Severance is a horrifying examination of America's corporate culture and the predatory power of those corporations. What does it mean to separate yourself from your "work" self, to remove yourself from any accountability for your actions at work, and to become a corporate slave? Through the pandemic, we've seen a rise in worker power that has afforded us many improvements from the physical office spaces, to better pay, and a stronger sense of importance for our lives outside of work.
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Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives. When a mysterious colleague appears outside of work, it begins a journey to discover the truth about their jobs.
Creator Dan Erickson
Severance: the Dangers of Compartmentalizing Our Work and Personal Life by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
You ever wish you could turn off your brain and work efficiently, without any distractions from your regular life or the weight of your insignificance bearing down on you? Well do we have the opportunity for you! Get yourself severed. No that’s not a sex thing. It’s completely safe for work. In fact, it’s best for work. Or is it?
Creator and writer, Dan Erickson got the crazy idea that I’m sure we’ve all had at some point in our lives, working at a mindless and uncreative job that requires none of our personality and all of our workforce potential. While working at a “door factory,” a company that made, sold, and installed doors and fences, Erickson was struck by the idea of “clocking-out” of his own mind. In an interview on the Q&A podcast as part of Backstory magazine, Erickson remembers the thought that launched the award-winning show, “I was there and I was going into work one morning and I literally had this idea that was like, What if there was some way where you could sit, be at the desk, doing your job but you didn’t have to be…you didn’t have to associate with that time. You could pull away and not experience it. And you could just feel like you had skipped the work day….And that’s a kind of horrifying thing to catch yourself wanting and it was all just born out of that.”
Having such a mindless job can be rewarding in that way. It was at this job and others that were equally unfulfilling but paid the bills, that Erickson was able to focus and write the pilot for the show. My partner had a similar situation while working in a security position with very minimal interaction that left him oftentimes bored out of his mind. He was able to write an entire book there.
This idea that “nobody wants to work anymore” is not only false because people have never wanted to work but also a gross workforce version of the “girls don’t date nice guys” argument. Nobody wants to work. Working sucks. It’s laborious, a word with synonyms like arduous, heavy, difficult, strenuous, grueling, and murderous. The pandemic highlighted these very feelings in an extreme way reducing us to just the bare-bones components of working, removing our interactions with co-workers. It reminded us that we are not built only for working, we are humans, complex with our needs. Like tedious, mismanaged plants, we were all yearning for some sunlight and community-photosynthesis. So when Severence premiered in 2022, we all felt the messaging deeply.
In Severance, employees of the mega-company of undisclosed, mysterious purpose, Lumon, have undergone an extreme, new surgery that “severs” their minds into two parts. We have ourselves as we know them, our outside, everyday life parts of ourselves which remember everything we’ve done in life and interact with our family, friends, and grief. These are affectionately referred to as “outies.” But now, through the severance process, they have birthed a new version of themselves that exists alongside this first self, one that does not remember their life other than work. Birthed in that they wake up on a table, in the first moment of their existence as this human listening to the words of someone through a speaker, separated and new. These are the “innies.” Once an employee clocks in to Lumon, taking the elevator to their respective floors, something triggers the severance, activating their innie’s existence.
An Innie’s whole world is inside the office. When they clock out, the elevator switches their brain back on to their Outie life and memory. At first, the idea can seem positive. Some people already practice a form of severance in their lives now. Though not as extreme as a surgical manipulation, there are workers who are known as “extreme segmenters.” In an article on Huffpost titled, Apple TV+'s 'Severance' Nails How Absolutely Inhuman Our Work Culture Is, writer Monica Torres explains how researchers studying our work-life balance have designated workers into different types. “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 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 show follows Mark, Helly, Irving and Dylan all working diligently under the watchful eyes of the hot Mr. Melchik. The work in the Metadata Refinement division of Lumon. Helly is a new addition and after being just born into this corporate world is immediately over it and refuses to live in the sunless void that is their office. She sends many requests to her outie asking that they resign but is consistently denied. Helly gets more and more desperate for escape and threatens her own safety to get the message through. Mark is a longtime employee who we learn has a tragic history that led him to the severed process. After losing his wife, an event that still haunts Outie Mark, he opted for a few hours every day to simply not have to remember he’d loved and lost. Only, even without the specific memories of the loss, Innie Mark will often physically feel the aftermath of Outie Mark’s depression proving that the severance isn’t without it’s flaws even in this regard. Viewers follow these characters as they slowly begin to question the placating conditions that they work under. They venture outside their floor’s white walls and encounter all kinds of troubling scenarios leading to an understanding that the severance process is far more troubling than first believed.
