‘Severance’ Perfectly Captures the Dystopian, Quotidian Reality of the Modern Workplace

The clever use of a narrative device out of genre fiction allows a workplace comedy to be very funny while showing the horror of the void.

Severance, which just got renewed for a second season on Apple TV+, is the kind of miraculous television show that manages to mirror, and even anticipate, the shifts in our culture just as they’re happening. As the severed workers of Lumon Industries learn that they have the right to ask for better treatment, so are workers across America.

Severance is a show about a workplace where some workers have a chip implanted into their head that effectively separates their work life and their home life by making it impossible to access personal memories at work, and vice versa. While on the “severed” floor of the Lumon facility, workers cannot recall their memories of their home lives, nor their personal identities. They’ll know how to operate a computer, or know what a movie is, but they don’t have memories of surfing the web or watching any films. On the flip side, when they leave the office, they have no memories at all of their work day, returning home as if they’ve woken from a dream.

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Watching this show is an absolute thrill ride, with each episode ending on a maddening cliffhanger. I haven’t screamed at my television this much since the early days of Game of Thrones. But it’s not just the good storytelling that makes Severance captivating—each moment of drama is buoyed by a poignant reminder of how working people are beaten down by their bosses.

On the one hand, not remembering work is what a lot of people who work menial jobs—in offices or otherwise—would love. There’s nothing particularly thrilling about doing data entry all day long; one can see the appeal of being able to bifurcate your life so you don’t have any memories of the drudgery of labor. But the severed identities of the workers—who call themselves “innies” because they only exist inside the Lumon facility—also have identities and have developed a culture, including rituals and superstitions, that get them through the day. Mark S., played by Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott as a depressed, dark mirror of Ben Wyatt, tells his new co-worker Helly R. in one episode to try to focus on the benefits of sleep because they’ll personally never experience it. The office joker Dylan spends his time mythologizing about the other departments on the Lumon severed floor, and theorizes that outside identity is probably a bodybuilding ladykiller. Irving B., who has worked on the severed floor the longest of the four, deeply buys into what corporate management tells them about the Lumon company and its mysterious founder, Kier Eagan, taking solace in the idea that whatever it is they’re doing, Lumon is making the world a better place.

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But the limitations of the severed floor is clearly not enough for the innies, who are as curious as newborn children. As they begin to learn more about the world, they also begin to understand how the Lumon corporation is deceiving them not just about the work they do but also about how human beings should be treated.

Throughout the show, severance has been a useful device to illustrate how alienating it is to be a worker in America right now. The severed workers have no idea what it is they’re actually doing. Mark S. is the lead for a small team of “Macro Data Refiners.” What they do is look at a screen full of numbers, find the ones that feel “scary,” and then sort them into an appropriate file. When you get down to it, how else would you describe many office jobs? You’re looking at scary numbers for which you have no context and then sorting them.

The managers at Lumon use the lack of knowledge that the severed workers have to coerce them into doing their jobs without complaint. The workers aren’t allowed to send messages to their outside identities—”outies”—and Lumon installs scanners that detect written messages in the elevators to make sure they don’t. When workers get stressed, they are sent to “wellness sessions” where a counselor tells them vague facts about their outies to calm them down. They’re also plied with incentives for doing more work. One worker boasts about his collection of erasers he’s been given for his exemplary work, even though there are no pencils on the severed floor. Late in the season, one character is awarded with a “Music and Dance Experience,” like so many perfunctory office dance parties.

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But where there’s a carrot, there’s also a stick. Early on in the show, a character laments that coffee creamer used to be incentivized—if they were below quota, they had to drink their coffee black. If the severed workers break the rules, they’re taken to the “break room,” where they’re forced to repeat an inane apology until they actually believe it. Once, Mark S. warns another employee not to write a message on her skin, or else their security officer will have to use “the bad soap” on her.

It’s all so reminiscent of how workers are treated across all industries that I sometimes have to pause the show just to shake off my nerves. At places like Amazon, words like “union” and “restroom” are banned in their internal chat apps. Workers who try to raise the alarm about the cruel ways they’re being treated are not only fired but also smeared by the company. Workers who are trying to unionize at Starbucks are also being fired, and Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to CEO Howard Schultz warning him not to keep union busting. For so many people, the only way to keep your job is to put your head down and not complain, lest they use their proverbial bad soap on you.

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Last week’s episode, the one before this week’s season finale, depicted the workers on the severed floor finally all banding together to try to tell people about the various cruelties they experience. I happened to watch this show on the same day that workers at the Amazon warehouse in New York voted to unionize, and it filled me with an electric and contagious sense of hope.

Dylan, the character most enthusiastic about the incentives Lumon offers him for his macro data refinement, has a moment where shows his fellow workers that he stands beside him. He’s been selected for the coveted “waffle party,” given to workers with exemplary performance that quarter. Dylan also receives an extra incentive that he gets to select himself: a glass engraving of his fellow refiners. Each of the severed workers gets a photograph of the whole team to keep at their desk, but if anyone leaves the team, the photo is confiscated or replaced. Even if someone leaves this current group of refiners, Dylan will always have his engraving. They can’t make him forget the solidarity he feels.

In that same episode, the severed workers are finally disillusioned with Lumon as a whole, and concoct a plan to get the word out. When Mark S. tries to convince their part-time wellness counselor that she deserves more than the company gives her—more respect, more kindness, more comradery—he doesn’t point out the various indignities they experience on the day to day.

“Why do you care what happens to me?” she says, surrounded by boxes in her office because she’s just been unceremoniously fired.

“Because we’re people,” he says. “Even with what little they gave us, these are our lives.”

This is what so many workers across America are all saying right now. They’re people, and they deserve to be heard, to be treated with dignity, to have a workplace that doesn’t abuse them. Severance is an echo of this cultural moment, where workers are saying that they won’t be exploited anymore.

Tagged:

labor, severance, apple tv plus

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