With 14 nominations for Emmy Awards, the first season of “Severance”, a science-fiction, psychological thriller, is a binge-worthy drama. A sinister tech company, Lumon Industries, hires Mark, played by Adam Scott, who agrees to a “severance” program in which his non-work memories are separated from his at-work memories. He uncovers a web of conspiracy from both sides of his severed life. There are stellar performances by all, but notably from Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, and John Turturro.
Cleverly written by Dan Erickson and ably directed by Ben Stiller, anyone who has ever worked for a large company will easily relate to this show. Not only are employees tricked into literally giving up their lives (sound familiar?) but they are lied to about their ability to leave the building during the workday and routinely gaslit and intimidated by management and their collaborators.
The controlling nature of the corporation – think the IBM “organization man” of the 50s – is not new. But with robotics in manufacturing, surgery, etc., implanting a device in someone’s brain so that they absolutely can’t remember who they are in their personal lives takes it to a new level. No family member can get in touch during the 40-hour week. There’s no contact from a co-worker to cover a shift. And certainly no socializing.
Not only are they deprived of personhood at work, but they live in cookie-cutter housing built by the company. Living in company-owned buildings is just another layer of creepy. Mark curiously lives next door to his supervisor’s boss. She quizzes him on his trash habits. She doubles as a doula for Adam’s sister when she is about to deliver. Somehow this is more sinister than soapy, due to Arquette’s fine performance. One has to wonder how the janitors are treated at Lumon if the data-input peons are brainwashed to forfeit their human rights.
And that leads to a point about the society that is behind this series: the irony is that culturally U.S. society claims to prize autonomy and individuality above all else, but neither of those fit nicely into a society that uses humans for profit. Those who have agency, knowledge, community, and critical thought are square pegs in the round hole of capitalism.