for an extremely funny series of scenes, where a self-help book that he wrote winds up on the severed floor, a radical breach of the information quarantine that the severed live in (where the only book allowed is the corporate founders’ book of, well, corporate philosophy/religion). Mark and Dylan’s innies covertly read Ricken’s book, which is read to the audience in voice over. The book is awful, and the juxtaposition of Ricken’s utterly asinine rambling2“My failure to break into the literary world in my 20s was devastating. But it taught me a vital lesson. That it was not me who was wrong, but literature itself.” “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.” “If you are a soldier, do not fight for my freedom. Fight for the freedom of the soldier fighting next to you. This will make the war more inspiring for you both.” “A good person will follow the rules. A great person will follow himself.” “Bullies are nothing but Bull and Lies.” “At the center of industry is dust.” “They cannot crucify you if your hand is in a fist” with Mark’s clear enchantment and generic “smart person piano music” is genuinely hilarious.
Where the series rang the most false for me is the broad acceptance that the innie and the outie are separate people. I am not bothered that the people who experience it directly treat it this way, but the people who have no direct experience are, if anything, more hardline about it. Mark is the one who finds himself in conversations defending “well no, the person on the inside is also me,” much less often encountering civilians who try to convince him “no you’re still you whether or not you remember it.” America generally does not treat lapses of memory or breaks in consciousness as creating a whole new person. “I forgot” is not a criminal defense. We generally hold people responsible for their behavior when black out drunk – sometimes even more than for their sober actions under the aphorism “in vino veritas.” If, as the series implies, what the severed employees are doing is immoral and offensive, the fact that the workers don’t remember anything is just not going to stand up in the court of public opinion. There is only one place where Americans seem to accept the possibility that a physical body and the mental states that move through it are not one-to-one, and it is a long-standing well-spring of horror.
Dissociative disorders are characterized by a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior. Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of psychological functioning. This chapter includes dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, depersonalization/derealization disorder, other specified dissociative disorder, and unspecified dissociative disorder.
Dissociative disorders are frequently found in the aftermath of a wide variety of psychologically traumatic experiences in children, adolescents, and adults.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
Dissociation is absolutely one of the more scary sounding psychiatric conditions, up there and often associated with schizophrenia. Dissociative Identity Disorder in particular provokes a special kind of fear in the Western mind, invoking above all else Jekyll & Hyde.
A more detached reading of the DSM description of dissociation, however, reveals that it describes something much more mundane. Being fully present and integrated is not something that people do 100% of the time. We zone out of boring conversations, fall into highway hypnosis, and of course sleep. Most meditative states induce various degrees of dissociation, and doing so under controlled circumstances can be profoundly helpful. More germane, most of us dissociate for work.
And why wouldn’t we? Dissociation is a coping mechanism for dealing with both stress and boredom, the two primary emotions of the workplace, and dissociating substantially cuts the edge off of the inevitable emotional labor that is increasingly prominent in 21st century jobs.
My attempts to make dissociation sound benign and common are, frankly, insufficient.
Dissociation is, even if you can accept that it is not-unpleasant, deeply at odds with Enlightenment notions of personhood and agency. It is bad enough to try to claim to be a rational being continuously moving through life when you might change your mind in new circumstances, how much worse when you can’t count on any given time-slice of yourself – including the present! – retaining specific memories or emotions. As the DSM says: “can potentially disrupt every area of psychological functioning.” And that extends even further to social functioning – how can we justify prisons? How can we count on friends? How can we know we’d be a good parent?
There are two prospective parents in the series, who form an ongoing b-plot. One is Devon, whose pregnancy serves as a continuous nucleus for interdependence, drawing both people and plots together and ultimately rendering Mark’s innie-outie divide unsustainable. The other is Gabby, a wealthy woman who has used severance to dissociate herself from her pregnancy, creating a personality that takes the unpleasant tasks of childbirth while leaving the rest of Gabby free to enjoy the fruits of that labor.
Gabby allows herself to believe that the pain of childbirth has been evaded or discarded, but obviously somebody is doing the work. The work hasn’t been eliminated, merely externalized. The trapping of a seemingly magical tech reminds us anew of the fundamental injustice of this practice, which is not fundamentally distinct from a remote controlled delivery drone, or any of a number of servant professions ultimately, that are perfectly mundane. It may appear that nobody has done the work, but ultimately somebody still has.
