I’ve been laid off twice in my life. In the leadup to each, workplace conversations converged on a single word: severance, the slasher-flick term for the dough you get when your boss cuts you loose: a feverish name for a feverish thing. If you’re young and have other plans, severance might revive you: instantly, you go from living paycheck to paycheck to a flush bank account. But if you’re older, or fear finding another job, severance may feel all too literal, like someone just cut off your arm.
For all these reasons, “severance” has recently been an irresistible term to describe the state of work at the end of the world. In 2018, Ling Ma used it for the title of her apocalyptic work novel, wherein her protagonist keeps working her publishing job after everyone else drops dead. This year, Dan Erikson has offered us the show Severance, an oddball hit from AppleTV starring Adam Scott, Zach Curry, John Turturro, Britt Lower, Michael Chernus, Patricia Arquette, and Christopher Walken. Severance tells the story of a group of white-collar workers who have volunteered to undergo a unique surgical procedure, whereby they forget their home lives while they are at work, and vice versa. Their work selves—“innies” in the show’s parlance—toil away; their home “outies” recall nothing of the toil.
Severance is a show about the contemporary workplace, but if you’re familiar with these, you may (like me) find the show’s look a shock. There are no hoodies, no jeans, and no sleekly designed partitions. Instead, we get tailored dresses, buttoned-up suits, and a Brutalist corporate campus with fluorescent-lit interiors. That is, Severance feels like a show set in the 1950s or 1960s: think Mad Men without the late-season countercultural flourishes. While that era is often remembered as the “golden age” of capitalism—at least for white men—at the time, many a text registered discontent with the rising conformity of the corporate workplace. In an interview with Erikson, Anne Peterson links Severance to William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956). Writing in the early Cold War, Whyte feared that corporate capitalism risked becoming totalitarian: the Organization was creating a world of obedient drones, who dressed alike, had the same tastes, and lived in identical houses.
Whyte’s book was a bestseller, and notions that corporate culture was oppressive went on to shape the revolts of the late 1960s. While the New Left is best remembered for its struggles against the war in Vietnam, activists devoted much ink and energy to diagnosing corporate culture’s attacks on individual autonomy, and viewed management of all types with equal suspicion. (The New Left activist Todd Gitlin recalls that one of the movement’s origins lay with young professionals’ resentment of “managers whose power outran the knowledge that would entitle them to legitimate authority.”) Such concerns moved from the streets into the workplace, and by the early 1970s, workers in all fields were demanding, and receiving, more control over their jobs. All that is to say that the world depicted in Severance began to disappear some 50 years before it aired.
Not quite, though: revolutions tend to produce new power structures, and it was easy enough to fold the workplace revolt into managerial strategies. For evidence of such, you can read Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism, wherein the pair trace ideas of 1960s discontent into the 1990s writing of consultants such as Tom Peters. But you could also just recall the career arc of Jerry Rubin, the revolutionary Yippie who emerged as an investment manager in the 1980s. For Peters and Rubin, you could tune in, turn on, and earn a paycheck: just work on contract, ditch the suit, and stop listening to your manager (actually, you’ll be required to stop listening, in the name of “disruption”). Such ideas continue to shape the startup cultures of Silicon Valley, famous for offering workers gourmet food, games, and team-building activities. (After one of my own severances, I walked out the door past a slide, a merry-go-round, and a room full of vintage arcade consoles.) Out of these reforms emerged a dark but compelling idea: work is the place you go to find your best self.
Severance parodies these notions. As rewards for a job well done, characters are offered useless trinkets, artwork for their cubicles and, most famously, something called the Music Dance Experience, wherein characters choose from a playlist including “buoyant reggae,” “tearful emo,” and “defiant jazz”: the dancing that ensues is simultaneously one of the most hilarious and most ominous moments in the show.
Here, perhaps, Severance isn’t so original. Severance arrived amid a burst of prestige-television takes on Silicon Valley: Hulu’s The Dropout (about Theranos), Showtime’s Super Pumped (about Uber), and AppleTV’s own WeCrashed (about WeWork). Even as they mock their subjects, all of these shows figure startup workplaces as sites of liberation. Much of WeCrashed, in particular, emphasizes the “freedom” that comes from drinking beer and playing ping-pong at work, even as it mocks its subjects’ superficiality.
Despite these reforms, we can’t seem to shake the idea that the corporation is best imagined as Big Brother. That is, we continue to imagine that the primary problems with the workplace lie with heavy surveillance and mandated conformity, and that any deviance from such represents freedom. Severance exaggerates this notion, by depicting the corporation’s founder in ways that would make V.L. Lenin blush, and by depicting the corporation as maintaining intense surveillance over the innies. Get out of line, and you’re sent to the break room. In one of Severance’s many redefinitions of familiar office terms, the break room is not where you go to get a break: it’s where the corporation breaks you by forcing you to repeat an “apology” to the company until your interrogator is satisfied that you really mean them. One character has to repeat the line 1072 times. This is the totalitarian work world that worried Whyte cranked up to 11.
By condensing midcentury and contemporary forms of capitalism, Severance suggests our culture is stuck in the ways that we simultaneously fetishize and decry work. The show seems to agree with midcentury critics about white-collar workplaces—by its very nature, work is deadening and demands handing over one’s self at the office doors. That is, Severance rejects startup-culture notions that work is where one becomes the best version of oneself. We can laugh at WeCrashed’s scammy New Age paeans to work as a vehicle for self-fulfillment, but the joke is on us as long as our workdays continue to lengthen. A recent study by Microsoft, looking at data from Microsoft Teams, concluded that the average workday increased 13% from March 2020 to March 2022.
