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A Political History of the Future: Severance

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There’s an adage that crops up a lot in science fiction circles: a dystopia is a future or alternate world in which things that are happening right now happen to white people. It’s reductive, and not a little bit mean, but there’s a lot of truth to it. I’ve been thinking recently that we should formulate a corollary to this adage, in response to the emergence, in film and TV, of a type of near-future-set, strongly naturalistic science fiction story whose premise should, by all rights, be informed or inflected by class, but which has been set in a world where class goes unacknowledged. The new adage I’m contemplating, then, would go something like this: a capitalist dystopia is a future or alternate world in which things that are happening right now happen to middle class office workers.

It’s this observation that has kept me from fully joining in the acclaim that has rained down on Apple TV+’s Severance, which concluded its first season earlier this month. There’s a lot to praise about Severance, including some aspects of how it handles its central theme, the technologically-enabled dehumanization of workers. But by setting its story in a world of perpetual middle-classness, one in which the pressures that are brought to bear on workers in the real world seem entirely beside the point of the story, it misses a lot of the opportunities for insightful observation offered by its premise.

Severance‘s main character is Mark (Adam Scott), who for several years has worked for the century-old conglomerate Lumon on its severed floor. Every day Mark arrives at the office, leaves all identifying belongings in a locker, and descends in an elevator towards his office. Halfway down, a chip implanted in Mark’s brain activates, and Mark loses all memory of life outside Lumon. At the end of the workday, the chip is triggered again, and the first Mark (referred to as an “outie”, as opposed to “innie” for the employee version) returns, with no memory of the intervening hours.

Two things occur at the beginning of Severance‘s season to shock Mark out of his comfortable routine. On the inside, Mark is dismayed to learn that his best friend Petey has suddenly left the company and that he has been promoted to the position of head of Macro Data Refinement. In that role, he greets new hire Helly (Britt Lower), who reacts with horror to the notion that she’s to spend her entire existence in an office doing boring, incomprehensible number-crunching, and engages in increasingly disruptive acts of rebellion. On the outside, Mark is approached by Petey (Yul Vazquez), who claims to have reintegrated his memories, and darkly hints at the real purpose of Mark’s work at Lumon.

Given Severance‘s barely-futuristic setting (the cars, computers, and phones seem, if anything, a bit behind the times) and its focus on something as mundane as office work, one might have expected fairly naturalistic storytelling. And yet—in a choice that is probably the main driver of the show’s booming popularity—Severance revels in weirdness. The world constructed on the severed floor is at once barren—endless, glaring white corridors; cavernous offices, some still swathed in plastic—and rich with bizarre details. The hallway art depicting mythologized events in the life of Lumon’s founder, the 19th century industrialist Kier Eagan. The rumors of a long-ago feud between MDR and another department, Optics & Design, which culminated in a bloody coup. A department whose task is to raise baby goats. Elevated by the show’s precise, tense direction (by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle), it all builds up to a Lost-esque impression of enormous significance that is waiting to be worked out—as seen, for example, in the show’s evocative opening credits, which are full of curious, suggestive imagery.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that it’s not just the show’s writers who are furiously engaged in worldbuilding, but Lumon itself. For the innie workers, the office is their entire world. One they don’t ever get to leave, and where the passage of time is marked only by the progression of the workday. Lumon steps in to fill that void, crafting a culture, a mythology, and even a religion around its founder and history. The company handbook—a four-volume tome with gilt edges, stuffed with precepts and commandments handed down, it is said, by Kier himself—is treated, and quoted from, like a bible. An entire wing on the severed floor is dedicated to animatics and dioramas of the company’s previous CEOs. All other written materials are forbidden, and the handbook prohibits fraternization between employees, claiming that they should reserve their love for Kier and their work.

It is, in other words, an exaggerated but by no means unfamiliar version of a lot of real-world companies’ insistence that their employees are family, that they are all working together towards a grand goal. Except that on the severed floor at Lumon, the employees have no life experience to tell them that this is bullshit, no memories of the outside world to give them something to care about besides their work.

