Why are we down here still working in the dark? (A Web TV Series Review of Severance)

Article ID: JAR0722JRF | By: Joshua R. Farris

Severance

Created by Dan Erickson

Executive producers: Ben Stiller, Nicholas Weinstock, Jackie Cohn, Mark Friedman, Dan Erickson, Andrew Colville, Chris Black, John Cameron

Streaming on APPLE TV+

(TV–MA, 2022–)

***Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for Season One of Severance.***

 


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​The television series Severance is ultimately about the debate beneath our debates — what it means to be human.1 Severance begins in a conceptual problem over the meaning and implications of “severing” one’s personal life, or what the show calls “Outie,” from one’s corporate life living in cubicles, what the show calls “Innie.” At the center of Severance is Lumon Industries, a mysterious tech company that provides a service to those who want and maybe need to disconnect, as it were, from their painful life. Mark is the central figure. Grieving the death of his wife, Mark chooses the service offered by Lumon and undergoes a surgical procedure to his brain, so that he can live two separate lives — his personal, albeit tragic, life and his work life.

By compartmentalizing their lives, individuals can live two separate paths as an Innie and as an Outie — the Innie self knows nothing of the life of the Outie self, and vice versa. Upon arriving at Lumon, Outies transform into their Innies when triggered by the elevator ding that somehow signals the brain to turn off all memories of past Outie events, including home lives, in order to live as Innies in their corporate cubicles. This process causes an odd effect of not only shutting off one’s experience of painful past events but also the memory of mundane events like sleeping! As one of the Innies describes, you can experience the benefits of sleep without the memory that you slept.

The first season explores the phenomena of these dual paths and results in a re-envisioning of Jean-Paul Sartre’s2 1944 play No Exit, as a modern-day hell set in corporate America.3 The series’ first season concludes with all the Innies under Mark’s leadership coming to terms with the hell created by their Outies. They seem to have found an exit — or have they? The jury is still out as the finale concludes with unknowns about the Innies’ survival and possible reintegration with their Outie selves. Severance leads us on a philosophical journey exploring the hell that ensues from split lives, but there is some hope as we encounter signs of what it truly means to be human. While the show never fully resolves these philosophical challenges, it raises several important questions that give footing for Christian engagement with cultural themes about work and the meaning of life.

Philosophy and Living Split Lives. The journey begins in a split-brain experiment.

A sober-minded realist might think this severing of consciousness is a piece of sci-fi fantasy — solely a product of our imagining. Yet recent discoveries in cognitive science are quite telling that this is not only a reality in the lives of a select few cases but even a future possibility for the rest of us. Both the philosophical and neuroscientific literature buttresses the same fascinating questions illustrated in Severance. Does a split brain result in split persons or split-perspectival experiential paths? The evidence seems to suggest the latter, which Severance so powerfully mimics. Just consider the evidence presented by Yair Pinto et al. in their limpidly titled 2017 article, “Split Brain: Divided Perception but Undivided Consciousness.”4 These studies confirm not simply the unity of consciousness or perception but a deeper philosophical truth: the self (and high-order consciousness) is incapable of being divided — a truth that Descartes describes: “I cannot conceive of half a self.”5 Pinto et al. write,

[T]he canonical textbook findings that a split-brain patient can only respond to stimuli in the left visual half-field with the left hand, and to stimuli in the right visual half-field with the right hand and verbally, are not universally true. Across a wide variety of tasks, split-brain patients with a complete and radiologically confirmed transection of the corpus callosum showed full awareness of presence, and well above chance-level recognition of location, orientation and identity of stimuli throughout the entire visual field, irrespective of response type (left hand, right hand, or verbally)….These findings suggest that severing the cortical connections between hemispheres splits visual perception, but does not create two independent conscious perceivers within one brain.6

In a later paper, “The Split-Brain Phenomenon Revisited,” Pinto, Edward H.F. de Haan, and Victor A.F. Lamme write,

We argue that the classical view [that commissurotomy causes split consciousness] may not hold for several reasons. First, some of the defining features also occur in healthy adults with unified consciousness (hemispheric specialization, inability to explain own actions, and split attention). Second, the most convincing argument against unified consciousness in split-brain patients (the response visual field interaction) does not hold for all split-brain patients. Third, in the absence of any convincing proof against split consciousness, unified consciousness should be the default position. Both the patients and the people nearest to them claim that consciousness is still unified in the patient. Moreover, their everyday behavior confirms this. Thus, the claim of destroyed conscious unity is extraordinary, and requires extraordinary evidence.7

Commissurotomy or split-brain cases might suggest the possibility that souls or selves could split, but they just don’t. There’s always some trace of the higher self (something like what Immanuel Kant8 calls the transcendental self) with its reason intact, values, and emotional traces united. What the data does support is that at some level we can split our perspectival selves in ways that can create trajectories dis-coordinate with the other. Severance, then, promotes a plausible and conceivable (the details notwithstanding, which deserve careful analysis), albeit horrific, possibility — and the implications are profound.

