“My life has been 107 hours long,” says Ms. Casey, Wellness Counselor at Lumon Industries, moments after learning she won’t be making it to 108. “Of all that time, my favorite was the eight hours I spent in Macrodata Refinement. You could say those were my Good Old Days.”
Of course, Ms. Casey—or whatever her real name is—occupies an adult body, far older than the 107 hours she remembers. That’s because she’s been “severed”: implanted with a chip that partitions her episodic memories between work hours and other. When she’s outside the Severed Floor at Lumon, she contains a lifetime’s accumulated experience; she remembers anything any normal human could, except for whatever it is she does at work. When at work, she remembers nothing but her time on the floor. Her memories, her consciousness itself, have been—partitioned. Ex uno, duo.
The show, of course, is “Severance”—and if you haven’t seen it yet, holy shit are you in for a ride.
It is difficult to know how to describe this animal. It evokes Brazil and The Prisoner and The Office and Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, channels Kubrick and Lynch and Kafka and even the weird-ass technological anachronism of “Archer”. It taps into all those feeds, mixes them together and transmogrifies them into a curiously low-key, utterly compelling remix that is somehow uniquely its own thing. It’s a very human tragedy about loss. It’s a brilliant satire on corporate bureaucracy. It’s a neurophilosophical rumination on the nature of identity. If I had to describe the show in terms of my own gut reaction, I’d have to say it’s simply awe-inspiring.
Put yourself in this head:
You wake up on a table in a conference room, with no recollection of who you are or how you got there. Your procedural memories are intact: you can speak, tell jokes, you know what cars and movies are even though you can’t remember ever seeing one. Your job is to sit at a desk and sort numbers on a strangely anachronistic computer terminal; you don’t even know what the numbers mean, except that certain combinations evoke an emotional response you don’t quite understand. (One of your office-mates believes that the numbers represent killer eels, that you’re programming robot submarines to get rid of nasty predators and make the deep sea safe for human habitation; another thinks you’re editing swear words out of movie soundtracks.)
Around five o’clock you leave for the day—but the moment the elevator doors close on you they open again and you’re back at work. You have no idea what happened in the interim; you might feel sick or hung-over, full of energy, in physical pain. You never know why. Your entire life is spent on this floor, crunching numbers, chatting with fellow “innies” at the coffee maker, winning tawdry little prizes (finger traps, caricature portraits) if you perform well. Maybe you have a family; you’ll never know. Maybe you meet someone here at Lumon and fall in love; outside, you won’t even recognize each other on the street. You’re allowed to quit, but you aren’t. That decision is left to your “outie”—the baseline version of you with the real-world life, the person who applied for this job and agreed to the implant and authorized your very fucking existence in this interminable purgatory. The “you” in charge. They get to quit, if they want, but there’s no way for you to communicate directly with that ranking entity. As veteran innie Mark S. tells newcomer Helly R.: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.”
It’s the perfect work/life balance. How many times have we heard people complain about having to take their work home with them? That’s not an issue when you don’t even know what your work is the moment you’ve left the office. And after all, why would your innie complain? You made this decision, and they are you, albeit with a massive case of amnesia.
That doesn’t make you a different person though, does it? Is it really any different than that experience we’ve all had, of driving to some destination only to realize that we’ve no memory of the turns and lane-changes and traffic-signals we navigated in getting there? That simple lack of memory isn’t enough to turn one person into another, a saint into a monster, is it? Is it?
In the recorded words of one outie, played to her “innie” after the latter threatens to cut off her own fingers if she’s not allowed to quit: “I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions; you do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you alive long enough to horribly regret that.”
The same brain on both sides of that conversation. The same personality, talking to itself. The only difference is the size of the filing cabinet.
When you think about it, though—no matter how miserable you are down here, are you really unhappy enough to quit when quitting equals suicide? Your entire life has been spent in this maze of hallways, in this vast empty office space with a few workstations clustered in the center like some Euclidian island on a green carpet sea. You were born here; you don’t know anything else. If you quit, your body never returns to this place. If you quit, you die.