One of the things that Severance does extremely well is to make it clear how the severance procedure, beyond just helping to protect company secrets or cut out distractions during the workday, creates some executives’ perfect employee: childlike, easily fobbed off with trinkets (Mark and Helly’s teammate Dylan (Zach Cherry) boasts of having earned finger traps for high performance, and a special treat for high-achieving employees is a five-minute dance break), and possessed of no emotional connections, interests, or convictions outside of work. That Kier, the person who laid out the philosophy by which Lumon employees still live, was a Gilded Age industrialist makes the severed floor a high-tech extension of the company town. A place where technology has finally permitted the ruling classes to have the kind of control they have always wanted over their workers’ behavior and morals.

That paternalism extends to both soft and harsh methods of enforcing desired behavior. Employees who seem to have lost their way are sent to wellness sessions where they’re gently chided to embody Lumon values like Probity and Cheer. Those who act out are sent to the Break Room, where they are subjected to psychological torture. The severed floor’s middle managers—Ms Cobel (Patricia Arquette), a true believer who seems to have been raised in a Lumon orphanage; and Mr Milchick (Tramell Tillman), who mostly seems in it for the paycheck—treat the severed employees with a condescension that is run through with contempt, cloaking in high-minded rhetoric a very simple fact—that they do not see the innies as fully human.

Another thing that Severance does well is capture how witnessing one another’s suffering, and developing solidarity as a result, helps Mark and the other employees break through their learned passivity. Helly goes to ever-greater extremes in her efforts to be released from her labors at Lumon, and Mark can’t help but be moved to help her—at first, by trying to get her over her aversion to the life of an innie, but eventually by joining her rebellion. The fourth member of MDR, Irving (John Turturro), falls in love with Burt (Christopher Walken), an employee from another department, only for Burt’s retirement to be announced—which is, as Irving points out, tantamount to a death sentence for innie Burt. By witnessing and acknowledging one another’s pain, the four characters are able to articulate to themselves that something about their work environment isn’t right, and to work together to try to strike back against Lumon.

It’s when it comes to the world outside Lumon that Severance‘s clever worldbuilding collapses, undermining its message about workplace exploitation. The show is very good at articulating why an employer might want severed workers. But a much thornier question is why an employee would agree to be severed, and the answers that Severance offers to this question are not only unconvincing, but rooted entirely in the personal.

Mark, we quickly learn, was recently widowed, and views severance as an escape from the still-lingering pain of that grief. Petey too apparently took a severed job in order to get away from problems in his real life such as divorce. While other employees remain a mystery, none of them appear to have accepted severance for the reasons that workers today accept dehumanizing treatment in the workplace—economic precarity, lack of options, a system slanted towards normalizing such abuses.

This focus on the personal—as one character puts it, choosing severance is an act of “emotional convenience”—is echoed in the blandness of the show’s outside world, the seeming absence from it of any mode of life except the comfortable middle class. Mark lives in a sleepy suburb full of quaint houses. His sister and her husband live in a palatial house out in the woods, apparently paid for solely by his career as a writer of self-help books. Politics is entirely absent from the show’s world, except for very vague references to a coming vote on legalized severance (which makes no sense since Mark and the other employees are already severed). Even climate change doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact in this world, as the entire season takes place over a blustery, snowy winter. In an early scene, innie Dylan observes to Helly that the acceptance of severance as a mode of employment can only mean that the world outside has suffered a major collapse. But instead of carrying forward this idea, it’s treated as a joke.

There’s room, obviously, for fiction, and particularly science fiction, about the emotional and economic struggles of middle class office workers. Ling Ma’s 2018 novel, coincidentally also titled Severance, depicts a zombie plague through the eyes of a junior employee at a publishing company, and draws insightful connections between American work culture and a disease that reduces people to mindless repetition of meaningless tasks. But Ma’s story is set in a world that is recognizably our own, one where working in an office is no longer a guarantee of financial stability. Severance seems ignorant of this fact—or, indeed, of the fact that economic precarity is even a thing.