Undoubtedly, the phenomenal paths are so radically different at points that one might be tempted to think there really are two distinct persons and not simply two distinct perspectival paths. For example, in episode 4 (“The You You Are”) Helly (a recently severed employee) is able to communicate to herself as an Innie and an Outie when the Innie is trying to escape the hell her Outie created in the first place. This fascinating exchange made possible through video recording creates a tension between Helly’s two incommensurate paths both of which, at one level, reflect different memories, histories, and values.

In this way, Severance starts off as a mix of Sci-fi drama poised as a utopian alternative to pain and suffering, but it quickly becomes a literary masterpiece that fuses action with social commentary and culminates in a horrific dystopian nightmare. All of this made possible by scientific advance from the great Lumon Industries.

But what is the true horror? The question is profoundly posed but is mired in layers of social meaning. Is the true horror our tendency to shut down real honest awareness of ourselves and others? At one point in the story, an Innie named Petey (the employee who previously occupied the leadership role that Mark now occupies) dies after attempting a secret reintegration. At Petey’s funeral, his daughter June poses a question to Mark: “Did you ever think the best way to deal with a [expletive] situation in your life isn’t to just shut your brain off half of the time?”9

Or is the true horror corporatism? Bureaucratic overlords attempt to absorb all aspects of our lives all the while placing us in God-forsaken environments with no pictures into the real world. Mrs. Cobel (a.k.a. Harmony, Severance’s classical antagonist) comes to mind here. Cobel is the boss over Mark and has access to both the lives of the Innies and the Outies. She strikingly represents the cold uncaring corporatism that takes no account of how you feel and cares only that you carry out your tasks in service to the company. But more than this, Lumon is interested in occupying the whole self in allegiance to its purposes. In order to do this, the company must sever the lives of real people and make them anew in the image of its founder — Kier Eagan, who founded Lumon more than 150 years ago, and in many ways is seen as humanity’s savior. You may have thought slavery was an institution thrown in the historical waste bin, but here we find slavery reborn from both science and choice.

There are other smaller horrific themes, such as the reality of having to live with people who grate on us to no end. And the reality that a third or more of one’s life is spent stuck in a cubicle that isolates us from nature, friends, and the beauty of home and family. All of these themes are appropriately considered in Severance. They force us to reckon with the choices we’ve made, which fosters a conducive space for re-examining the choices we will make as our future selves come into being.

While the show explores fascinating questions intersecting with personal identity and consciousness, the heartbeat of the show is found in the theme about hell. Those familiar with Sartre’s No Exit will find its most important theme apropos here: “Hell is other people.” But as the show so carefully fixes in our minds, hell is in us too. Mark reminds us of this fact when he says, “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.”10 The existential dilemma is ironically true, but one that is also transcendent (obviously, at one level, the Innie didn’t choose it). The journey doesn’t end here, however.

Signs of Life. With all that is depressing about Severance, there are signs of life — the flipside of hell. These too deserve our reflection. I say signs of life because there are moments when we see the characters, particularly the Innies, light up as if renewed with a vigor for humanity. These moments are crucial for getting clarity on what it means to be human — the debate beneath our debates.

There are several noteworthy moments. In episode 4, Mark’s team discovers the self-help book, The You You Are, written by Mark’s brother-in-law, Ricken. The book is a treasure trove of wisdom that Lumon hides from its employees. The Innies know they are violating the rules by reading anything beyond the Lumon handbook, but they can’t quite control themselves. At one point they become enlightened to the fact that “your job needs you, not the other way around.”11 Even Dylan (a devoted Lumon employee on Mark’s team) shows signs of humanity by being entranced by the book. Dylan is an interesting figure because there are no traces of his history and he seems happily ignorant of his life outside Lumon. All he really cares about are the so-called perks of the job. We’ve all known people like this as well — they seem to exhibit few signs of life and little to no depth — but Dylan experiences something of a transformation upon reading. Dylan’s journey of self-discovery leads him down a path of realizing that he has an Outie life and has been duped by Lumon. Upon this realization, he joins the rest of the team in searching for a mysterious exit.

