Severance’s Interrogation of Corporate Culture’s Gnosticism

SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Severance is a fascinating show that joins the theological and philosophical to contemporary concerns with work-life balance and techno-capitalist wish-fulfillment. The questions it raises are at once philosophical and social: what does it mean to be a person, to have an identity? How central is memory to who we are? Can our bodies alone guarantee personal continuity? How are our minds related to our bodies? How are we connected to others across our fragmented existence?

The title, “Severance,” comes from an elective surgery that implants a chip into the brain and severs one’s work person (“innie”) from one’s extra-work person (“outie”) where never the twain shall meet. That, at least, is the hope of those who work in upper management for the Lumon corporation. Lumon was founded by the Great Keir to whom Patricia Arquette’s character, Harmony, has erected a shrine in her house. Arquette’s character is not severed but “whole,” though that integrity seems more negative than positive. She appears to live an austere or ascetic existence, all the better to serve Keir. She is one of several true believers in the show.

On the outside, Harmony lives next door to Mark (Adam Scott), the main character, who turns to severance as a kind of eight-hour relief from world shattering grief at his wife’s death. At least while he is at work, he suffers no more! Lumon thus offers a kind of salvation, a freedom from suffering, at least during the work day. While the work they are doing at Lumon is “very important,” as Harmony will emphasize, it is not clear that any of the severed workers know what it is they do or why they sort numbers, especially when they become frightening, into several boxes on a computer screen. Presumably Harmony, in her upper management role, and the Board which unnervingly mumbles through a speaker, possess the secret knowledge, but this is not clear. One wonders whether severance technology itself is the entire point.

Lumon, as the name suggests, is a brightly lit office space lined with white walls and constructed like a maze that keeps the members of different departments from encountering one another. Fraternization is discouraged. Rules are strict and, in some sense, sacred: they come from the wisdom of the founder, Keir himself, and are written down in the equivalent of scripture, that is, the company handbook. Violation of the rules can win one a trip to the “break room,” a confessional where one reads a statement of apology repeatedly until an electronic sensor, like the Inquisition of old, determines that sincerity has been achieved.

“Break” here can be read as a clever euphemism; less a place of rest than a place of high anxiety meant to impart a sense of sin where none existed and foster a break in one’s previous self-understanding. On occasion, however, the break room is deemed unnecessary or unwise and replaced with a trip to the wellness center where Ms. Casey may lead one through a meditation or breathing exercise and perhaps even reveal prized information about your “outie” self. The “innie” / “outie” language is correctly diagnosed as infantile by Helly, but should not be thought all that strange from the corporate or even academic sector where, for instance, a “digital measures” technology was recently re-dubbed “faculty success statistics” or in corporate where a “bad situation” will be dubbed an “opportunity” or in government where “torture” is switched to “enhanced interrogation.” Doublespeak is all around us.  

There is life outside of Lumon, outside the light (!), but it is muted at best. Mark’s character is depressed and the world is filmed as if through the lens of his own darkness. His grief at the loss of his wife colors his entire emotional palette and turns all bright hues into grays. This depression is precisely the attraction of severance for him. Happiness—or at least forgetfulness—is only an elevator trip away. Mark has a sister and a brother-in-law named “Ricken” who has recently published a self-help book, hilariously named, The You You Are. Ricken and his book provides some of the best comic relief in the series. It would be funnier if some of it did not sound a little too close to the platitudes spouted by our contemporary self-proclaimed gurus.

If theology and work join to make the corporate setting a sacred space, with its Founder and Savior figure (Keir), its High Priestess (Harmony) who mediates between the workers and the Board, its sacrament of reconciliation/penance (the break room), its scripture (the handbook), and its spirituality (the wellness room), its theology is a kind of neo-Gnosticism or corporate Gnosticism. Only the people at the top possess the secret saving knowledge or even know what the company does all of which has something to do with scientific knowledge that can save people from their grief stricken lives . . . and goats. Yes, there are goats. We are not yet sure why, but it seems to have something to do with eggs used to celebrate a successful meeting of quotas.

Nevertheless, the series takes a surprising tack if offering a critique of totalitarian corporate culture. More often than not, critiques of corporate culture or work focus on the ways in which our work-life intrudes upon and nearly digests our domestic life. The usual point is that technology renders all escape merely provisional. Even snow days are rarely anything more than working from home while one navigates children and pets.