The specific form of exploitation, of dehumanization, that Severance trades in is physical. It recalls things like Amazon drivers being forced to pee in bottles and chicken plant employees knowingly being exposed to COVID. The paternalism with which Lumon dangles meaningless “prizes” before its employees recalls billion-dollar companies raffling off minor treats for workers who come in on a holiday. The very connection the show makes with company towns evokes working class industrial work.

To then turn around and focus this story on middle class workers who, in the story’s setting, don’t experience any actual pressure to become severed, feels like missing the point—all the more so because there’s no actual reason for Mark and the others to be middle class. The severance procedure cuts them off from their education and previous work experience. The work itself is a cryptic form of data processing that they perform seemingly by instinct. There was no reason for these characters to be of this social stratum, except that it suits the show’s aesthetics, and the type of people it is interested in.

Even worse, this failure to identify social pressures that make severance palatable or even inevitable ends up making villains of the severed workers themselves. Early in the season, outie Mark scoffs at the notion that severance is slavery. How, he asks, can he have willingly signed up to be enslaved? But as the season draws on and we get to know the innie and outie versions of the show’s characters, it becomes easier to see them as distinct individuals. The actual significance of the accusation—and the way it undermines the show’s argument—becomes clear. Mark isn’t a slave; he’s the enslaver.

Everyone who has signed up to work at Lumon has handed over a version of themselves—a helpless, childlike version—to be abused, tortured, worked endlessly without compensation or regard to their wishes, and with only oblivion as their promised release. When Helly threatens to harm herself if she’s not allowed to quit, she receives a message from her outie that lays down the rules of their relationship: “I am a person; you are not,” outie Helly explains. “I make the decisions; you do not.”

The concept of self-enslavement, of spinning off a copy of yourself who doesn’t have the freedom to direct their own life, isn’t a new one in science fiction. In David Brin’s 2002 novel Kiln People, it is possible to create short-lived clones of yourself to perform specific tasks. These clones usually possess all the original’s memories, and their own experiences can be reabsorbed by the original. The novel is more interested in untangling a murder mystery within its setting than in puzzling out its premise’s implications for labor rights. In Duncan Jones’s 2009 movie Moon, Sam Rockwell plays Sam, a laborer overseeing a lunar mining operation, and looking forward to the end of his two-year contract and to being reunited with his family. Then an accident reveals that Sam is actually the latest in a long line of clones of the original, who finished his stretch and went back to Earth years ago, perhaps not even knowing that the cloning had occurred. Though the film encourages some resentment of the original Sam, for having all the things “our” Sam will never have, it reserves its ire for a company that sees its workers as literally disposable.

More recently, several Black Mirror episodes have played with the idea of a “cookie”, a complete copy of a person’s memories and personality that has no rights and can therefore be exploited in all the many ways capitalism can conjure. In the episode “White Christmas”, a cookie is tortured into acting as the operator of her human original’s smart home, effortlessly anticipating her human version’s needs because they are her own. In “Hang the DJ”, a pair of young lovers are torn apart and fight their way back to each other, only for the episode’s end to reveal that they are cookies living in a simulation run by a dating app, and that their attachment and suffering are nothing but the byproducts of a commercial service.

It’s a sharp critique of our willingness to profit from exploitation so long as we don’t have to see it, but Severance, in employing a similar device, lacks a corresponding ruthlessness. When it places the bulk of the burden of guilt for the innies’ suffering on the outies’ shoulders, it seems to be avoiding the very critique of capitalism that stories like Black Mirror and Moon trade in.