One final example of signs of life occurs in an important scene that takes us to the heart of Severance’s journey to find an exit out of their self-created hell. As Mark gropes for illumination, those familiar with classic literature will notice Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave. After Petey’s disappearance and ongoing doubts about Eagan philosophy (founder Kier Eagan’s philosophy written down), Mark raises the poignant question in episode 6, “Why are we down here still working in the dark?”12

The journey continues as Severance explores three other noteworthy themes (i.e., signs of life), which furnish helpful traction points to consider Christian theology as an avenue for understanding what it means to be human.

We All Need Community. The multifaceted bonding of Mark’s team demonstrates the truth that humans need community. One common place bonding occurs is in the office break room, which signifies where their life away from work occurs. It is here that the trivial captures something of what it means to be human. The characters relate, show signs of resonance with the other, and laugh about the absurdity of their corporate life.

Irving, the top-ranking employee on Mark’s Microdata Refinement department team and a devout follower of the Kier philosophy, finds a special connection with Burt Goodman, an elderly employee who is chief of the Optics and Design department. Characteristic of modern-day series and films, LGBTQ representation is predictable. And, while regrettable, there is something to be gained from reflection on the same-sex relationship between Irving and Burt. As Burt considers the termination of his work for Lumon, which entails his being snuffed out of existence as an Innie, Irving must consign himself to his life as an Innie and whatever results may come. Irving cannot conceive of how he could lose his friend despite his loyalty to Kier throughout most of his life previous.

In one final example, there is a felt history between Mark and his wife who was (so far as he knows in episode 3, “In Perpetuity”) killed in a car accident. Despite his not remembering who she is while an Innie, it is clear that he has a connection to her that is explained by his Outie’s history. And, at one point, Mark discovers who his wife is and exclaims, “She’s alive!”13 — no doubt an important revelation and a sign of crossing to the outside world.

We All Need Memory. One important conversation shows us the importance of a living memory in contrast to fictional memory. In episode 3, Irving converses with Helly after she states that the inspiring female leader of Lumon makes her wish she recalled her history: “Its an unnatural state for a person to have no history. History makes us someone. Gives us a context. A shape. Waking up on that table I was shapeless. But then I learned that I worked for a company that had been caring for mankind since 1866. Look. Each of these is a real smile from someone on the outside. Someone Lumen has helped. My point is you are a part of a history now.” Mark chimes in to add, “a noble one.”14 Such a constructed reality is meant to satiate Helly and all Lumon employees, but does it? Helly’s not convinced.

We All Need Religion. As there is a need for a memorial history, Severance explores another important them of human life — religion. Episode 3 expresses the religious sentiments of Lumon Industries. Irving’s Innie is the central character in the present situation. His character is revealed in his most significant statement: “Everything we do here is important.”15 The Microdata Refinement department team goes on a field trip in their office building to the Perpetuity Wing, which is a museum offering the history of Lumon and its founder Kier Eagan as well as the facile story of the religion that purportedly furnishes a ground for meaning and purpose. The Perpetuity Wing includes a room that houses wax statues of Lumon’s founder and all its CEOs to the present day. Another massive room in the wing houses a faithful recreation of the first home of Eagan — a symbolic temple erected to honor Lumon’s founder. Having entered Kier’s room, Mark stands in the background with his head high and his shoulders held back, signifying confidence and pride in his company. Helly exclaims, “Jesus,” and Irving corrects her by saying, “No, Kier.” Irving’s correction signifies more than just a surface level meaning. He is doing something with his statement — implying that founder Kier Eagan is the great leader to whom they look for meaning and purpose. The episode continues to reflect on what Irving calls “the soul of Lumon,” and he describes the life and home of Kier to Helly as “everything she stands for.” Irving thinks he is giving Helly a reason for living. But again Helly doesn’t buy it.

Irving and Mark have an extended discussion about the significance of Kier’s room. Irving lectures Mark on the meaning of life, and finally he rebukes Mark for taking things too lightly when Helly is “starved for meaning.” But, as is a common theme throughout previous episodes, Helly, once again, is not buying it. She is convinced that this corporate life is without meaning and purpose. She sneaks out of Kier’s room in an attempt to find an exit, but (as before) there is no exit.

The next event highlights Lumon’s cultic nature. Helly is punished for her attempt to escape and is punished by being required to repeat an apology until she means it.

All this takes the viewer to something deeper but which the show never resolves. The characters are relatable and show signs of life. Each character longs for physical touch, but more importantly they long for community beyond their cubicle walls. The Innies are starved for meaning and purpose, which isn’t quite satisfied by corporate creations of perks, insular philosophy, or the occasional office party. Humans need a memorial history of their origins, heritage, and a story of which they are a part. This, too, is represented in the Innies that struggle to connect with one another or even to feel the relief of knowing that they have actually slept the night before. The Innies also long for religious life and transcendence. The leaders of Lumon Industries know this, so they construct something of a religion that includes a history, a purpose, and a savior. But, this too, is insufficient to sustain the Innies. They know there is something more out there, and they are keen to find it — whatever it is.

