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Severance—crushing workplace grind makes for a compelling thriller

There’s an unsettling premise at the heart of Apple TV sci-fi comedy drama Severance—but it’s one every worker can identify with, writes Sophia Beach
Issue 2807
Adam Scott as Mark in Severance. In this promotional poster, the top half of his head is missing, and a man at a desk sits inside

Adam Scott as Mark in Severance

Ben Stiller’s new comedy‑drama Severance, set in a dystopian workplace, tackles the all-encompassing nature of work under capitalism. Starring Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and Christopher Walken, Severance centres around a group of colleagues who have undergone the “severance procedure” at the company they work for.

The procedure physically separates their workplace memories and their personal ones, essentially creating two versions of themselves. The characters’ “innies”—when they are at work—know nothing about the “outie” selves and vice versa. They transition via an elevator when they arrive at the office, supposedly achieving the dream of a proper work-life balance.

But there’s something more sinister going on. The severance procedure isn’t there to give the workers some escape from the drudgery of some endless data analysis job. It hides from their outer selves what exactly it is they do for the company they work for.

Yet despite this, team leader Mark (Scott) still finds himself consumed with what he does at work when he is at home.  An encounter outside of work with one of his colleagues—who has disappeared only to be “unsevered” or “reintegrated”—triggers his suspicion about the company.

Mark is then set on a journey of battling with his versions of himself and unease about his work at the mysterious Lumon Industries. Sinister boss Harmony (Arquette) and her sidekick Mr Milchick (Tramell Tillman) submit the workers to intense surveillance and sadistic disciplinary procedures that only the “innies” can remember.

Set in a maze of identical and disorientating corridors the series becomes increasingly tense. Though it’s the stuff of sci-fi thriller, Severance is effective and unsettling because it chimes with all of our experiences of work under capitalism.

A Karl Marx quote on exactly this seems particularly fitting—“The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. His labour is therefore not ­voluntary, but coerced—it is forced labour”.

In the same way, the work at Lumon Industries also cuts the employees off from each other. They are subjected to empty and open office spaces, with each department far away from one another. But as the characters begin to form relationships beyond their offices they start to overcome this isolation—and to question the motive of their bosses.

Sevrerance’s, cinematography and cast make it a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking watch.

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