I don’t know if Dan Erickson, the creator of the Apple TV show Severance, has read David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs (see previous post), but it serves as the perfect working example of Graeber’s theory.
Severance is named for and based on a fictional corporate system whereby some employees have volunteered to undergo an operation which splits their consciousness into two: one half of that consciousness lives a normal life outside the company (the “Outie”), with no knowledge or memory of the other half who works for the company (the “Innie”), who has no knowledge or memory of the Outie’s life. The Outie, in their own sense of reality, never works; the Innie never does anything but work. This in itself could be based on the Marxist idea of alienation:
Marx argued that [pre-industrial work was] less alienating because workers (craftsmen for example) had more control over their working conditions, work was more skilled and it was more satisfying, because workers could ‘see themselves in their work.’ However, in 19th century industrial factories, workers effectively had no control over what they were doing, their work was unskilled and they were effectively a ‘cog in a machine’, which generated high levels of alienation— or feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and of not being in control.Karl Thompson, ReviseSociology: “What is Alienation?”
In Severance, the alienation is made permanent.
The first episode of the series begins with a newly severed worker (Helly) awaking in an empty boardroom and being asked to respond to “a brief survey” by a disembodied voice, reading from a script. Let the bullshit begin.
The majority of the show takes place at work: a company called Lumon (in which every object, tool, and supply is branded with the company logo), where the physical environment is a complex maze of identical white hallways, identical doors, and occasional views into usually empty working spaces. Prior to entering the maze (like rats), workers enter a vast, unoccupied reception area where they are “received” by a receptionist (the first bullshit job) and progress to another area where they meet a security guard (second bullshit job), whose presence is purely superfluous, as every area is accessed by key card, and, we learn, the elevator trip to the “severed floor” both resets their memory chip from Outie to Innie and scans them for contraband, including written or recorded messages of any kind.
The locus of the show is the department of Macro Data Refinement (MDR), where four people (Mark, Helly, Dylan and Irving), sit in a quad-cubicle arranged in the center of a large, otherwise empty room, doing something truly inscrutable with an array of numbers on a 1990s-era screen. It’s hard for me to imagine that Erickson hasn’t read Bullshit Jobs, because this mysterious job, disconnected to anything in the real world, is the absolute epitomy of bullshit. What the employees do is stare at a screen of numbers, get a “feel” for groups of them, and then grab those numbers and drag them into some kind of folder. They have no knowledge of what this does, or why— only that they are to do it.
Mark serves as some kind of manager of this team of four (as well as doing his “data refinement”), although there’s nothing to manage. Above him is a frightening taskmaster, Miss Cobel, and above her is a silent “Board” who is at times “present” via intercom at meetings and/or interpreted via a human (the Board’s lackey, Natalie), who says things like “The board won’t be contributing to this meeting.” She appears to inhabit a nether region between Miss Cobel and the Board.
At Miss Cobel’s fingertips are three other lackies, perhaps the most disturbing of which is Milchick, a goon who doubles as a kind of corporate cheerleader from HR, which makes his brilliant smile and encouraging remarks feel threatening. Another goon, “Head of Security” Graner, is an unmistakable threat, brought in when things don’t go according to plan and someone needs disciplinary action (which happens in the doublespeak-named “Break Room,” where you definitely do not want to go).
Cobel’s third lackey is a duct-taper, Ms. Casey, who provides “wellness” by calming employees with undoubtedly false tales of their wonderful Outie lives. She herself seems to smile in a rictus of terrorized tension.
Severance proffers hundreds of tiny digs at workplace culture, white-collar burnout, and corporations that see employees as mere unmet objectives. When Lumon managers sense that their team members are struggling with the unnatural state of permanent work, they send them for “wellness checks” with an in-house counselor, much as Amazon reportedly sends its exhausted warehouse workers to “AmaZen” stations for guided meditations and other well-being activities.Sophie Gilbert, The Atlantic: “When Work is a Terrifying Dystopia”
Aside from their ostensible job, those in MDR seem to do an astonishing amount of nothing: wandering the corridors, chatting, and having breaks for parties, information sessions, and ceremonies such as official photo-taking. These are all orchestrated under the menacing smile of Milchick. The most truly bizarre of these occurs in Episode 7: a “Music Dance Experience” where the music genre of “defiant jazz” is chosen by the rebellious Helly. You simply have to see it in context of the show to truly appreciate the total freakout it ultimately leads to.
The show draws on all sorts of concepts, such as the Orwellian moment when Ms. Cobel discovers an employee has managed to “reintegrate” (i.e. become unsevered as an Outie), but upon reporting this to the Board is told “reintegration does not happen,” and the subject is closed; Maoist reeducation that occurs in the Break Room; and an entire quasi-religious corporate cult around the Lumon founder Kier Egan.
The script, meanwhile, perfectly captures in-office banter, some of which revolves around anticipated company incentives that fully embrace the banal: finger traps (a kind of toy that you stick one finger in each side and try to remove them— bullshit play to go with the bullshit job), “V.I.P.” certificates to a common, low-level food outlet called “Pip’s” (the coupon reads, pathetically, “I’m a Pip’s V.I.P!”), and the top-tier, much-desired incentive of a Waffle Party.
Severance exposes the inevitability of something like this, a world in which we are lobotomized in order to better serve a company’s bottom line. The series will make you wince at its spot-on send-ups of the tactics employers take to gaslit staff into believing they’re satisfied.Kevin Fallon, The Daily Beast: “Severance: The TV Show That Proves Going Back to Work Is Worse Than a Horror Movie”
Viewer spend a certain amount of time watching the main character Mark’s very subtle expressions, including one hilarious scene (where comedy might be better interpreted as amused horror) where he struggles to follow Milchick’s instructions to “make his eyes ‘kind.’” The MDR team wanders the hallway to discover another department, O&D (Optics & Design), headed by the possibly-mild-mannered Burt, but with a secret contingent of 15+ additional employees (revealed later) who do more inscrutable work, but surely is a stand-in for a bloated advertising department.
There are many strange details (paintings, eggs, goats), and hints of malice in every corner, but the pièce de résistance is the title sequence that is surely based on the minimalist diktat of Massimo Vignelli’s former design company Unimark.
As the series unfolds, I have expected a disappointing return to TV normalcy with a revolt against the evil corporation, but so far, after Episode 7— while “insurgency” is spoken aloud, and Outie action accelerates— the series remains satisfyingly nestled in intelligent references, and deeply dark, obscure humor.
Severance … whispers that there’s something wrong with corporate America and every day you show up for your office job, you’re complicit. That’s because even the most over-the-top detail in creator Dan Erickson and directors Ben Stiller and Aoife Mcardle’s thriller is rooted in fact. Severance isn’t just one of the most tonally honest versions of office life; it’s an entirely new genre of corporate horror that’s a force unto itself.Kayla Cobb, The Decider: “Severance Is the Punk Rock of Office Dramas”
Header photo: “Cubicles” by Michael Lokner