How ‘Severance’ Turns The Bullshit Corporate Job Into An Unsettling Dystopia

Severance, Apple TV’s shiny new series, asks a complicated and ominous question: What would it mean for us if our jobs controlled our reality?

Co-directed by Ben Stiller, and starring Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation,Big Little Lies),Severence follows middle manager Mark and his daily grind at Lumon Industries. Our introduction to Mark is a long shot of him sobbing in his car before he goes to work before red-eyed and downtrodden, he trudges into the imposing glass, yet somehow windowless building in which he works. And as he descends in the elevator his entire demeanour alters into that of an unbothered man.

Like everyone in Lumon’s data sweeping department, Mark is a severed employee. To be severed is to have your memory partitioned based on location. When Mark is at work, he cannot access memories of who he is outside of work and when he leaves, he cannot access his memories of work. Essentially, the self is split into two people that the show colloquially refers to as “innies” (who they are at work) and “outies” (who they are outside of work).

Everyone in Mark’s office has their reasons for undergoing severance that is unravelled as the series goes on. We learn Mark chose to be severed in a bid of desperation to escape the grief of losing his wife. But as his sister so aptly says, “I just feel like forgetting about her for eight hours a day isn’t the same thing as healing”.

It’s worth mentioning how masterfully yet subtly Adam Scott plays this duality too. Even as his innie sheds the slow grief-laden, red-eyed demeanour of Mark’s outtie, his innie is still subdued and hunched. But somehow in an upbeat way, a sort of gun-to-the-head but business as usual sort of chipperness. In scenes like Mark being trained to make his eyes kind to keep his co-workers calm, shadows of humour from Scott’sParks and Rec days peek through.

But What Do They Actually Do?

The work at Lumon itself is menacingly mundane. All the data that Mark and his severed co-workers sort through is encrypted into a series of numbers embedded with subliminal code that makes the data wrangler “scared” so they know which data to sweep. What looms over Lumon’s employees is the question of what they actually do.

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What is so frightening about Lumon’s data is that even when it’s heavily encrypted, employees must have their perception of reality altered to work on it. What compelsSevereance‘s plot is the mysterious answer to this question, and whether or not it’s even possible for someone to critically think about their work when they can’t even remember what it is.

The only unsevered workers we meet appear to be the louring upper-management, Harmony (Patricia Arquette), and her unsettling underlying, Mr Milchick. “A handshake is available upon request,” Harmony states, after informing Mark he’s been promoted, dialling up the soulless artificiality of office interaction to a thousand.

Meanwhile, Milchick manages office relations and has the smiling exterior of a Shakespeare villain who just told the audience that he mass-murdered everyone in the play. His job is to keep the innies productive, no matter what it takes. And whatever it actually takes, the employees won’t remember it once they clock out.

How ‘Severance’ Turns The Bullshit Corporate Job Into An Unsettling Dystopia

Much of the worldbuilding in the series occurs throughout the first episodes as Helly (Britt Lower) joins the team. Because innies retain no memory of anything their outie does, innies are quite literally born and trapped at work with nothing but work to define them. Helly’s innie makes many attempts to escape. But there are complex fail-safes in place to ensure innies can’t leave or communicate with their outside selves, including sensors in the elevators and stairs that can detect notes even when swallowed.

The Horror of the Bullshit Job

On a surface level,Severance is making a sharp commentary on the myth of the work-life balance under late capitalism.

“You still feel it, you just don’t know why,” says Mark’s work-friend Petey, commenting on how the innies at work could see Mark was stricken even if Mark’s innie had no memory of why. In the first episode, Mark also receives a head injury after Helly’s innie throws an intercom speaker at his head. On the outside, Lumon leaves a note explaining he hit his head while lifting some boxes and offers him a gift card as compensation. Mark may be in two minds about his job, but the body remembers what the mind forgets thanks to a corporate brain implant.

At some point in our lives, many of us have worked jobs that were all at once all-consuming and utterly pointless. Jobs like Mark’s in which what we did there felt entirely devoid of meaning, where you could spend 10 hours working only to forget every single one within minutes of leaving. Popularised by anthropologist David Graeber, the academic term for this is a “bullshit job”.

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In an interview withVox in 2019, Graeber explained that “bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist”. Even a bad job, he explains, can be bad because it is hard in one or many ways — but a bullshit job is defined by how unnecessary it is to society. “A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them.”

Many have acknowledgedSevereance‘s commentary on the work-life balance and the banality of late capitalism. But it’s the existential horror of the “bullshit job” that simmers at the core ofSeverance‘s story. “Do we even know what we’re supposedly cleaning?” Helly asks in the second episode.

“My theory?” her co-worker, Dylan (Zach Cherry) responds. “[Is that] if our outies are up there severing their brains, shit must’ve gotten pretty bad… So, what is desperate humanity to do? Populate the sea…So, we send probes down and they send the data back coded.”

At the time of writing, this is the working theory presented by the show as to what Lumon does. This is how Dylan’s innie justifies his laboured existence staring at a monitor for perceived eternity.

But we are yet to learn what Lumon as a company does, let alone what Mark and his co-workers do for them. Scenes in which Mark and his colleagues venture out of their office space reveal Lumon’s severed floor to be a maze of endlessly bare Kaftkaesque hallways. Speculation is rife online, but it’s unlikely we as viewers will ever know what is really happening here. The crux ofSeverance’s horror is the inscrutable, seemingly menial nature of the work and what Lumon’s employees have sacrificed to do that work. They have given up their very minds, their memories, half of their perceived existence, to a bullshit job.

It’s A Brilliantly Unsettling Show

Through its central mystery of what Lumon does that it needs its employees to forget, the series deals with the societal repercussions of splitting the self for work, whether severance is truly irreversible, and the philosophical notion of whether memories make us who we are. Ben Stiller directs the series with a sparse symmetrical eye too, that feels like the artificial cooperate version of his work onThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The cultural anxiety over late-capitalism and mega-corporations’ grip on individual identity has produced a handful of brilliant speculative sci-fi series over the years. If you were a fan of speculative hit series likeDevs,Mr Robot, Black Mirror,Maniac, orWestworld — you’ll feel right at home withSeverance.

Severance is streaming exclusively on Apple TV, with a new episode every Friday.

Merryana Salem (they/them) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster on most social media as @akajustmerry.