But really there is a distinction. The Gabby who gives birth did not consent, and is legally not a person. She is a tool for use and disposal by the Gabby who gets to live the rest of her life. She has no choice in the matter, has no ability to say no, is not compensated, and lives and dies at the whim of the other Gabby. She is not a service worker. She is a slave. One Gabby is a person, the other is not. One Gabby makes choices, the other does not. Morally, philosophically, both are Gabby, both are people. Legally, politically, one Gabby is real and the other is fiction.This distinction is only sustainable by the belief that dissociation is not a creative force, a distinction deployed cynically when it aids the powerful.
This reinforces the value of using a sci-fi setting. We know that slavery is part of human history, and are sometimes capable of admitting that it is with us today. When we see honest historical depictions of slavery, the modern American has a well-established set of defenses: “things are different today. Look how far we’ve come.” Severance confronts us with a darkness of Western civilization: slavery is only held at bay by legal technicalities. If the powerful could, they would (and do) use slavery at a whim. It is after all the conception of freedom that the Romans held and that echoes through our own patricians: that freedom means the ability to dispose of others as objects; the freedom from mutual, bilateral consequences for actions; 3Graeber, David and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, New York: Penguin, 2021 the freedom both to alienate and be alienated. By setting its action in the near future, Severance reminds us that this slavery is not behind us but very plausibly ahead of us, and the thing stopping us is less the technology than the legality. And law is a thin, thin defense.
Presence, Absence, and Omnipresence
Virtually every conversation that happens on screen in Severance revolves around severance. By default I would find this incredibly grating: surely you have something different to talk about? In the case of Severance I find myself defending the choice: the concept is interesting enough that I did not get sick of it, the usual problem, but secondarily, severance is the only thing left happening in Mark Scout’s life. He has created a 40 hour hole in his week, and has not succeeded at filling the remaining 128 hours with anything meaningful, so the hole is all there is.
This speaks to the impossibility of oblivion for humans. We are meaning-creating machines, famously adept at finding faces where they’re obviously fake.4My favorite example is Chichibu Chinsekikan, “The Hall of Curious Rocks,” in Chichibu, Japan: a museum devoted to rocks that, through some accident of nature, happen to resemble faces. It reflects neither any elemental truth about rocks, nor about any artist’s hand, purely the audience’s ability to fit meaning to outside stimulus We abhor boredom, openly courting pain as an alternative.
And so that is what we see of Mark Scout. He keeps returning to the concept of severance not with the enthusiasm of a tech booster, but with the guilt of a criminal. He is not Elon Musk but Raskolnikov, made sadder by the fact that his wound is not self-inflicted. His unsevered persona only really breaks through to authentic emotions by engaging with the memory of his dead wife, by touching and accepting his grief rather than running from it. His status as widower is present in all of his unsevered scenes. At the same time, images of his wife are conspicuously absent: at one point he holds up a photograph of his wife to Alexa, but it is not possible for the viewer to actually see the photograph, only Mark and Alexa reacting to Mark’s actions. The revelation of her appearance, and the fact that despite her absence she has been present the whole time, is saved for the final scene, the final line of the season.
The season ends with the way that we so often wish capitalist critiques ended, with the characters taking a self-conscious collective action to screw over their employer. As industrial actions so often are, it is a dramatic opening gambit, but not a conclusion. It has optimism but not a simple conclusion, instead leaving us hanging on the precipice not only of wondering what might happen next but which of the perspectives on resistance will succeed.
That open-endedness and ambiguity around hope is why I felt compelled to review this. Dystopian science fiction that can be summarized with “capitalism bad” do not need further intellectual engagement. Severance is much closer to talking about real social strategies that we use in our day to day life, strategies that are not obscure or novel, but so subtly woven into our daily function that we do them without naming them. The extension of the existing strategy into further science fiction creates a space for pointing out the harm of these existing strategies, and gives Severance some space to discuss ways to defeat that harm.
And as highlighted, I was not always impressed with their suggestions. Work is treated by the show as an optional hobby, an alternative to being alone with one’s thoughts rather than an obligation forced upon us through our unjust society’s willingness to keep necessities from us if we do not submit to some dipshit who inherited a car dealership. To steal from Max Weber,
In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Max Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
We already live well inside that iron cage, so long that Baxter and his ilk are more alien than anything we see on Star Trek, but Severance seems to frustratingly see employment as Baxter sees mercantilism. It sees our iron cage as a cloak about which we can make decisions lightly and easily, and that the choice to take on a job that requires dissociation is a personal, psychological choice rather than a cruel necessity of circumstance.
Despite my frustration, I find myself incredibly charmed with Severance. Maybe it is because it deftly parodies a lifestyle I recognize, maybe it is the off-puttingly white plastic cyberpunk set designs. Maybe it is how hot the Turtoro-Walken romance is. But I think above all of the technical details, it is that the series argues for hope without certitude.