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‘Severance’ Imagines the Power of Workers’ Movements

itting under the incessant glow of fluorescent lights corporate drone Mark Scout gets a dressing down from his boss Harmony Cobel. Scout earned the reprimand for a relatively honest breach of protocol but that does not prevent Cobel from getting philosophical and theological. While some of the tension in these episodes comes from the characters struggle against a seemingly allpowerful company the most compelling developments involve the ways that the characters must change their sense of self.

My mother was an atheist Cobel explains as she leans over Scout. She used to say that there was good news and bad news about hell. The good news is hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The camera cuts to a closeup of Cobel her expression made more menacing by its lack of emotion. The bad news is whatever humans can imagine they can usually create. The Apple TV show Severance is hardly the first television program to critique capitalism but as the above quote indicates it unwaveringly plumbs the depths of just how far companies are willing to go to assert control over their employees. Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle Severance stars Adam Scott as Mark Scout an employee at Lumon Industries an Amazonlike company with tendrils in every part of life. Scout is among the first employees to undergo an experimental severance process which splits his identity into two halves.

Upon arriving at work Scouts mind switches and he loses memories of his outside life—he does not know anything about his family or friends let alone what he did the evening before. When he leaves work his mind switches back and he has no recollection of how he spent his working hours only that he finished his shift. So complete is the switch that Scout does not even recognize his doddering neighbor Mrs. Selvig as his domineering boss at Lumon Harmony Cobel Patricia Arquette. The severance program is a fantastic tool in capitalisms quest to control workers. As it seeks legislative support to make severance a standard part of employment Lumon portrays severance as the height of individual freedom. When new employee Helly R. Britt Lower attempts to escape from Lumon by running through a fire escape she immediately finds herself right back in the building.

Why cant I leave? she asks. You did Scout responds strangely chipper. But you came back.Unsatisfied with the explanation Helly continues her attempts to leave until shes shown a video of herself outside of work. In the video Hellys outside self outie explains to her innie that she willfully underwent the severance procedure and will not accept any resignation attempt. Although Scouts innie no longer tries to escape he does not know what the viewers learn—that his outie underwent the procedure after his wife died in a car crash. Hoping to find solace by throwing himself into his work Scout severed to temporarily remove himself from the pain.

As this description suggests the innies effectively live in an inescapable corporate hell. Every conscious moment of the innies lives is spent trapped in a fluorescent basement. An anesthetic space with oversaturated whites and clean black lines the severed wing accentuates the innies separation from the rest of the world. In this space Lumon managers Cobel and Mr. Milchick Tramell Tillman replicate life in a clean companyapproved manner. Milchick addresses employees with oppressive politeness as he distributes productivity awards such as finger traps and music dance parties.

Severance is a product of a morbid human imagination that companies like Amazon Starbucks and of course Apple would love to create. By separating workers from the rest of their lives these companies essentially own their workers filling all of their needs with companybranded doppelgangers. Its not hard to see why companies like Apple would seek greater control over their employees. Even though Apple Amazon and Starbucks invade so many parts of our lives workers at the latter two companies have recently scored important union victories.

Crucially Severance includes similar acts of resistance in its imagined capitalist hell. Sparked by Hellys demands to escape Scout and his fellow severed begin to rethink their way of life. When the crass Dylan gets a glimpse of his outies life including his young son he sees the emptiness of Lumen way. After the kindly Irving John Turturro finds his burgeoning romance with Burt Christopher Walken cut short by the latters sudden retirement he too becomes dissatisfied with work relationships. In the final episodes of the first season the severed innies overcome their differences and band together to reclaim their humanity. While some of the tension in these episodes comes from the characters struggle against a seemingly allpowerful company the most compelling developments involve the ways that the characters must change their sense of self.

In one of the seriess most striking scenes Milchick arrives on the severed branch floor to reward the team for reaching its productivity goals. He singles out Dylan for praise in part to offset his growing knowledge about his outies life. The camera moves uncomfortably close to Milchicks face as he moves in to congratulate Dylan. The other severed employees follow suit placing their hands on Dylans shoulder in a recreation of Mr. Milchicks companymandated human interaction. But the camera holds on the foursome after Milchick turns around and we see their body language change. No longer holding the company line they see one another as human beings united in a joint cause. They sympathize with Dylan leaving their hands on his shoulder to support him and to renew their commitment to fighting Lumon.

At this moment Severance shows an important corollary to the saying shared earlier by Cobel. Yes humans certainly can find a way to create whatever they imagine and sometimes they imagine hells in which to trap one another. But Severance also imagines the power workers enjoy when they come together. No matter how totalitarian the company no matter how much of our humanity it tries to take workers always have the ultimate power to take it back.

About Husnain Ahmad

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