‘Severance’: Alienation and its discontents

Have you ever thought your job was meaningless, mind-numbing, even harmful to your mental health? Have you ever noticed how people so often separate their work from their non-work lives? What could possibly be the actual harm? It’s only a job, not something that affects one’s actual self-worth or shapes their entire lives. Or is it?

Severance, the brilliant new series on Apple TV that debuted in February, created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, deals in a fictionalized setting with such issues. Is it a psychological thriller rooted in the here and now or cautionary dystopian science fiction? Does it borrow more from Bradbury and Sartre—or the greatest political philosopher of the 19th century?

The chief protagonist, Mark Scout, is a Lumon Industries Macrodata Refinement Specialist.  Actor Adam Scott, so often cast as an Everyman, seamlessly steps into this role. Mark has agreed to subject himself to the “Severance” medical procedure which bifurcates employees’ lives, splitting their work consciousness from their personal, outside-of-work existence. “Severed” employees retain no memories of their work life while out of work and no memories of their home life while at work.

Mark seems to take solace from his job’s structure and overbearing, detailed rules. His wife Gemma has died in an accident. His best friend Petey (Yul Vasquez) has been let go by Lumon Industries under threateningly murky circumstances.

Mark’s Macrodata Unit coworkers express aspects of workplace personality damage. John Turturro is brilliantly annoying as Irving Bailiff, who has slavishly enshrined company policy into a mantra of the quotes from founders which shape his every action. Zach Cherry, as Dylan George, plays the rules fast and loose, to enjoy whatever perks he can shake out of the system. Boss Patricia Arquette and rule enforcer Tramell Tillman are appropriately sinister.

Rules must be enforced at Lumon Industries. But the lives and needs of its workers bump up against the arbitrary rules. The dismissed Petey’s replacement, Helly Riggs (Britt Lower), is so extremely unhappy that she challenges the status quo repeatedly. Of all people, the obsequious Irving Bailiff finds his attraction to fellow employee Christopher Walken upsetting rules and emotions. Mark Scout himself comes to question employee relations and the nature of his work.

The nature of the work does seem as random as the actual structure of the offices is purposeful. Employees seem engaged in a task which they don’t understand nor which seems to produce anything of explicable use. The building which houses Lumon is a brutalist white and gray hulk where the actual workplace is only accessed through strict security, narrow elevators, and a maze of unlabeled barren corridors. The workers themselves are uncertain of direction, relying on imperfect maps.

Could meaning, resolution, or even satisfaction be found in these surroundings, or is that only possible in the outside world? Will the workers of Lumon break their chains and go toward the light?

In Severance, Dan Erickson provides the tools to begin to understand both sides of the world we live in. He makes us question who shapes work and what it does to the workers and for whose benefit. As workers, our job is to do the rest!

The trailer can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.