Severance advances a different form of corporate dystopia: what if the corporate overlords, it asks, could find a technology such that usual human interaction—shared stories, griefs, humor, frustrations, idle banter, flirtation, and interests such as music, art, and politics—get left in the elevator on the way to your workspace so that workers are nearly one hundred percent efficient. Identity is utterly fractured in this case: there is no mental connection between work and life aside from one’s body.

And so the show raises important questions: what is identity or where does it lie? Do our bodies constitute a portion of our identity or just serve our mental identity which becomes divisible into work and non-work person and perhaps further fragments? What of our memories? Can I be me without memories or, in this case, with utterly split memories? Am I really two people at that point? And, more pointedly, is there anything we can refer to as “identity” at all?

Thinkers involved in intellectual genealogies will recognize the problems here. With Descartes often cited as an origin point, modern views of the human person frequently separate mind from external reality; this means that external reality, the world of body, matter, etc. are devoid of intrinsic intelligibility and value; they exist to be given any value they may possess by human makers who impose mind on them in their own image. Notice that in this view, nothing has inherent value. Human power over nature is what grants value. Lumon simply takes this to another level: human beings too can be considered matter external to themselves to be manipulated and controlled for some higher purpose of those in the know. This is where Gnosticism (salvation through secret knowledge) meets nihilism (a meaningless universe).

Despite the best efforts of Harmony, Melchick, Eagan, and the Board, holes in the Lumon bubble proliferate as they rush to plug them. The dehumanization of the work place is bound to be resisted and is. The natural desire for knowledge generates exploration, fraternization occurs, critical intelligence asks questions and will not rest to find them even if it wins them a trip to the “break room.” Nor is the Lumon staff oblivious to the need for entertainment, wellness, and reward. A worker’s anniversary, for instance, may bring them a hilarious dance party where everyone is encouraged to participate (spoiler: not everyone does); should one reach certain goals or quotas, they can receive little gifts like finger cuffs or eggs. Of course feelings here are all instrumental; the idea is not to put the lid on the pot too tightly lest it all blow or show no mercy so as to foment a rebellion. Rather, the goal seems to be to keep all feelings and impulses in check or balance (“harmony”) such that productivity never suffers. Human emotions bear no intrinsic value, but must be accounted for in a fully rationalized system of efficiency.

Nevertheless, as already noted, the bubble starts to leak and the plugs cannot come fast enough. Pete, Mark’s best friend, leaves Lumon and seeks “re-integration” which the High Priestess thinks impossible but which, it turns out, is not. Pete finds (outie) Mark and the bubble is in full-on emergency mode. Mark is promoted to Pete’s head of department role for which he is ill suited. Meanwhile, Helly, Pete’s replacement on the data refinement team, seems destined to live out her name and raise the underworld before and after trying to (at work) commit suicide, and Dylan attacks and bites Melchick during a dance party for Helly. John Turturro (Irving), the truest of Lumon believers, finds himself in the wellness waiting room connecting with Christopher Walken’s character, Burt, and the eros of human relationship—and sexual attraction—joined with Burt’s knowledge of a different hermeneutic tradition of the Lumon Scripture (“Handbook”) undermines Irving’s staunch defense of the company line.

That is all one needs to know at this point though I will say that the cliffhangers at the end of season one were spectacular. I was disappointed. I had hoped for a full story arc and conclusion to determine precisely what the writers had in mind. Alas, I will need to wait for season two and just hope for such a “sense of an ending,” as Frank Kermode called it. A sense of an ending is important. It lets us know what the creators think is the point and asks us to render a verdict, asks us to participate and thus form our own views and thus ourselves in conversation with others.

The really good ones present a sense of what it all means. Severance may not quite be on that level, but it certainly gestures towards it. Unfortunately, there is, I think, in this new golden age of television content, a tension between this sense of an ending and the call to profit long after an otherwise excellent show should have ended. We shall see which road the makers of Severance take.

The importance of Severance as cultural interrogation should not be overlooked. It suggests corporate culture as our new form of religion, one that seeks to erase and rewrite our identities, values, and ends or purposes while it requires regular conversion and restatements of loyalty. It raises key questions with respect to personal identity and fragmentation, disintegration and integrity or wholeness. It connects to key philosophical themes with respect to our bodies in relation to our mind and whether mind is merely another name for brain. For its conclusions, however, we must wait.