‘Severance’ and Missing the Forest for the Trees
The Apple+ series from Ben Stiller gets distracted by unnecessary details and set design.
NEW STANDARD DISCLAIMER: This newsletter aggressively spoils things.
Offices are engineered to be perfect sources of inspiration for writers. Writers with Day Jobs are naturally surly and resentful about the fact that no one seems to appreciate our genius and we have to dance for nickels, which puts us in the frame of mind to somehow monetize our grueling, humiliating workdays by spinning them into marketable fictions, for one thing. And for another offices are just natural Petri dishes of weird people. You have people from different generations, with varied backgrounds and fashion sense, all thrust together and forced to be polite. It’s rich stuff.
An additional layer of interest in an office is the way our lives get divided by our work. Things are a little different these days for some, as a larger and larger number of folks get to work remotely or in a hybrid fashion, but for anyone working before the world almost ended a few years ago it was pretty common: You had a work life and a personal life. Work friends bled over into the personal sometimes, but not always. You dressed, spoke, and behaved differently in the office than you did outside it, and often had very work-specific friendships that completely vanished once you stepped outside—the legendary Work Spouses, for example, who might be your closest confidant in the office and a complete stranger outside it.
All this to say that Severance, Ben Stiller’s creepy AF sci-fi series on Apple TV+ seems obvious in retrospect: It takes that sense of division between your work life and your home life and makes it terrifyingly firm, instantly creating a compelling and fascinating premise. It’s a terrific show, but it makes one mistake (at least so far, in its first season): It’s far more interested in the less-interesting mystery box stuff than in the really interesting stuff surrounding questions of identity, personhood, and free will.
Hey Kids, What’s for Dinner?
The basement office workers employed by Lumon Industries in the world of Severance have undergone the severance procedure, an implant in their brains that divides their memories. While at work (where they’re referred to as Innies), they can’t remember anything from their personal lives. When they’re home (where they’re referred to as Outies), they can’t remember anything from work. The idea is presented as a way to have perfect security for Lumon, but also as a relief. At least one employee working in Lumon’s Macrodata Refinement (MDR) department (Mark, played by Adam Scott) chose to be “severed” in order to escape his grief and depression for a few hours every day in the wake of his wife’s death. And there’s also the idea that you don’t carry the stress and horror of office work home with you: Every day at 5PM you “wake up” in a rising elevator and get to go home and do your thing. You’re not worried about politics, bad reviews, or the mysterious wounds on your hand. You’re free, in a sense.
What’s really interesting about this concept, though, is the fact that the severance process literally creates a separate person. The Innies arrive at Lumon on their first day with zero memory of the outside world. They have the basic underlying knowledge (and skill set) of a socialized human being, but they are totally separate people. They don’t remember friendships, political beliefs, or anything else. They are blank slates. They are a wholly new person who has zero agency—they didn’t choose this life, and they have zero control. The Innies are not considered people—they are simply tools their Outies use to skip the (presumably) unpleasant hours spent in the office.
The horror of this premise is drilled home early on when a new arrival, Helly (Britt Lower) arrives and almost immediately decides that she does not want to spend her entire life working in the basement of Lumon Industries. She fills out the form requesting to quit, and it’s denied by her Outie. She threatens self-harm and demands proof that her Outie would screw her(self) over like that, and is sent a video where her Outie tells her(self) that she isn’t a person, she’s a homunculidoomed to toil at Lumon forever. Then she attempts suicide, preferring death to being trapped in the basement of Lumon Industries forever.
That’s some heavy shit, man. These Innies are essentially separate people, human beings with needs and desires completely separate from their Outie lives, about which they know nothing. And they are essentially slaves. While the show does focus in on that aspect of the premise somewhat, it quickly becomes much more concerned with the Mystery Box nature of the show.
Not Penny’s Boat
A Mystery Box show is a show that presents the viewers with a bunch of mysteries—preferably linked in some mysterious way—and then slowly, slowly delves into the mysteries, typically in ways that lead to further mysteries.
