It is often said that we live two lives, one at home and one at work. People speak—rather unfortunately—of “work spouses,” for example. On the average workday, we spend more time outside the home, commuting and at work, than we do at home.
These two modes of existence—at home and at work—are explored in the new Apple TV+ show Severance, which ended its first season in April on a marvelous cliffhanger. It has since been renewed for a second season and nominated for fourteen Emmys, two of which it has already won (the “creative arts” Emmys for main title design and music score). We will find out on September 12 how many of the major awards it will win.
Produced by Ben Stiller, Severance is about a group of people who work for Lumon Industries (a corporation described as “the world’s leading biotechnology company, making life better for all of humanity”), which requires their personal at-home memories to be separated from their at-work memories. This is done via a surgical implant that switches on and off whenever they take the elevator to and from their basement office.
In effect, two people are “created” in this process, an “innie” and an “outie.” The innies who work in the labyrinthine basement jump on the elevator to go home, and then (as far as their memory and experience go) are deposited right at work again seemingly a moment later, even though it’s the next morning. They are rested from the night, but it’s as if they never left the building.
Adam Scott, formerly of Parks and Recreation, plays the protagonist Mark Scout, who took a “severed” job to escape the grief of his wife’s death—at least for part of the time, he won’t be haunted by her. He ends up in charge of one of the departments—Macrodata Refinement—and must help a new employee, Helly Riggs (Britt Lower), adapt to her rookie position. During this onboarding (to use corporate-speak), they realize that something isn’t quite right. Helly wants to leave but cannot voluntarily quit her job. The first season consists largely of her failed attempts to escape. Innies cannot pass notes to their outies; all communication between the two worlds is filtered through management.
At Lumon, innies are rewarded with office parties or company-branded tchotchkes for good performance. If depression hits, they are treated to “wellness sessions,” where they are told vague things about their outies. If they break the rules, they get sent to the “break room” until they apologize, no matter how long it takes.
Severance deftly walks the lines between science fiction, psychological thriller, and even workplace comedy; as a Ben Stiller production, it has its funny moments. One of the attractions of speculative fiction such as this is its ability to explore a potential future, to take the world as we know it and our current experiences and posit what might logically come next. By doing that, we can better judge the direction reality may be taking us. If this is the case, the message of Severance is that the American corporate workplace is heading in the wrong direction.
Any student of history can track today’s corporate environment to the industrial revolution and the titans of industry who brought large numbers of people together to work toward a common end, whether it was digging for and refining oil, manufacturing cars, writing computer code, or even, alas, creating “biotechnology.” These things have increased wealth and built the modern global economy as we know it today, with its many material benefits. But at what cost to the human person, who has become nothing more than a wage slave? In Severance, it’s the innies who want to escape, but cannot. The outies are just fine (mostly) with their opposite lives, even though they lose eight hours each day.
Work life at Lumon is reminiscent of so many companies that make up corporate America, where copious hyperdulia is offered up to the founders and their descendants, like the Eagan family behind Lumon. The severance that takes place in the show guarantees the company near-complete control of its employees. The purpose of it all remains a mystery to the viewer.
The COVID lockdown led many people to consider whether there was something more natural, and fitting, about working from home rather than an office. Surveys taken at the time indicated that many wanted to keep working remotely.
Working from home certainly has its perks, such as the lack of a commute and the ability to wear comfortable clothes. The more substantial benefit is that one can spend more time with family. On the other hand, not everyone has a home that is conducive to work. We also lose office culture and camaraderie. As companies seek to bring workers back into their cubicles, the debate as to how we should work, and why we work, continues.
The success of Severance, with its good writing and solid acting, springs also from how it hints at a truth many of us observe: Severing our work lives not just from our personal lives but from who we really are is becoming more and more difficult to do. The more our careers take over our lives, the less we are able to live as members of a family and meaningful community, and the less we are able to enjoy true leisure, to be fully human. Thanks to COVID and workplace satire such as Severance, we may be learning this before it is too late.
K. E. Colombini writes from St. Louis, Missouri.
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Image by Oregon Department of Transportation licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.