The show is creative with its horror that is as cold and unfeeling as corporate culture. The first iterations of the script featured more dramatic, scifi or fantastical realism inspirations with fleshy technology or the presence of robots. The finished piece however, is corporate and realistic, even in its absurdity. The show repurposes corporate terminology and culture into something far more honest and equally grim. The severance procedure is an extreme form of a non-disclosure agreement. Inspiring questions about what the employees of Lumon are up to down there in their cubicles. The meaningless nonsense designations of their roles is amplified. What does “Macrodata Refinement” even mean?
In that same article, Torres reinforces the terminology’s newly villainous meanings saying, “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.”
As far as the Innies of the Macrodata Refinement sector know, their job is to sort numbers. Sort them into where, why, and what, and hmm?? Is not addressed. The process is a bizarre blend of monotony and abstraction. The workers are told to sort numbers based on how the numbers make them feel: WO, numbers that make you sad; FC, numbers associated with happiness and joy; DR, numbers that will scare you; and MA, numbers that make you angry. When new hire Helly inquires about this process, wondering how she could possibly know when a number is “scary,” she is told that she would simply feel it. This odd association with something mundane, illicting a puzzling, vivid and emotional reaction reminds me of inherited traumas. Where our bodies may be triggered by something our brain remembers, sometimes that memory isn’t even ours but of our ancestors, our relatives before us. Something in that severance process has inspired these emotions, tied to numbers on a screen and the idea that technology could have such an impact on us is terrifying in itself.
But even more troubling then the physical response of these employees is the ambiguity around what sorting the numbers means. In an article on Mashable titled, 4 fascinating things we learned from the 'Severance' companion book, writer Belen Edwards uncovers some troubling hypotheses about the work done at Lumon saying,
“What does the MacroData Refinement team do? If The Lexington Letter is to be believed, macrodata refiners are unknowingly engaging in corporate espionage. Peggy's innie tells her that she completed a big file, titled "Lexington," at 2:30 p.m. Later that day, Peggy hears that a truck belonging to Dorner Therapeutics — a Lumon competitor — had been blown up, destroying several Dorner devices and killing six. The bomb went off at 2:32 p.m., just after the Lexington file had been completed. Peggy acknowledges in her letter that it could just be coincidence, but knowing how sick and twisted Lumon is, the timing is too close to be an accident.”
This idea had me considering the game, Orwell, in which you play as a government employee surveilling the public looking for dangerous terrorists. In the game, you are only given a computer screen to work with. You navigate the cyberworld to find the answers. But having this distance from the humans you are surveilling allows you to make some drastic decisions that could be harmful to the humans on the other side of the screen. But this separation from action and consequence alleviates the hesitation one might have when making these decisions where someone’s life could be in danger. If we reduce corporate espionage and violence to mere numbers on a screen, to a game, or something so unlike the consequences of those actions would inspire, we can also remove the emotional calculation of the ones pulling the trigger, so to speak.
Beyond the perplexing division designation, the corporate lingo and culture peppers its way into the experiences of the workers only in slightly peculiar, unsettling ways. Where in our world we may be gifted a pizza party instead of something more helpful like I don’t know, a raise, the Metadata Refinement team will be given a Music Dance Experience for a few minutes of defiant jazz. The whole show is a brilliant critique on our work culture, the idea of hustle culture and making your whole life your job. Lumon boasts that you shouldn’t live to work but work to live and yet, an Innie’s whole life is work. There’s also a conversation to be said about Mark’s residence at the Lumon owned neighborhood or literally anything about the oppressive and peculiar Mrs. Cobel’s life, or anything to do with the founding father and family of Lumon, Kier Egan and the Egans.
There is a second season greenlit and underway though it has been stalled due to some creative disagreements amongst the team as well as the writer’s strike. After the truly thrilling and stressful ending season one left us with, I can’t wait for it to pick back up and answer all the questions it’s left us with.