The classic, iconic Mystery Box show—the one everyone is still trying to emulate and beat—was Lost. Dude, I was absolutely fascinated by Lost. I watched til the bitter end and hoped against hope that they would solve all –or at least most—of their puzzles in a satisfactory way before the show ended. And they did not. They did not even come close to this goal. The way Lost ended by making me feel very angry and foolish has haunted me to this day, so I am biased against Mystery Box shows. Severance has offered us these tantalizing mysteries, declining to paint a fuller picture of its universe so it can reveal stuff. All well and good. But, bias aside, the Mystery Box stuff—which is plenty fun and very interesting!—is not nearly as interesting as the tortured lives of the Innies and the philosophical questions they raise. I mean, at one point the show implies that a woman has herself severed so she can avoid the pain of childbirth—imagine a world where you could shunt all your pain and suffering onto a version of yourself with the press of a button. Jebus, that’s creepy stuff, and more than enough to carry a narrative.
There’s also the weirdness of that basement office. The style and decor is decidedly 1970s gauche, and the computers and other technologies are also throwbacks. But the Outie world seems much more aligned with our own present-day reality. The design choices at Lumon are distracting and, so far, unnecessary. The moment Helly decided she didn’t want to be there and was told she had no choice, I was sold. The rest is unnecessary.
The entire show, in other words, could—and likely should—be about the Innie Uprising, and the consequences for the Outies when they come to realize that their own bifurcated consciousness hates them and resents them. This is fascinating stuff, and I would watch five seasons of that story without complaint.
Severance may pull of its Mystery Box—I sure hope it does. As a writer you can make any story work, really, so I’m not at all implying that the show is doomed. But I do hope future episodes worry less about the mystery and more about the Innies.
Of course, I routinely wake up with zero memories of what Party Jeff has been up to, so I already kind of know what living in the Severance universe would be like.
Thanks for reading Writing Without Rules: Deep Dives! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Next week: ‘Smile’ and the camera’s power.
You can, in fact, track my erstwhile career as an office drone based solely on how many of my stories are set in soul-deadening offices. Also, by my volume of whiskey consumption.
And of course, by the time you gather your nickels, take them home, wrap them up, and transport them to your bank, those nickels are only worth 4.5 cents.
Except me. I was always the normal one. Shut up.
As a man who spent much of his office-bound career making free photocopies of his self-published zine for free, I have many dozens of people to thank for never ratting me out.
Also: Work drinking buddies and personal drinking buddies. Also: Work hangover and personal hangovers. When they merged into one Meta Hangover your chances of survival dipped into the single digits. God, I miss that.
I recall there was nothing more strange and unsettling than seeing a colleague in street clothes for the first time. I recall going to a company picnic once and my boss’s boss wore tiny shorts and I went back to my car and just sat there for a while, staring.
I accomplished a similar effect when I worked in an office through the magic of alcohol and sleep deprivation. I still can’t remember the years 1996 through 1998.
I long ago stopped worrying about mysterious wounds. Subconscious Jeff is a danger to himself and others, but what can you do?
Frankly, for anyone who has ever had to endure the endless windbaggery of a politically engaged co-worker, this sounds less horrifying than fucking fantastic.
She does not actually use the word “homunculi” and my disappointment is beyond expression.
I sometimes wonder if I would have been a happier and freer human being if I’d never watched Lost. The answer is: Yes.
Though, admittedly, kind of cool. I wish my boss had wheeled around a record player and forced me to dance to Defiant Jazz for five minutes once in a while. I really do.
Is “What Party Jeff Has Been Up To” the title of my memoir? Yes.
"I can no longer quite believe I once wore a jacket and tie every day of my life."
Jeff, I have known you for almost 20 years.
I've never seen you in a jacket OR tie, let alone both.
Unless there is photographic evidence, I am quite skeptical.
I mean, look how you resist PANTS!