What if there was a way you could permanently leave your work at work and live your life free of job worries?
On “Severance,” the new Apple TV+ series that concluded its first season this week, that is the promise Lumon offers to its “severed” employees, who agree to have their memories surgically divided between their work and personal lives as part of their employment contract.
For Lumon, severance is a nondisclosure agreement taken to new extremes. As soon as severed employees step out of a Lumon elevator, they have no memory of who they work with or what they work on.
The show follows Mark, played by Adam Scott. At home, he’s a lonesome man grieving the loss of his wife, while at work he’s an obedient company man leading Lumon’s severed Macrodata Refinement team. For Mark, working for Lumon is an eight-hour reprieve when he is not haunted by his grief. His “innie,” as Lumon management call his work side, knows no family and sees no people other than his co-workers. He doesn’t know what sleep is like. “I find it helps to focus on the effects of sleep since we don’t get to experience it,” Mark tries to reassure his new direct report. It’s bleak.
All severed Mark knows about the world is the windowless building he works in, and for the most part, he has made his peace with the arrangement.
Innie Mark is more self-assured than his grief-stricken outie. He walks straighter and parrots back the company handbook sayings, like “the work is mysterious and important,” without irony.
But as the season unfurls, we see severed employees who are not willing to work forever just for the reward of a quarterly waffle party. And that’s where “Severance” shines at highlighting how ridiculous and inhumane workplace culture can be.
“Severance” skewers familiar corporate language and perks.
One part that “Severance” nails is how business language can distort itself to the point where words mean nothing. Mark and his team all work in “Macrodata Refinement,” and even after watching the finale I am no closer to understanding what exactly is getting refined.
At Lumon, obtuse business language is also a euphemism for corporate misdeeds. The break room is actually a detention center designed to break employee’s spirits. An “overtime contingency” mechanism is a sinister surveillance tool that violates employees’ privacy.
Lumon’s severed floor is really where the show pokes fun at sad corporate perks. Irving, the most-senior macrodata refiner (played wonderfully by John Turturro), remembers a time when employees were incentivized with coffee creamer. Dylan, another refiner, is pleased by the finger trap puzzle and cartoon caricatures he earns as he completes a task. When an employee earns an MDE, it’s a five-minute Music Dance Experience for which the employee gets to pick a song and boogie around their desk.
When this is all the stimulus your mind gets to experience, even a brief hip-shaking dance to “defiant jazz” with your evil manager can seem like a break from the drudgery and horror of endless toil.
“Severance” spins work-life balance advice on its head.
“Don’t live to work. Work to live” is the commercial slogan printed on Lumon’s severance chip. Lumon’s girlboss public spokesperson (Sydney Cole Alexander) describes severance as a way to put the “human first.” It’s a perverse interpretation of work-life balance.
When newest Lumon trainee Helly (Britt Lower) is onboarded, we see the human sacrifices that make a life free of work troubles possible. After Helly undergoes severance, she wakes up on a conference table, not knowing where she is, or who she is. When she realizes that her life will now be spent endlessly toiling away on a computer, she has a reasonable response: “I quit. I don’t want to do the file-sorting thing or the never-seeing-the-sun thing.“
Mark tries to reassure her with the facts of their employment: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.” But Helly refuses to accept that this is her life, and sends many resignation requests to her outie.
Helly’s refusal to work the job escalates to a point where innie Helly threatens to chop off her fingers with a paper cutter unless her outie lets her quit. Through a video message to innie Helly, her counterpart lays down the law of her existence. Outie Helly says she understands that her work self may be unhappy, but this is the lot she has been given.
“I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions. You do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you horribly alive to regret that,” outer Helly firmly and coolly continues. “Your resignation request is denied.”
This is where the show succeeds at using Helly’s bizarre battle with herself to talk about a familiar work conundrum: What’s the ideal boundary to set between work and the rest of your life?
It’s normal to act differently at your job than in the privacy of your home. Researchers call people who draw hard work-life boundaries “extreme segmenters.” Segmenters separate work and home through objects ― for example, by having separate calendars, uniforms or keys for each place or activity. Segmenters love ending the work day at the same time every day. “Integrators,” on the other hand, are workers, researchers find, that prefer for everything to be intertwined, and don’t need hard lines between where work starts and begins. Integrators don’t mind taking an hour break at lunch and then going back to work.
The researchers on preferred work styles have found that no matter if you are an integrator or a segmenter, you still need recovery time. “Severance” shows the fallout of what happens when “extreme segmenters” get no breaks.
To get true recovery from work, researchers find that you need detachment from the job, relaxation, time to gain a sense of mastery over a skill, or time to do what you will. The tragedy of each severed worker is that they get no time to recharge.
Take Mark. During the weekends away from Lumon, he drinks and isolates himself from his loved ones, and that carries over to his work self. His body keeps score of what his mind is trying to forget. As ex-colleague Petey shares with outie Mark, he could always tell when Mark spent the morning before work crying: “You carry the hurt with you. You feel it down there too. You just don’t know what it is.“
The most horrific parts of “Severance” remind me of the film “Sleep Dealer,” which is also a dystopian workplace nightmare. “Sleep Dealer” follows a Mexican man named Memo who works a “node job” where employees have to get cyber implants. While his body is in stasis in a factory, Memo’s cyber arms virtually power robots constructing skyscrapers and robots mowing lawns in America. As one character in the film puts it, “We give the United States what they always wanted: All the work without the workers.”
No spoilers for the “Severance” finale, but what this sci-fi thriller and films like “Sleep Dealer” do best is show the inhumanity of bosses forcing workers to do work without considering any of their human needs. Luckily, even when companies do their best to subjugate workers into compliance, there are still parts of humanity that will always rebel and harbor dreams of autonomy and true rest. The body remembers.