A show that I found myself thinking about a great deal while watching Severance—which in some ways feels like a dress rehearsal for what Severance is trying to do—is Dollhouse (2009-2010), Joss Whedon’s fourth television series and, until that point, sole critical failure. In that show’s world, the technology exists to turn people into “dolls”, blank slates on which can be imprinted any personality and skillset. The secretive dollhouse hires out its dolls to the uber-wealthy, to function as hyper-competent, endlessly loyal servants and personal retainers, to solve problems such as a missing relative or a jealous ex, and of course, as sex slaves.

Dollhouse had a lot of problems—some of which seem even more glaring in hindsight, now that Whedon, who wrote at the time about how the show reflected his unease with the power he had over young, nubile actors, has been revealed as a toxic, abusive boss—but at its core it was, like Severance, a story about the ultimate alienation of workers from their labor. And, like the later show, it missed a trick by focusing its stories on the bespoke desires of the elite.

It’s easy to imagine a much scarier implementation of Dollhouse’s fictional technology, a world where the only thing you bring to the table as a worker is a warm body. Where the skills and dedication with which you carry out your work belong to your employer, not you, and can be taken away at the end of the day. But Dollhouse, like Severance and so many other works of science fiction, is blind to the class system, to the realities of work for many people, and to the pressures that capitalism exerts in its efforts to extract the most value from workers. Without acknowledging any of these forces, its critique of capitalism could only fall flat.

At the same time that it was airing Severance, Apple TV+ premiered, with significantly less fanfare, the limited series The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Based on a 2010 novel by Walter Mosley (who also created the show), the series introduces us to its title character (Samuel L. Jackson), a nonagenarian whose brain has been swiss-cheesed by Alzheimer’s. Unable to tell past from present or to hold new information in his mind, Ptolemy goes through life in a fog of confusion. Until an experimental procedure gives him his mind back, for a limited time. Regaining his memories re-exposes Ptolemy to the traumas he experienced growing up in the south, and also reminds him of the responsibility he has towards the younger people in his family and community.

It’s not a great show, to be honest. Jackson hasn’t done anything this interesting in years, but the show around him tends towards didacticism. Especially when it comes to younger characters, who seem to be sorted into good and bad piles according to how respectably they dress and whether they have aspirations towards an education. But what made Ptolemy Grey refreshing, especially in direct contrast to Severance, is how effortlessly it incorporates class, wealth, and race into its storytelling, and how the resulting world feels richer for it.

Economic precarity is front and center in Ptolemy Grey, not as poverty porn, but as the mundane reality that its characters take for granted. It’s the old lady cadging some money at the bank to pay off a phone bill. It’s the teenage girl sleeping on a distant relation’s couch after her mother’s death. And it’s Ptolemy, living in squalor because his overworked relatives don’t have the time to care for him properly.

It’s such an unusual setting for science fiction that one might almost miss that this is what the show is. But even when the magical treatment that can restore Ptolemy’s memories is introduced, the show remains grounded in its setting. The doctor who is developing the treatment (Walton Goggins) is seeking out patients like Ptolemy—like him not just in the sense that they suffer from Alzheimer’s, but are black and impoverished—so that he can perfect the treatment, then sell it to the wealthy. It’s part of the show’s unique approach to its subject that everyone in it understands the trade-off on offer, understands that it is fundamentally exploitative, but also knows that this is just how things are.

As William Gibson said, the future is never evenly distributed, and neither are the exploitation and dehumanization that can accompany new technologies. That reality is missing from stories like Severance and Dollhouse, which fatally undercuts even the trenchant things they manage to say about capitalism. They choose instead to pretend that the middle class are the only people who exist, and the result is a story that flatters where it should outrage—we see ourselves in Mark, at best a courageous rebel, at worst a flawed man who is trying to correct his mistakes. When really, we’re more likely to be the people who benefit from Mark’s exploitation. We need more science fiction stories like Ptolemy Grey, that situate their fantastic speculation in an economic setting we can recognize. And we need stories like Severance and Dollhouse to remember that the exploitation they depict is happening right now, albeit to the wrong people.

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