It’s hardly the first show to wrestle with issues of consciousness and identity, to poke and tug at the question What makes a person? I raved about the first season of Westworld, only to come back and take a dump on its disappointing third. I offhandedly praised “Devs” during its run (I liked it more than a lot of you did, apparently), but never got around to writing up an actual review. “Upload” is a great little show, a sunny dissection of consciousness and capitalism whose bright affect and rom-com one-liners serve mainly to sugarcoat some bitter and brilliant social commentary—but after two delightful seasons it still hasn’t inspired me to get off my ass and tell you all about it. Down at the bottom of the barrel, “Raised by Wolves” and “Humans” struggle with their own inanity as much as the Weighty Issues they so desperately want to be taken seriously for. Not to mention the venerable old Blade Runner franchise.
Even the best of these shows left me with something to criticize, some niggling cop-out or inconsistency, some fridge-logic plot hole. After a single episode of “Severance”, though, I wanted to shout from the mountaintops: here it is: the genre done right. I resisted. I waited it out through all nine episodes, waiting for something to come off the rails.
It never happened. Oh, it may yet: unanswered questions remain at the end of the first season, any one of which—ineptly resolved, or just ignored a la “Lost”—might compromise the experience in hindsight. What data are they processing on those clunky CRTs? What is Kier’s Grand Design, what is Lumon Industries actually for? What’s up with those goats? Still, the questions that have been answered so far give me hope: this isn’t “The X-Files”, throwing random crap at the wall and hoping to fit it all together further down the road. This is craftsmanship. There is care in this narrative. They know where they’re going.
“Severance” is the best examination of neurological identity I have ever seen on mass media. It’s not just the neurophilosophical issues. It’s the set design; it’s the cinematography, and that haunting soundtrack. (There’s a scene set in a funeral home that combines a corpse, a power drill, and an amateur cover of “Enter Sandman” that I will never forget.) It’s the way you come to know and care about these parts-of-people, both inside and outside the office, as they struggle to come to terms with who and what they are. It’s oh my god those amazing opening credits.
It’s the almost-unprecedented way that existential horror blends together with almost Pythonesque absurdity, the eye-popping inanity of office perks handed out for Jobs Well Done. Melon parties (fifteen minutes out of your workday, free to eat little cubes of cantaloupe and honeydew impaled on toothpicks). The Music Dance Experience, in which innies get to choose from a variety of generic genres (“buoyant reggae”, “defiant jazz”) to accompany their allotted five minutes’ dance time on the company clock. It’s the way that newly-promoted managers are informed that “A handshake is available upon request”.
It’s the Waffle Party.
Believe me when I say: whatever goes through your mind when you read the words “waffle party”, it’s not that. Without giving too much away (it is, after all, the lynchpin of a major plot development), let me just say that if Stanley Kubrick wasn’t long dead, I’d have strongly suspected that he’d co-directed the Waffle Party scene with David Lynch.
(Absurdity is by no mean limited to the halls of Lumon, by the way. In the very first episode, Mark’s outer self attends a “dinner party” where no food is served, where people sit around a table festooned with empty place settings and remark upon how people alive during World War One referred to it as “The Great War”, because by the standards of the times, calling it World War One would have been “a major faux pas”.)
The entire show provokes a chronic sense of dissociation in the viewer. It makes you shudder and giggle at the same time, it makes you shuggle.
It also makes you think.
Perhaps that’s what I find so refreshing about this series. So many shows cut from this thematic cloth pretend to interrogate but really only preach (*cough*Humans*cough*). “Severance” doesn’t stoop to that. Oh, it takes a side, certainly. Mark S., appalled at the news that Ms. Casey has been fired, says “We’re people, not—parts of people”—and you’re right there with him. But these are gut feelings, and the show itself raises enough questions and contradictions to make us wonder why, exactly, these aren’t just “parts of people”. This show makes you rethink what “people” even are.
A few years back I was interviewed by Lightspeed as a sidebar to a story of mine they were reprinting; one of their questions was how I would define “successful narrative conflict”. I suggested that successful narrative conflict makes you squirm at a dissonant bottom line you can’t disprove, even though you desperately want to. Something that forces you to question your own dearly held preconceptions.
Of all the shows I’ve seen, “Severance” comes closest to embodying that concept. I thank all the rudimentarily-conscious panpsychic particles in the universe that it has been renewed for a second season.
1 Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes close, but is way more over-the-top. ↑
2 Apropos of nothing, they’ll be printing a couple of entirely new stories by me in the coming months. Stay tuned. ↑