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Who Are You? Severance Season 1

With Severance, AppleTV+ is continuing to establish itself as an important platform at a time when the world of streaming entertainment is in serious flux. Netflix stock is in free fall as they are hemorrhaging subscribers they had picked up during the heights of the pandemic, and some new streaming platforms are shuttering almost as soon as they launch, yet AppleTV+ and their deep pockets are riding high on the successes of Ted Lasso, the Best Picture-winning CODA, and now adding to their offerings one of the best new dramatic series in recent memory. Created by Dan Erickson, the pilot script for Severance appeared on the 2016 Bloodlist, a Sci-Fi/Horror equivalent of The Black List that recognizes the best unproduced genre screenplays of that year, before being optioned by Ben Stiller’s production company in 2017. Stiller and Erickson would spend the next 5 years developing the show, finally coming out earlier this year at a time when the show’s look at the nature of identity, office work, and work-life balance, couldn’t be any more topical.

Inspired by his own experiences working suffocating office jobs, Erickson’s pitch for the show asks what if there was a way to turn off your brain when you got to work, and then turn it back on again when it was time for you to leave for the day, allowing you to do your job without having to actually experience any of the drudgery involved? Once Erickson had this idea about his own job, he immediately recognized, both how tempting such an option might be to people, as well as how terrible his own job must be if he were actually willing to give up whole chunks of his life rather than have to live through the experience of being at his job. Erickson also wondered what must this experience be like for whatever part of him that would still have to be conscious in order to do that job?

What the show he created posits is a biotechnology company called Lumon Industries that offers a procedure to employees called "severance." The severance procedure involves installing a chip into a new employee’s brain that is capable of initiating a limited dissociative state when the employee is on Lumon Industries' property. On the employees' first day of work, after their chip is implanted, they will wake up to find themselves laying on a conference room table, unable to remember their name or any of the personal details of their lives, born into a whole new life at their new job.

Now, who exactly would actually sign up for such a procedure? We are introduced to a number of Lumon employees over the course of the show and are even given a little insight into their lives and motivations for joining Lumon, but our protagonist for the show is Mark Scout (Adam Scott), known only as Mark S. while inside the world of Lumon. We learn that Mark was moved to join Lumon out of grief for his deceased wife. In his old life, he had been a history professor, married to a professor of Russian literature, but when she died, Mark couldn’t bring himself to teach anymore. Needing some kind of work, though, the only thing available to him in his condition would be a job where it wouldn't be possible for him to grieve; a job where not only would he not know his wife had died, but a job where he wouldn't remember having been married at all.

The show makes an effective case for how someone could talk themselves into opting for severance. It may not be the most healthy or helpful way for Mark to process his grief, but it may be the only way for him to pay his bills while he heals. The show also does a great job of exploring how terrible life would be for the part of the severed employees that still have to go to work every day. Even if we were to take away the more mysterious elements of the show, like whatever it actually is that Lumon Industries does, or whatever their long term plans actually are, or why everything at Lumon is so strikingly odd, it does still seem like life as a severed employee would be some kind of nightmare existence; an experience that not too subtly mimics the very worst feelings of working at any toxic and aimless dead end office job.

In the language of the show, the part of the employee that actually experiences work is referred to as an "innie," and they know the other parts of themselves as their "outie." Interestingly, only the innie needs this kind of language, because they understand their identity as being wholly dependent upon their outer self, while the outie doesn’t have any reason to think of their innie as being in any way significant to their identity. While the outie shows up at work, blinks, and then goes home; the life of the innie happens in that blink. They finish one workday, they blink, and then start another one, without weekends, sick days, or vacations. There is only work and any thoughts of quitting would be a decision for their outie to make for them. In one sense, the innie is something like the outie’s child, brought into the world without their consent, and at the mercy of their outie for their survival.

