We’ve all seen a lot of corporate dystopian thrillers at this point. So, it’s surprising that Ben Stiller’s Severance still finds new ways to strike a nerve.
This new nine-episode Apple TV+ series, mostly directed by Stiller, centers on Lumon Industries, a company with a controversial program designed to “surgically divide” employees’ work memories from memories of their personal lives, meaning they’re always partly amnesiac. As newly promoted department head Mark Scout (Adam Scott) explains to job trainee Helly R. (Britt Lower), participation in the program is entirely voluntary, and “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.”
That line is one of the nerve-strikes — that terrible suggestion that you chose this employment and keep on choosing it. It’s one of the pernicious bits of propaganda that burdens us: that in our mad scramble to make a living, we could’ve always made much better “choices.” If we don’t like a job, why don’t we just get another? If our career path turns out to be disastrous, why don’t we just change careers? As if we were living in a giant playground, and when you got tired of the slide or the jungle gym, you could always try the swings.
The locked-in horror of Severance nicely captures the familiar feeling of having already made the career choice that spells doom. We discover that fortyish Mark Scout took the irrevocable option of working on “the severed floor” after his wife died, so that he’d be free of the crushing memory of her death — at least part of the time — while working at Lumon Industries. We see him sobbing in his car in the parking lot before he walks into the massive office building. When he comes up in the elevator, we see his face morphing from the dragged-down depression of his agonizing personal life to his brighter, more alert “work face,” as his brain gets wiped of whatever happened during his off-hours.
We know the reason behind the facial change, but it also evokes any awful sense you might have of feeling compelled to put on a cheerful, can-do “work face” to meet your day, no matter what might be happening to you personally.
Mark’s work situation is full of corporate horrors familiar to most of us who’ve done at least one stint in those chilly hallways that open onto dreadfully similar offices and conference rooms. Mark seems to have to walk miles through the white labyrinth of sameness on his way to his own office, where a four-person set of cubicles sits strangely isolated in an enormous, windowless space. There the “Macro-data Refinement Department” team works on a mysterious process of data cleansing, watching an endless series of numbers appearing on their computer screens until they locate the ones that “look scary,” then disposing them in bins. It takes practice to recognize the “scary” numbers.
The team includes know-it-all Dylan (Zach Cherry), who’s always winning prizes for productivity, useless things like finger-traps made in the company’s signature blue color. The ultimate prize is a “waffle breakfast,” presumably because these workers don’t remember breakfast — it’s a meal they eat before they arrive at work. John Turturro is a standout as Irving, the oldest member of the team who’s uptight and officious about following rules but also particularly vulnerable on the job. He twice makes the mistake of dozing off at his station. The threatened punishment is having to go to “the break room.” We don’t know yet what happens in “the break room.” But we know it must be very bad.
The new recruit is Helly. The show begins on an overhead shot of her lying unconscious on a conference table, having just had the surgical procedure done on her brain that’s severed her work life from her personal life. Her “orientation” involves her repeated, failed attempts to flee the building — she’s not transitioning smoothly to life on “the severed floor,” even after having been shown a video of herself attesting to having made the choice freely. And her spiky attitude begins to have its effect on the generally quiescent Mark.
Helly is replacing Petey (Yul Vazquez), Mark’s “work friend” who doesn’t show up one day. Scary boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), whose long silver hair brings out the icy blue in her eyes, says he is “no longer with the company,” which is why Mark is promoted to Petey’s old position as department head. But there’s no explanation for Petey’s sudden absence. Unusually agitated by this, Mark is vulnerable to the approach of Petey in his personal life, though he has no memory of him. “You were my friend,” Petey tells him, adding with a disturbing emphasis, “I was your best friend.”
It’s clear, of course, that Mark is going to “take the red pill” and follow Petey to find out the truth of what’s going on at Lumon Industries. Petey literally hands him a red envelope that counters “Lumon blue,” with an address inside it where he can find info about the company.
Constantly on the watch is “severed floor” supervisor Seth Milchek (Trammel Tillman), a superficially smiley manager who’s so sinister, so clearly a snitch, so eager to have everyone participate in compulsory team-building exercises, that practically everyone who’s ever had a job will recognize him instantly. It’s no surprise that the Severance series creator, screenwriter Dan Erickson, was inspired by a series of office jobs he held when he first moved to Los Angeles, saying that
I found myself wishing that I could jump ahead to the end of the day. I wanted to disassociate for the next eight hours. I thought, “That’s a messed up thing to wish for. We should want more time, not less.”
Expanding on this idea of wanting to disassociate from big chunks of our lives led Erickson to the Severance sci-fi representation of workplace hell. That we find these representations so recognizable has clearly been a factor in the recent, pandemic-instigated “Great Resignation” with 4.5 million leaving their jobs voluntarily, an “all-time high,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
With Severance, the hook is the longing to see the characters sprung from their corporate workplace trap before it kills them, literally. There’s a particularly nightmarish effect in the first episode, as Helly repeatedly bolts through the exit door expecting to find herself on the hallway headed out, only to find she’s once again coming through the door back into the same room she just left. This nightmarish compulsory return — back in the door when it feels like you just went out — is an impressively resonant and dreadful image of contemporary job hell.
Since “job horror” is the whole driving force of the series, there’s an edgy tension in having the character Mark as the protagonist — he’s the totally voluntary amnesiac who can’t bear his personal life. He’s trying to lose himself in his job, and straining not to recognize just how monstrous his work environment really is.
There have always been a lot of Marks in the workplace up to now. Wouldn’t it be great to think even the Marks of this world are getting to the point that they can’t take it anymore?