After years of pandemic-driven remoteness, every Zoomified white collar worker must be feeling existential dread about a looming return to the office: Can I stomach a commute? Do I want to hear other people chewing? Would I be happier working every day in elastic-waist pants? In other words, it’s a fitting moment for Apple TV’s Severance, the most vicious satire of corporate life since Office Space, and possibly ever. In its just-ended nine-episode first season the office in question is so nightmarish — a maze of antiseptic white corridors, threateningly cheery corporate overlords, and a culture that grows creepier with each new revelation — that, by rights, it should send viewers running from the workplace forever. But whether it’s intended to or not, Severance makes a surprisingly strong argument for the opposite. For all of its inhumanity, the series suggests, the office is still the best place to work —because it’s only in the office that you get coworkers.
Conceived before the pandemic, Severance centers on a shadowy corporate conglomerate called Lumon, where some employees have agreed to get a chip implanted in their brains to separate their work and home selves. Their “innies”—the company’s term of art—work for eight hours in the office every day on the company’s “Severed Floor,” with no memory or awareness of the outside world; their “outies” go about their lives blissfully unaware of what happens during the working day. It’s the ultimate work-life balance, or so it would seem: You can’t take your work home with you, because you literally don’t know what it is. And based on the experiences we see, you wouldn’t want to know. Adam Scott plays Mark Scout, the mild-mannered leader of a team of four in a department called “MacrodataRefinement;” they sit in a sterile room all day under bright fluorescent lights and stare at bitmapped numbers on green-screen terminals. Incentives for good performance include an endless supply of Chinese finger traps, trays of sliced melon, and a “five-minute music-dance experience.” Misbehavior results in either a “wellness” session (led by a woman who’s a cross between a Goop sales rep and a lobotomized executive coach) or straight-up psychological torture in a chamber that’s aptly named the “Break Room.” It’s a highly-concentrated version of the indignities of corporate life—and the series evolves into a pulse-pounding thriller, as the innies” start to learn just how dark the corporate mission truly is.
But there’s a silver lining: the office relationships. When Helly (Britt Lower), a newly severed innie who wants out, engages in increasingly desperate acts of rebellion, her new coworkers leap to support and protect her. Petey, a former innie who managed to undo the severance process, visits Mark’s outie with forbidden information, risking his life to save coworkers who, as their outie selves, don’t remember him at all. A plot for a corporate takedown takes form beside the coffee machine. Potential romances blossom under the bright lights. Though they’re conscious for only eight hours a day, the innies have rich and tender inner lives, in stark contrast to what we see of Mark’s outie existence. Mark chose to be severed to spare himself, for eight hours a day, of the grief of losing his wife in a car accident. But in the outside world, he shuffles through dimly-lit rooms and trudges through bleak winter landscapes, encountering people he barely connects with at all.
Many of us live a version of dual lives when we toggle between the office and home. We behave a little differently at work, where we have to fit into the culture, emphasize some personality traits and maybe suppress some others, relate to other people in a certain way due to our roles as managers or underlings. Maybe you’re a mild-mannered cog in a buttoned-up office who lords over a Masonic lodge on weekends. Maybe you’re a swashbuckling bossgirl who only wants to spend the off-hours quietly gardening. Severance edges toward the argument that the “work you” could be the truer version of yourself. After all, work is the place where, before the pandemic, people would spend uninterrupted hours together, days in a row, often in close quarters, in consistently stressful or high-stakes settings. There’s a reason co-workers bond so quickly, a reason so many romances begin in the office (and a reason why some #MeToo office stories—down to the Jeff Zucker defenestration at CNN—were nuanced and fraught). These past two years, when we’ve been largely mediated by screens, have underscored how hard it is to build true relationships without a physical presence.
And those relationships have dividends—which is why, in Severance, Lumon does what it can to keep them from forming. The Severed floor is explicitly designed to prevent different departments from encountering each other, or being more than vaguely aware of each other’s existence (There’s a great gag about a piece of baroque art in the corporate collection that depicts an intra-company massacre, perpetrated by one group of office drones against another.) It’s when disparate employees run across each other by happenstance that change happens. When a MacrodataRefinement employee named Irv (John Turturro) accidentally meets Burt (Christopher Walken), a leader of the “Optics and Design” team, he launches into a journey of self-discovery that doesn’t just awaken his emotions, but winds up threatening the whole Lumon operation.
It’s all a metaphor for toxic office dynamics, and the mistrust that arises when when different work teams have conflicting goals or styles. (Some groups use Slack and some use Microsoft Teams, and never the twain shall meet.) The only way to bridge the gap is to talk, in real life. Maybe you assume that Mike from Accounting is an insidious bean counter—but then you meet him at the water cooler and bond over sports, or food, or Corgi dogs, and suddenly he’s inclined to be on your side the next time there’s a purchase of office supplies. With strong relationships, colleagues can head off conflicts. They can start union drives. They can have fun. Even at a company that’s not as calculatedly evil as Lumon, there’s value in the cogs getting to know each other. And they can’t get to know each other when they’re stuck Zooming with their own teams, or making awkward small talk in a departmentwide video call.
As the pandemic enters its third year with continued ups and downs, it’s hard to know how many companies will keep working largely remotely, or shift to remote work for good. But if we’re on the path toward leaving office culture behind, it’s worth considering what we stand to lose. In Severance, the office is a version of Hell, but that’s not because Hell is other people. Work is sometimes Hell, no matter where it happens—but other people make it better.