While accounts of workers quitting their jobs post-pandemic—the so-called “great resignation”—may be overstated, there’s no doubt that the pandemic, emerging in the long aftermath of the 2008 recession, has provoked sharp questions about the nature and purpose of work. And as the late anthropologist David Graeber notes, many workers hated their jobs before the disruptions of the past years. His “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” describes what, for Graeber, seemed like a surprising phenomenon when it was published in 2013. Despite neoliberalism’s purported market-driven efficiency, many white-collar workers view their jobs as useless. After the essay found a surprising audience among finance workers, YouGov polled UK workers to test Graeber’s hypothesis. As it turns out, 37% of workers viewed their jobs as meaningless—Graeber’s rough definition for bullshit. But still they toil on, out of fear, duty, or simply because they can’t imagine otherwise.
Severance seems well aware of Graeber’s thesis: the show depicts work at its most meaningless. The bulk of the show centers on the Macrodata room in which workers complete tasks that seem absolutely absurd (the show works in a Kafkaesque vein): they stare at groups of numbers, wait until a group seems “scary,” and then move the scary group into a kind of recycling bin. The workers speculate on what the numbers might mean: one opines that they’re looking at inhabitable parts of the sea, another suggests that they’re removing objectionable content from films. This is the very definition of a bullshit job: I complete tasks, but I have no idea how they benefit myself or anyone else.
Work is full of shit; work is where I find my best self. Work is the most normal thing in the world, and yet how odd it is to complete tasks for a stranger whose goals are not my own. Marx called this feeling alienation: the sense that work is fundamentally, perhaps spiritually, out of step with a well-lived life.
Along these lines, one of the things I like best about Severance is the way it registers the absurdity of work. In one episode, Scott’s character finds a room where baby goats are being raised. Elsewhere, John Tuturro’s character sees black goo dripping from his keyboard, and then the ceiling. And in a much-discussed episode, Curry’s character attends a “waffle party.” Curry eats the waffles; a message on the plate instructs him to “Go now to the founder’s bed,” where he dons a mask of the founder. Four lingerie-clad figures wearing bizarre masks enter and do a sultry dance. We are not at work anymore. And yet we most definitely are.
These elements convey a workplace that is breaking apart: the exact feeling, perhaps, of continuing to discuss feasibility reports over Zoom over the sound of sirens and a perpetual sense of disaster. How do we find the will to keep working, the show asks, when, first, the world is literally on fire and, second, work offers few of the rewards—stable housing, functional healthcare, financial stability—that it proffered in the past? At some point, all the beer pong in the world cannot paper over the emptiness of work.
In the bad days of midcentury, the white-collar workplace was viewed as constraining and hierarchical. Such circumstances at least allowed for work to be critiqued. By confusing work with life, the Always Be Hustling era fails to acknowledge that the ideology of living to work is a different flavor of bullshit. WeCrashed and its peers maintain that work can be fixed, if only the Bad Leader were deposed. Severance, though, wants viewers to recognize the absurdity of living to work under conditions when life itself is precarious. As long as so much cultural energy is devoted to the ridiculous notion that ridesharing is revolutionary, workplaces may as well be filled with baby goats.
Still, for all its interventions into work’s imaginaries, Severance is, in the end, focused on a particular kind of work. Erikson has located the show’s inspiration with the temp work he did while writing the show’s pilot, yet Severance’s workers are undeniably elite; their home locations were filmed in the affluent suburb of Nyack, New York. Severance is not, at all, about contingent labor or the gig economy, arguably the forms of work that dominate contemporary life. Overwhelmingly—and, perhaps, predictably—prestige television eschews representations of blue-collar labor for white-collar angst.
Whatever residue remains from putting in hours at Lumon, what does not remain are aching bones or the uncertainty of whether one will have work tomorrow. Severance is a dystopia, but only if you have a good job to start.
A more radical version of Severance might involve warehouse workers who accept slightly higher pay in return for agreeing to work 14-hour days that they forget, meaning that they’ll also forget the indignities of being denied bathroom breaks, being sexually harassed on the job, and of risking their lives during a pandemic.
In this sense, we might imagine that what the workers are sorting in the Macrodata room are not livable spots in the ocean or objectionable content: perhaps they’re sorting union-friendly workers—nothing “scarier” to corporations like Amazon or Starbucks—from complacent workers, those who are able to forget that work is anything but a means to get home and live.
Read this way, Severance emerges as a show that registers not only the shittiness of elite workers’ lives, but their complicity in exploiting other workers, and, we can probably add, the Earth itself. (It’s not for nothing that Severance is set in a bitter winter; the outside world offers no respite for the characters, and seems itself used up.) These workers are severed from everything, and the show’s finale suggests that work is only the start: we learn that the severing process has also been employed by women giving birth, suggesting a future world in which all lives are carefully segmented.
The apocalypse toward which we all slouch is part and parcel of work’s capacity to sever ourselves from one another, our planet, and our bodies. In other words, “severance” is the opposite of “union”; perhaps the show’s ultimate lesson is that we’re doomed as long as we view work as a place to find ourselves instead of a place to join with others.
Andrew Strombeck is Professor of English at Wright State University, the author of DIY on the Lower East Side: Books, Buildings, and Art after the 1975 Fiscal Crisis (SUNY Press, 2020), and the co-editor, with Jean-Thomas Tremblay, of Avant-Gardes in Crisis: Art and Politics in the Long 1970s (SUNY Press, 2021). His essays have appeared in Post45 Peer Reviewed, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rambling, The Millions, Contemporary Literature, and Cultural Critique.