Note: This article discusses events that have happened through Episode 8.
Every time Mark rides the elevator to the severance floor of Lumon Industries, a chip in his bifurcated brain is activated and every memory of life outside his work disappears, leaving him with only those he forms during office hours. When he leaves at the end of the day, he’ll regain access to his exterior memories, but retain nothing of the past eight hours. It sounds grim and dehumanizing, a perverse work-life balance where one part of you is only allowed to experience work and nothing of home can infect the sterile workplace—and that’s because it is.
Mark and the other members of his Macrodata Refinement department are deeply indoctrinated, hesitant to question the stringent workplace policies, and happy to chase meaningless, ephemeral incentives (finger traps, dance breaks, the ever-so-enticing melon party). They refer to themselves with subjugating language; at work they are “innies”, subservient to the desires of the more authoritative, exciting “outies”. The fact that they never question the conditions of their labor is probably why they’re so revolted by new hire Helly lambasting everything about their jobs.
Isolated and confined even in her own four-person department, Helly concocts increasingly drastic ways of leaving the severance floor, assuming her outie will listen to her innie’s cries for help. She doesn’t. Over videotape, Helly is told—by herself—that she is not a person. It’s important that such dehumanization is coming from her own mouth, as it allows corporate ideology to be disguised through a personal, targeted mouthpiece. This is despite, as hinted in the recent episode, Helly’s outie is likely to be a benefactor of the severance program and involved in its expansion, which only adds to her cruelty, as she doesn’t see a low-level worker as worthy of the barest respect even though it’s literally herself. Personhood has been weaponized; Lumon lets you tell yourself you’re worthless, because that way it sounds more real.
As we explore other characters, a pattern in Lumon’s hiring practices coalesces. We meet Mark when he is crying in his car outside work, still grieving his wife who died in a fatal car accident some time before. He opted for severance because he wanted eight hours a day where he could escape his loss. It’s a short-sighted solution (you’re not going to heal by severing all connection with the version of you in pain), but Lumon isn’t interested in dissuading him; rather, they’re happy to take advantage of people looking for myopic solutions to deep-set emotional issues.
The answer to the mystery of what severance is used for is probably depressingly simple; it makes people work better. What’s more unsettling is how Lumon misleads its workers into thinking this is for their own benefit, resulting in a compounding of hostility and a universal worsening of wellbeing. But most distressing is that, when characters on the severance floor threaten to snap, Lumon tries to retroactively and ineffectually contain problems it was responsible for causing.
Because when she leaves work in the elevator one day, Helly tries to hang herself—and the first thing her outie wakes up to is self-inflicted suffocation.
I recently attended a work-mandated mental health awareness workshop, and I hated every minute of it. There were several red flags; it was said mental wellbeing was important to maintain productivity, the responsibility for helping those struggling was shifted to fellow employees, and there was little to no understanding of how nuanced the toxicity of work culture can be. But most egregiously, nothing suggested how things could actually, tangibly change. Everything said was flimsily reactive.
Maybe I took umbrage so fervently because as a mentally-ill socialist, and as someone who has cried in nearly every bathroom accessible to me at work, I’m invested in employers not screwing over vulnerable people. There exist real, genuine solutions to improve working environments: trialing a four-day week, providing extensive training to HR employees, hiring onsite counselors. But these all cost money. It would be much easier to do a perfunctory “awareness” workshop so a box can be ticked that demonstrates how seriously a company takes an issue they have no interest in solving. Because what’s the point in talking to HR or the endless recitation of, “It’s okay not to feel okay” when work is the thing making you feel worse?
Right before Helly’s innie reawakens the first time since her attempted suicide/homicide, the severance supervisor Milchik insists to Mark that it’s his responsibility to settle her, and he must greet her with kind eyes. His urgency distracts Mark from other probing questions, like why they are making Helly return to the place that made her hang herself. Lumon’s wellness monitor Ms. Casey proceeds to follow Helly everywhere, watching and noting her every move. She’s now a liability to be surveyed.
Helly’s attempt is not just a major turning point for her innie, but Mark’s as well. He has been secretly reading from a hokey self-help book that gives him all sorts of faux-inspirational platitudes that Mark, due to his unfamiliarity with hack writing (or any writing), finds enlightening. “Don’t ask what you can do for work, ask what work can do for you,” he reads, and suddenly he can see himself as an individual with unique wants and needs, which sets him up to foster a genuine kinship with Helly after she put herself in harm’s way. Mark joined severance to avoid human reflection and connection, but his innie has started to heal a wound he isn’t even aware of having.
The other department members undergo similar shifts in priorities. Arrogant, high-performing Dylan realizes his powerlessness when Milchik wakes up his innie outside of work, where he gets a glimpse of a family he never knew existed. Irving, a stickler for protocol with a penchant for over-pronouncing, crosses the borders between estranged departments to forge an intimacy with the elderly Burt—but Burt’s forced retirement means the version of Burt he loves is going to die. Every character has made an independent journey to their own enlightenment and is punished for their transgressions (often in the torture chamber of ideology that is “the breakroom”), but what used to break their spirits now only strengthens their bonds. Our characters have discovered something Lumon has made sure to surgically excise; solidarity.
I resent the idea that work is good for your mental health. Activity is good for you, structure even more so, and socializing is key to a stable wellbeing. But the word work connotes someone profiting off your labor, a third party encouraging you to work not because they care about your mental health, but because they have a vested interest in what you produce.
Severance is acutely aware of the alienation felt when a worker realizes their humanity is not considered the most important thing about them. Severance knows that, to employers, mental illness/emotional instability/full-blown psychosis is a problem first and foremost for them and not for the person suffering. Severance knows that when you use your job as an escape from personal problems, you don’t heal but stagnate, so now you’re a miserable person who helps someone else get richer—and the pain you repress at work will erupt unexpectedly at home.
Work can, wittingly and willingly, make you feel awful. It may not be conducive to, as Irving so venomously says, burn the place to the ground, but Severance shows us in real-time a path out of alienation. They discuss. They organize. They confront. Severance is born out of a world where employers too often tell their workers, “It’s okay not to feel okay,” but won’t admit things are unbearable because of them. We can’t be expected to forget that pain any longer.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.
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