The nature of this existence informs a lot of how Lumon structures the severed employees' environment. Besides whatever nefarious motivations Lumon may have to keep employees in their positions, it would also be cruel and unproductive to let the employees know too much about the world and lives they will never get to experience for themselves. The workspaces for the severed employees have no windows, there are no televisions or phones, there is no internet, and they cannot contact their outie selves or anyone at all outside the hermetically sealed world of their job. For many of the reasons that would motivate their outie to become severed in the first place, it would be impossible to get an innie to do their work if they truly understood how much they were being deprived of by their work-life situation.

Thus, life inside Lumon, specifically inside the one department where we spend most of our time, Macrodata Refinement, is incredibly regulated. All inputs and stimuli are incredibly controlled and sanitized to eliminate FOMO and maximize productivity. Like the very worst corporate environments, the only culture allowed is one that is intended to yield obedient, dutiful, and enthusiastic employees. The only book allowed is the employee manual, and the only decor is provided by the optics and design department at Lumon Industries. Where the show picks up, we meet Mark S. as a loyal cog in the Lumon cult of industry, unaware of what else there is to be, but the engine of the show is seeing what happens when outside elements begin to breach this isolated ecosystem.

Now, all of this setup has been to talk about one particular part of the show. This is a minor spoiler if you haven’t seen all of the first season yet, but, to me, the most interesting of these breaches into life at Lumon is a self-help book called, The You You Are, that accidentally finds its way into the Macrodata Refinement offices. The book happens to be written by Mark Scout’s brother-in-law, Dr. Ricken Lazlo Hale (Michael Chernus). Ricken is one of the most interesting characters in the series to me. In the view of Mark in the outside world, Ricken is a pretentious buffoon. Compared to the rest of the characters in the show, it’s almost cartoonish how much of a parody of a new age self-help guru he is. As written, Ricken sometimes comes off as almost too over the top to fit in with the rest of the outer world of the show. He wouldn't be that out of place as a broadly comedic character in a Mike Schur show like Parks and Recreation or The Good Place. At the same time, because of how devoid of culture life inside Lumon is, the cliched and pretentious self-help claptrap in Ricken’s book is literally revolutionary for the workers in Macrodata Refinement. Finally given something other than empty, loyalty-focused, corporate speak, Mark and his fellow innies become sufficiently self-actualized by reading Ricken’s book for them to actually be motivated to try and better their circumstances, whatever the very real consequences for them might ultimately be.

I love this contrast, that in the outside world Mark good-naturedly looks down his nose at this brother-in-law, while inside Lumon, Mark has an awed reverence for this towering intellect that has completely opened his eyes to a whole wide world of possibilities. Neither is the whole truth of the matter. Ricken is being seen in two diametrically opposed ways by two people who are actually the same person, and the show is confident enough not to hold the audience's hand telling them what to think about this.

The very first words of the show come from a voice that we don’t yet know belongs to Mark S., asking a newly severed employee who is just coming to their senses on a conference room table, “Who are you?” And we learn shortly after that the correct answer to that question is, “I don’t know.” The main story of the show is interested in much bigger mysteries, but those all build off of much smaller questions about what makes someone who they are. Are Mark and Mark S. two different people sharing one body? Throughout the show, talking about an outie deciding to quit their job at Lumon is as if they were ending the life of their innie. We get one storyline of a character trying to reintegrate their severed selves to disastrous effects. It’ll be interesting to see if the show ultimately comes to a definitive answer to this question. In the case of Ricken, we get a character that isn’t severed but who is seen in numerous different ways. The audience is on outie Mark’s side that Ricken is a buffoon, but it’s not just innie Mark that sees him differently.

We have a higher opinion of him from Mark’s sister, and she has her husband's back. The people who come to Mark’s book reading seem genuinely interested in what he has to say, and during a break at the book reading, we see Ricken being self-critical in a way that suggests more personal depth than had been previously suggested. Like with Mark, it’s not clear that we’re meant to take Ricken, or anyone in the show, as having a true and uncomplicated self. Or, maybe I'm overthinking this. It may not be an accident that the writer of this article is so interested in the pretentious writer character in this series. I love that this show invites these kinds of takes though, and I look forward to seeing how all of the show’s complicated characters unfold in seasons to come.


Damian Masterson

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.


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