Severance: An Unsettling Depiction of Office Culture in Late-Stage Capitalism

Nicole Belcastro ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer 

Apple TV+’s new series Severance is an exploration of office culture in late-stage capitalism. Severance is advertised as a thriller, while also having some sci-fi and drama elements. Based on the premise of the show, fans anticipated a show similar to Netflix’s Black Mirror. Unlike Black Mirror, Severance is rooted in realism, depicting a near-future world similar to our own. This makes Severance an unsettling watch that viewers cannot help but gravitate towards.

The series premiered with two episodes entitled “Good News About Hell” and “Half Loop.” Episode one opens with a scene of Helly (Britt Lower) splayed on a tabe unaware of who she is and her surroundings. It is not until Mark’s (Adam Scott) voice comes through a radio that the audience learns it is normal for people in Helly’s condition to be unaware of all qualities of themselves. When Helly finally leaves the room, she is shown a tape of herself claiming that she willingly and freely chose to have the procedure done. This tape is meant to prove to Helly that she got what she asked for, but it plays more like a hostage video. Severance gives no context. Instead, the show immerses viewers into the story immediately. 

Severance is based around the company Lumon. Lumon closely resembles what people know as Amazon, as one character exclaims, “What don’t they make!” Every product seen in the office has a Lumon brand marking on it, from the coffee pot to the surgeon tools used for the severance procedure. The severance procedure seems to be utilized with the goal of maximizing worker efficiency. Amazon is notorious for placing profits over people, such as cutting their workers’ bathroom breaks, forcing them to urinate in plastic bottles, offering dismal wages, and demanding the majority of their workers’ time. Similarly, Lumon demands to be at the center of their employees’ lives. Lumon monopolizes the totality of a person while giving them the illusion they made the choice to have the severance procedure.

The severance procedure is shown in a graphic scene in episode two. Surgeons drill into a person’s skull in order to separate their egos into an innie and outie. The innie is the part of the person that exists while at Lumon, and the outie is the part of the person that exists outside of the office. This means that while those who have been severed are at work and have no recollection of their life beyond Lumon. For example, while at work, employees do not know if they have partners or children. While at home, Lumon employees have no idea what they do for a living. Severance’s characters never seem to truly live a full life. There is this sense of doom, resembling purgatory, that looms over the events of the show.

At times, the show is devoid of humanity. Lumon employees place their personal belongings in a locker before swapping them for generic items. Their outside identity is stripped away, only leaving a Lumon employee. Helly accuses the company of coercing people into the severance procedure and treating them as livestock. Lumon staggers the employees’ entrances and exits, making it impossible for them to form relationships with one another beyond the office. Working at Lumon is demanding, taxing, and transformative. 

Severance provides an insight into the amount of power that employer’s hold. Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) is assumed to be in charge of Lumon. She and the company encroach on every aspect of the employees’ lives, even the outside ones. The housing the employees live in is subsidized by the company. Ms. Cobel poses as Mark’s neighbor in the outside world for reasons unbeknownst to viewers 

One employee named Irving (John Turturro) receives a wellness check where he is rewarded with facts about his outie. The facts shared with him are vague enough as to give anything concrete away about his identity, but are still too personal for a company to know. 

Milchik (Tramell Tillman) is another higher-up at Lumon that flips between showing kindness to his employees and then making harsh threats. The break room is constantly referenced as a place where employees are punished for their wrongdoings. Viewers are not shown what exactly happens in the break room, but it can be assumed that is not pleasant. Whatever happens in the break room goes against what any company is allowed to do to their employees. Lumon goes to extreme lengths to manipulate their employees and keep them compliant. 

Severance also makes commentary on the topic of consent. The group Whole Mind Collective preaches that it is impossible for one to consent to a procedure like this because it produces an entity that is unaware of its decision. Lumon holds that all recipients of the procedure consent beforehand. Severance begs the question that if a person’s ego splits into two, is consent required from both the innie and outie? Is it even consensual if the company makes it impossible to resign and the procedure is reversible? Is it consensual when the employees are not even entirely sure what their job is? These are all questions that viewers are invited to ponder.

Severance’s main character Mark chose to have the severance procedure done so he could find relief from grieving his last wife. He is desperate to forget the pain he is experiencing, even if only for eight hours a day. Mark becomes defensive when people raise questions about the ethicality of the severance procedure. He fiercely defends the procedure while at a dinner party, on a date, and to members of the Whole Mind Collective, a group looking to prohibit the legalization of severance. The group resembles those today voicing opposition to unfair wage laws, forced labor in the prison industrial complex, and the unethical treatment of workers under large companies.

Mark, as well as his coworkers, are grappling with the departure of their former coworker Petey (Yul Vazquez). As the episodes progress, we see Mark begin to become frustrated with working at Lumon. Petey is able to locate Mark outside of Lumon and reveals that he has reversed his severance procedure, warning Mark that something corrupt is happening at Lumon. In an interesting scene in episode two, we see Mark have a moment of recollection when looking at a photo with Petey in it. This is peculiar because the memories of innies and outies of a person are not supposed to intersect. By not showing viewers outright what is happening behind the scenes at Lumon and the logistics of the severance procedure, the show piques their curiosity.

Adam Scott’s performance in Severance is a swift turnaround from his previous role in the workplace comedy Parks and Recreation. In Severance, he is devoid of the usual sarcastic humor of his characters that fans of Parks and Recreation and The Good Place can recall. 

While Severance is a unique take on a workplace series, it still has some elements of classic office sitcoms. Characters such as foul mouthed Dylan (Zach Cherry) who is eager to collect the prizes Lumon offers for a job well done, and Irving  (John Turturro) who is the office rule follower. Severance differs from office sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation, The Office, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine because in these shows, the characters form deep bonds with one another. While their lives are centered around work because that is where they spend most of their time, the audience sees their lives and friendships evolve outside of work. This is impossible in Severance because once the employees leave the office, they no longer remember their coworkers or anything about work. 

The two-episode premiere sets the series up for an interesting unfolding of events centering around complex characters, morality, and the demands of office life. The mysteries that viewers begin to see unfold in the first two episodes are intriguing. Even in just the first two episodes, they can see the character’s growth, particularly in Mark’s journey of learning more about what is truly happening at Lumon and how Helly assimilates to office life after her procedure. The mysteries and characters give viewers elements to latch onto. 

The weekly episode model works well for a show like Severance because the episodes can deal with heavy subject matters that leave viewers with a lot to digest and reflect on. The remaining seven episodes will air every Friday.

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