A novel work-life balance solution

Kate Johnstone (Associate Editor for Culture) watches 'Severance' on Apple TV+.

When you’re at home, do you spend too much time thinking about work problems? When you’re at work, do you daydream about being anywhere but there? Maybe severance is the answer.

Severance is in the small but perfectly-formed tradition of what one might call neuro fiction – think Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich. In Severance, the Lumon Corporation have invented a brain implant which means that when a worker is on the ‘severed’ floor of their offices, they have no memories at all of their home life. Travelling back in the lift to leave work, the worker switches to home mode: nothing at all of work is remembered. It elegantly solves the problem of wasting time thinking about the place where you’re not.

We pick up with Mark (Adam Scott) finding himself promoted to team leader, replacing Petey (Yul Valaquez), who seems to have quit. Mark is diligent and likeable. He is immediately tasked by his sinister manager Ms Cobel (Patricia Arquette) to induct new team member Helly (Brit Lower). We quickly understand that inducting staff on the severed floor is not like any other place of work. Whilst there’s a need to understand the actual work – although it seems largely pointless – the severed employee has absolutely no idea why they are there, and no frame of reference. A recording from her ‘outie’ gives validity to the fact that Helly (and all other severed staff) made an independent decision to become severed – but why? 

As the series progresses, ‘outie’ Mark starts to make discoveries, prompted by the appearance of Petey – a stranger to him, but apparently his best friend at Lumon. Petey thinks Lumon is up to no good. What, after all, are Lumon’s reasons for developing the severed procedure? Is it a benign way of allowing workers to concentrate on work without intruding on their home life? Or is it necessary for workers to be unable to share what Lumon do? Petey seems to have reintegrated his mind, but at what cost?

The questions mount up for ‘innie’ Mark as well. What is the nature of free choice, if you are only ever in possession of half the facts? The severed person is physically the same at work and home, and their personality is unaltered. But are we ourselves without all our memories? The artificial separation of memories effectively creates two people, who seem increasingly at odds with each other. 

The world-building in Severance is deft and intelligent, always showing and not telling – which pays off in buckets in the case of the ‘waffle party’. There’s bleak humour throughout, but it’s perfectly balanced with subtle emotions, shot through with fundamental questions about what it means to be human. There were points when I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen, yet was confident that it was going to make sense in this world. Treat yourself and watch this – work won’t look the same again.

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