Worker Power: Severance and the Pandemic has Inspired Employment Improvements by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
You may not remember your name but you’ve heard of the “work-life balance”, severance is a masterpiece of a show for me. It is definitely one of those, once you start you can’t stop watching. I cannot wait for season 2. The show itself is very much a reflection of worker dissatisfaction, of feeling like we are not being treated as humans while at our jobs. It’s a reflection of jobs that are positioned as if they are really important, but holding little to no personal value for the workers seeing them through. Jobs that offer no emotional fulfillment, and try to rationalize their necessity with cult-like euphemisms. It also is a societal reflection of corporate obsession with whatever version of forced labor they can get. Who cares if your job traumatizes you if you can’t remember it? The unseen harm that takes place behind closed doors, but not spoken of outside. This show is a call for worker unity so that corporations are kept in check.
Worker Power we’ve seen a lot of growth around, in recent years specifically because of the pandemic. Before, companies had a power of manipulating convenience, the “light pollution” that immersing ourselves in every facet of a corporation can have. How institutions can lull you into a false sense of security as it gradually strips away your rights. The pandemic in many ways gave us a wakeup call, a shaking into reality that only a pause in that reality could achieve, as it’s hard to know there's another way to exist when you’ve never seen what that can look like. The pandemic has opened a lot of peoples eyes to what life can be when not so distracted by our jobs.
In a Vox article titled: It’s still possible to get what you want at work: The era of worker power isn’t over. By Rani Molla they say:
“How we got here — and even where “here” is — is complicated. At the start of the pandemic, companies laid off workers en masse, causing unemployment to jump to its highest rate since the Great Depression and leaving workers with few options and little leverage. Then, thanks in part to government stimulus, the economy came roaring back, and employers couldn’t find enough workers to staff their operations. That ushered in an era of worker power dubbed the Great Resignation, in which workers were readily able to quit their jobs in exchange for better offers, driving up wages and prompting employers to propose all sorts of perks. Extended unemployment benefits came and went, but worker power remained.”
The pandemic also showed many people how awful the companies they worked for were, how thoughtless and cruel corporations could be. It also highlighted for many people what they were and weren’t willing to do for a job. Risking lives needed comparable compensation to be worth it, and if people wanted their normalcy back, companies would have to pay for it. Wage increases, governmental support, and other programs that had previously been stated as not possible, suddenly were given freely. We were painted a different picture of what could be done by our government, and it gave workers a window into what could be. This window has strengthened the movement similar to how a glimpse of the outside for the innie’s in Severance strengthened their resolve to escape.
In another Vox article Severance’s workplace brutality isn’t sci-fi. Neither is its worker power they say: Americans are quitting in droves. Companies paying poverty wages are having a hard time finding and retaining workers. Highly paid digital workers don’t want to return to the office. The pandemic stripped the padding that made white-collar jobs bearable — lunches with coworkers, Starbucks runs, breaks in fresh air — leaving only the rotten core of actual work behind. The message that Severance wants us to take away from it is worker power. That companies in reality need us, not the other way around. That if we work with our coworkers and build comradery that extends even outside the workplace that we can make a meaningful impact in our everyday lives. We see this in the show where any authentic communication takes place inside the severed floor. It’s in those moments that the severed employees find their drive to rebel. When they drop the fake smiles and state how they really feel, they learn that they aren’t alone in those feelings. Helly’s character kind of forces the group to face their problems head-on in her open rebellion. In her willingness to sacrifice herself to send a message, she kind of acts as a ignition to more radical change. The severed floor acts as a reminder for where we could end up if we allow corporations like Lumon to run unchecked. By preserving our autonomy, our genuineness, and our connection with others we protect ourselves, each other, and worker power. The result is increased wages, better workplace environments, and more meaningful incentives for staff that extend beyond empty pizza parties.
The show also acts as a warning against things like company towns that keep workers enclosed, dependent and vulnerable. In a PBS documentary titled “Slavery by Another Name” they overview the history of company towns, and speak to people who grew up in them. “In remote locations such as railroad construction sites, lumber camps, turpentine camps, or coal mines, jobs often existed far from established towns. As a pragmatic solution, the employer sometimes developed a company town, where an individual company owned all the buildings and businesses.
In some situations, company towns developed out of a paternalistic effort to create a utopian worker’s village. Churches, schools, libraries, and other amenities were constructed in order to encourage healthy communities and productive workers. Saloons or other places or services believed to be negative influences were prohibited.
