Workplace mysteries

Review of "Severance" on Apple TV.

I once had a job grading standardized tests. A few dozen employees and I sat at computers in a lab, clicking through packets, making sure each scanned test ticked off a certain set of parameters. There were many rudimentary drawings of falling eggs, as I recall. Per state regulations, I knew nothing about the students who completed these tests, not even their names. I just graded the one section I needed to, then moved on. It was like looking at a painting through a pinhole, seeing only one feature at a time.

I’ve thought of that job as I’ve been watching Severance on Apple TV. The full season is currently available, and I heartily recommend blazing through the whole thing over a weekend. Severance takes place in an office, building on that feeling of knowing little about the work one does, spinning out an entire mythology from it. Here’s the hook, if you haven’t heard: the office workers are all “severed,” meaning they have a computer chip implanted in their brains that splits their memories, and their very selves, into work and home. Go down an elevator and you find yourself in the office with no memory of the outside world. Go back up and you return to your normal life with no memory of work. In the deliberately infantilizing jargon of the show, your work self is your ‘innie,’ and your home self is your ‘outie.’

Lumon, the company the characters work for, touts the severance procedure as a means to better promote work/life balance. This is, at least to this viewer, a pack of lies, the kind of corporate jargon that papers over the realities of what’s actually going on. The work that Mark (played by Adam Scott) and the others do at Lumon is – well, it’s difficult to say what they’re doing, exactly. They sit at old-fashioned computers all day, the kind found at school libraries in the 1980s on which one played Oregon Trail. They scroll through vast sets of numbers, sorting them into categories. What do the numbers mean? What categories are they sorting them into? Of course, they have no idea. Like me grading those tests, Lumon employees operate on a strictly need-to-know basis, and management determines that they need to know very little.

Glimpses of a larger world

Severance takes that sense of ignorance and amps it up, making it into an extremely compelling drama. We learn that Lumon is a company dating back to the 19th century, when it offered medicinal salves of the sort sold at general stores and medicine shows. The founder of Lumon, Keir Eagan, is quite literally a religious figure. Employees hang his portrait on the walls and memorize his words with heartfelt devotion. Eagan recalls figures like John Harvey Kellogg, the founder of Kellogg cereals, who created entire institutions and systems of belief based around their own eccentric ideas for healthy living. The Road to Wellville is a 90s film depicting Kellogg; it’s okay, as a movie, but serves as a touchstone for a figure like Eagan.

All of this is catnip for a viewer like myself, always eager to dive into a mystery and hit pause to glean every clue. And Severance delivers on that front, providing a compelling mystery, offering glimpses of a larger world, better than any show I’ve seen in years. But sometimes I think: why am I so eager to solve the mysteries of Severance when the mysteries of, say, grading tests in an anonymous office building was so unappealing? That workplace featured some genuine characters, let me tell you. There was one guy who wore berets and rattled off military history with aplomb, a kind of Popular Front Dwight Schrute. Yet I certainly didn’t team up with him to uncover the beating heart of the whole system and stand before it in awe. I just clocked out and went home.

Hungry for more

Part of what makes Severance so compelling, and so discomfiting, is that it presents the modern workplace as a vehicle for satisfying the innate human need for mystery, one that is more satisfying than any actual workplace. The severance procedure doesn’t make the characters any more free; it just makes them more unknowable, mysteries to themselves, and the work they do just as strange. (A supplementary e-book suggests workers like Mark may unknowingly be aiding in some sort of corporate terrorism; yes I read it, I’m hopelessly obsessed with the show, just like Apple wants me to be.) I admit I watch the office workers of Severance with a twinge of jealousy. Not because they’re happier or freer or more satisfied than me. No, I envy them because they’re interesting, caught up in a mystery, one more compelling than my own life.

I won’t spoil anything, but the season ends with Mark discovering the existence of a genuinely life-altering mystery, one that will surely take all of the next season to unravel. Yes, it’s already been renewed, thank goodness. I don’t think I could survive without discovering what happens. But maybe I can spend the intervening time looking into mysteries in my own life. Not to uncover some dark truth or even solve anything, but to find the mystery that’s always there in everyday life, if you’ll just look for it.


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