How Severance became our favourite new mystery box TV show
The Ben Stiller-directed Apple series is a compelling thriller that paints office life as hell, something many of us can relate to.
In 1994, Ben Stiller codified the generation X ethos into celluloid with Reality Bites, which he directed and co-starred in as the film’s villain. We know he’s the villain because he works in an office and earns a real living, a marked contrast to the film’s four underemployed, holier-than-thou hipster protagonists.
The tragic uncoolness of office life would go on to define the Gen X film-making of the 90s; Fight Club, Office Space, The Matrix, and even Good Will Hunting hinged on its main characters rejecting the yuppie, office-bound lifestyle in favor of a more authentic existence. Stiller has never left his generation far behind, as his 2013 remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty similarly warned of getting stuck in a soul-crushing office job. But he has returned to his generation’s ground zero with Severance, a hit series on AppleTV+ produced by Stiller (he also directed six of its nine episodes) that presents a uniquely dystopian view of office life. Its success with a new generation shows how the values of Gen X continue to reverberate through the years.
The series, which releases new episodes on Fridays, revolves around Lumon, a mysterious company requiring employees working on classified projects to undergo a “severance” procedure that splits their consciousness in half. After having a chip injected into their brains, they achieve a radical work-life balance. When they’re on the clock in their windowless, basement office, they can’t remember their home life, and the minute they leave the office, they forget everything from work. It seems at first a strange but innocuous arrangement, until the series unveils its most horrifying implication: the “innies,” as the work-bound selves are known, never get to leave. They’re prisoners at work, which means they never get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. It would be indelicate to categorize their situation as modern-day slavery, although the show invites the comparison; we are told Lumon was incorporated in 1866, one year after the end of the civil war.
At its core, it’s another mystery box show, like Lost or True Detective (or any episode of Black Mirror), that teases the viewer with a big reveal. In this case, it’s a search for the true nature of Lumon’s work. The characters, led by Adam Scott’s newly promoted department chief, start to rebel against their confinement and their faux-friendly managers, while they speculate on what the data they’re processing actually represents. What do those numbers mean? Why all the secrecy? One employee suggests they are clearing the sea of fish to prepare for an underwater human civilization, while the discovery of a hidden room in the next hallway filled with baby goats delightfully muddies their investigation.
With these shows, the mystery is the engine that powers the plot, but the world and its characters are the real fascination. What keeps people watching Severance is its hilarious and terrifyingly astute insights into the absurdism of corporate culture. Listen to the god-like reverence Lumon employees are required to espouse for the company’s deceased founder, Kier Egan. Note the meaningless prizes that management offers its employees, from pencil erasers, toy finger traps, and waffle parties, for various levels of achievement. The most recent episode marked the debut of the “music dance experience” offered by middle manager Mr Milchik (Tramell Tillman) to the series’ four central workers just as the group is on the precipice of rebellion. It’s a sanctioned, five-minute dance party with their choice of music (they go with Defiant Jazz) that, for a few minutes at least, calms their restless spirits. With these Kafkaesque notes, series creator Dan Erickson deftly captures the oppressiveness of modern office life. It’s persuasive and terrifying at once. When the music comes on, you want to dance, even though you know it’s a trick to keep you in your place.
Although Severance was greenlit more than five years ago – Erickson originally sent the script’s pilot to Stiller’s production company as a writing sample – its filming was halted by the pandemic, and its emergence in the age of Covid seems strangely fitting. Stiller’s generation may have viewed those who worked for corporations as sell-outs, but today’s generation of white-collar workers have a more evolved antipathy towards the office. At the height of Covid, 71% of those who were able to work remotely did so, and even now, with restrictions loosening, more than half still do. Many will never go back, which could profoundly alter the relationship between management and labor. The American unemployment rate is near all-time lows, and many businesses remain desperate for employees. The attitude of Lumon’s employees towards its management – a growing suspicion that explodes into contempt – reflects current realities in which businesses cling to their employees with desperation and workers are realizing the scope of their own power.
Although the final two episodes of Severance’s initial run have not yet aired, it has garnered enough buzz that a second season is surely in the offing. In other words, the fight against management will not be over anytime soon, a fitting reflection of the world offscreen. The show’s success demonstrates that the somewhat performative anti-capitalist values of generation X have only become stronger with the next generation, who are seemingly prepared to renew their battle for the means of production for as many seasons as it takes.