If you’ve ever pushed down your emotions at work to 'stay professional', powered through the exhaustion of a never-ending work day amid grief or heartbreak, or been told by your manager to 'leave your problems at the office door' then Severance, Apple TV+’s timely dystopian workplace series will make you feel more than a little uneasy.
Post-pandemic, work-life balance has never been a hotter topic. The cheery, ubiquitous expression 'are we working from home or living at work' will induce a shudder in many of us. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to compartmentalise all the areas of our lives and we’re yet to know how the bleeding of the personal into the professional (and vice versa) will impact our psyches in the long run. And pain is a part of the human experience for which we don’t have an off button – but what if we could?
In the near-future setting of Ben Stiller’s sci-fi thriller Severance, employees at shady tech corporation Lumon Industries have undergone a mandatory medical procedure which separates their memories into their work and personal lives. After the brain implant is inserted, you’re effectively split into two people: the version of you hunched over a computer at work will never know the you who goes on dates and socialises once you’ve clocked off. Efficient? Yes. Morally dubious? Certainly so. But comforting for some? In this case, yes.
After losing his wife in a car accident, Mark Scout (Big Little Lies’ Adam Scott) takes a job at Lumon to escape the crushing weight of his grief. We see him sob in the car park in the mornings and drink himself into oblivion in the evenings but between the hours of 9 and 5 he has no recollection of what goes on outside work. When he enters the sterile locker room of his office at the start of each day, he removes his watch, his phone, his ID cards – any semblance or reminder of who he is – and as he rides the elevator up to his floor, a literal switch goes off and his crumpled expression softens, his defeated posture straightens. Suddenly he seems lighter, even with a jovial spring in his step as he rounds the corners to his desk. This version of Mark (known as an 'innie') isn’t a widower. He has wry office banter with work friends, enjoys team-building exercises, tucks into the melon bar and is a quarterly target away from a promotion. It's all very Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
When Mark's co-worker and office best friend Petey doesn’t show up for work – the ominous explanation from his suspicious boss Harmony (Patricia Arquette) simply that he "no longer works here" – everything is thrown into question. Staff are forbidden from probing and the reality hits home: whether Petey really has quit or if something more serious has happened to him, 'innie' Mark will never know, and 'outie' Mark doesn’t know who Petey is because they only know each other in the context of work.
Mark is promoted into Petey’s position and his first task is to assimilate newly severed 'innie' Helly (Britt Lower) into office life. But Helly wants out. Imagine waking up in an office with no memory of your name, who you are or your life up to this point and being told that your sole purpose is to work? The 'innies' undoubtedly have the short end of the stick: they're effectively imprisoned, with no real way to tell their 'outie' they want out, so they accept their new fate. If they do want to quit, they’re told that this version of themselves will 'die' – and so the hellish cycle continues. The more Helly fights for her freedom, the more the upper levels threaten the worker bees with the 'break room' and whatever psychological horrors lie in wait there. Soon Mark starts to question whether his 'innie' life is so good after all.
The premise of this nine-episode, Black Mirror-style show is sinister because there are elements of it which are certainly plausible. The nature of the work they do at Lumon is sketchy and so the procedure not only harnesses the efficiency of its workers but is a guaranteed-airtight privacy clause preventing data leaks in high security clearance roles. It is also oppressive and takes advantage of vulnerable workers like Mark who are undergoing emotional crises. At dinner one evening with a group of friends, the "ethically, morally, scientifically" controversial procedure comes under fire and Mark coolly defends his decision. Later, his sister Devon gently tells him: "I just feel like forgetting about her for eight hours a day isn't the same thing as healing."
Without those hours in the day to weather the waves of grief, do we just put off the pain and elongate the process? Isn’t time necessary to shrink all the stomach-churning hurt to a dull ache? Eye-opening and disturbing, Severance ticks along at a sinister pace and the series has much to say about the evil of big corporations, how work efficiency can come at the cost of personal freedom and how these insidious, cheery incentives reduce individual thinking while generating mindless labour and feelings of helplessness. It poses the question to all of us: how far would you go to achieve the perfect work-life balance? But whatever you do, don't misbehave. You don’t want to see what goes on in the break room.
Severance is out on Apple TV+ on 18th February.