Severance takes us on a fascinating philosophical quest that is richly situated in a literary history. Well-written, philosophically sophisticated, existentially robust, practical, and deeply touching, yet, like all philosophy, it takes us only so far before we need revealed religion to answer questions about what it means to be human. However, Severance provides a service to the Christian apologist in the present situation in which we find ourselves — providing traces of the Divine of which only Christianity can satisfy. —Joshua R. Farris

Joshua R. Farris has a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies with specialties in the doctrine of the atonement, theological anthropology, and analytic theology. He is Humboldt Experienced Researcher at the University of Bochum, focusing on biologically-engaged theological anthropology.

NOTES

  1. Timothy Kleiser, “The Debate Beneath Our Debates on the Pandemic and the Protests,” Christianity Today, July 10, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/july-web-only/joshua-farris-introduction-theological-anthropology.html.
  2. Douglas Groothuis, “Jean-Paul Sartre and the Resurgence of Existentialism,” Christian Research Journal, 40, no. 04 (2017), https://www.equip.org/article/jean-paul-sartre-and-the-resurgence-of-existentialism/.
  3. One source refers to it as purgatory. Andrew Webster, “Apple TV’s Severance Turns Office Life into Purgatory,” The Verge, February 16, 2022, https://www.theverge.com/22929661/severance-review-apple-tv-plus. Where’s the virtue? Traditional conceptions of purgatory serve the purposes of justice or the purpose of further cultivation of virtue in the next life. Hell is more likely. Alan Sepinwall, “Work Is Hell in ‘Severance,’” February 7, 2022, https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-reviews/severance-review-1294293/.
  4. Yair Pinto et al., “Split Brain: Divided Perception but Undivided Consciousness,” Brain, Vol. 140, Issue 5 (May 2017): 1231–1237, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/aww358.
  5. Renes Descartes, Meditations ed. by John Cottingham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 11.
  6. Pinto et al., “Split Brain.”
  7. Yair Pinto, Edward H.F. de Haan, and Victor A.F. Lamme, “The Split-Brain Phenomenon Revisited: A Single Conscious Agent with Split Perception,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 21, no. 11 (2017): 835–851, https://doi.org/10.1016/J.TICS.2017.09.003.
  8. Robert Velarde, “Immanuel Kant: Is God with Us or Beyond Us?,” Christian Research Journal, 32, no. 02 (2009), https://www.equip.org/article/immanuel-kant/.
  9. Severance, Season 1, Episode 4, “The You You Are,” directed by Aoife McArdle, written by Kari Drake, Dan Erickson, Anna Ouyang Moench, Apple TV+, aired March 4, 2022, https://tv.apple.com/us/episode/the-you-you-are/umc.cmc.2juexqckb67v0zn5e6vrcgdua.
  10. Severance, Season 1, Episode 1, “Good News about Hell,” directed by Ben Stiller, written by Dan Erickson, Anna Ouyang Moench, Apple TV+, aired February 18, 2022, https://tv.apple.com/us/episode/good-news-about-hell/umc.cmc.s80mx1ic96pu6ewupz8pfasf.
  11. Severance, Season 1, Episode 4, “The You You Are.”
  12. Severance, Season 1, Episode 6, “Hide and Seek,” directed by Aoife McArdle, written by Amanda Overton, Dan Erickson, and Anna Ouyang Moench, Apple TV+, aired March 18, 2022, https://tv.apple.com/us/episode/hide-and-seek/umc.cmc.qt72g1q6z8l5pq5dxe3fp879.
  13. Severance, Season 1, Episode 9, “The We We Are,” directed by Ben Stiller, written by Dan Erickson and Anna Ouyang Moench, Apple TV+, aired April 8, 2022, https://tv.apple.com/us/episode/the-we-we-are/umc.cmc.5d8khnxea17tjwm0yxhyw1s0f.
  14. Severance, Season 1, Episode 3, “In Perpetuity,” directed by Ben Stiller, written by Andrew Colville, Dan Erickson, Anna Ouyang Moench, Apple TV+, aired March 25, 2022, https://tv.apple.com/us/episode/in-perpetuity/umc.cmc.4ck3lvf4abzoh8mhcvfixxfok.
  15. Severance, Season 1, Episode 3, “In Perpetuity.”
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