In other cases, the company’s motivations were less ideal. The remoteness and lack of transportation prevented workers from leaving for other jobs or to buy from other, independent merchants. In some cases, companies paid employees with a scrip that was only good at company stores. Without external competition, housing costs and groceries in company towns could become exorbitant, and the workers built up large debts that they were required to pay off before leaving. Company towns often housed laborers in fenced-in or guarded areas, with the excuse that they were “protecting” laborers from unscrupulous travelling salesmen. In the South, free laborers and convict laborers were often housed in the same spaces, and suffered equally terrible mistreatment.” Company towns in modern days exist in the hubs of Amazon and Facebook. Amazon has transformed the bulk of Seattle into company owned property. Facebook has done much development on Willow Village in Menlo Park, CA. I have not been able to find anything about from 2023…The types of industry towns have similar impacts, but different implementations. The Amazon strategy is to buy up commercial property, and in doing so just increase rent and other infrastructure costs because of economic demand for living in those areas. Facebook’s method is true to the original company town goal of building infrastructure that creates housing for employees and gives them very little need to travel elsewhere. In this instance, it seems that facebooks’ incoming creation will mimic a Lumon structure (without the severance). Jobs within these industry towns appeal most to people who currently lack security in their daily lives, and it only benefits those types of industries if the daily quality of life for workers declines. They want the rent to rise, for food and gas to be more expensive, because then we’ll be desperate, and participate “willingly”.
There is also a decent amount of commentary on workplace conditions, and the ways offices will design around limiting worker communication, access to sunlight, etc. Workplace environments for the most part have improved in the office space capacity, with more businesses willing to offer health based amenities, and the ones who didn’t want to be somewhat forced to by covid regulations on air quality and staff health. According to the many articles I read about what are considered humane modern workplace conditions, it really showcases how much they dehumanize the characters of Severance in their work environments. The lack of windows, the continued utilization of cubicles, the empty and seemingly purposeless space, the hallways to nowhere, the subliminal art and recreational activities…The thinly veiled attempts at positive workspace seem entirely for show (which I mean they probably are based on the plot points). Fake celebrations, and cheap gifts mean nothing when you don’t actually care about the wellbeing of your staff. Incentives of finger traps, pizza parties/special lunches, etc. mean nothing when quality of life needs are not being met. The show calls all this out, in how jobs can really dehumanize workers while they exist in their spaces. That only someone entirely detached from that experience could be expected to want to come back the next day.
Where do we currently stand on worker power?
The times have been good. The workers movement has continued to rise largely because of increased demand for workers after the loss of many retiring baby boomers, as well as from the mass loss of life from the pandemic. This need for workers has forced companies to raise wages to compete with each other, as loyalty to companies is no longer a priority. Quality of life is. In the Vox article titled: It’s still possible to get what you want at work: The era of worker power isn’t over. By Rani Molla they say:
Additionally, when workers have been called back to the office, they have felt comfortable petitioning their employers — privately and publicly — to continue working from home. And when that doesn’t work, they’re simply refusing to abide by the return to office orders.”
“That willingness of employees to fight for what they want is also turning up in more organized labor actions. The number of strikes was up 52 percent in 2022, compared to a year earlier, and is still elevated, according to data from Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker.”
“Americans’ approval of unions, especially among young people — as well as a number of very public union campaigns and contract negotiations, like those at Starbucks and UPS and among teachers — could also make labor issues more central for more Americans. Already, union organizing and actions are happening in industries where such efforts had once been considered impossible.”
There are also less tangible reasons workers feel empowered. For many, the danger and death of the pandemic caused people to reconsider work’s central place in their lives. If work isn’t the most important thing in your life, decisions around staying or leaving a job became somewhat easier in the past couple of years. Nearly 40 percent of workers said their work has become less important to them in the last three years. As Gartner’s Duffy put it, more and more Americans are “questioning the purpose of their day-to-day work.”
Wealth inequality and the gap has really influenced worker rage and demand for change. With inflation taking the bulk of the benefit away from higher wages, many workers now see how big companies exploited the pandemic for personal gain and at worker expense.
“Workers are angry because the wealth gap has grown so great. They had been suffering, and during Covid, they were suffering acutely,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “Employers exploited the opportunity to make money and then didn’t share any of it.”