Severance, My Rambling Review

I’m not falling for this again

Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

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The four main protagonists of the TV show Severance.

(Spoilers. Except that this is one of those mystery shows where not everything is revealed. So, you‘ll have no answers after reading this, the same way you’ll have no answers after watching the show.)

Right off the bat, as a viewer of this show, you’re going to get the impression that the fictional company Lumen, at the center of everything that happens, is evil. The main “evil” thing they do is that they have some employees who undergo a procedure where they will forget everything that happens to them during office hours. This effectively makes people who have two separate identities, living in two different worlds, one at work and one for the rest of their lives. It’s the driving premise of the show.

On top of having these employees with selective amnesia, the things these employees do at work are a little weird. Their main task of sifting through data is abstracted into moving around numbers on screens so that neither the characters, nor us in the audience, know what it is exactly that the numbers mean. As we go on, we find out that there are all sorts of weird rituals and behaviors and practices that make this company seem more like a cult than a business.

But is it actually evil? Probably, at least in terms of the intent of the creators of the show. In one scene, one of the main characters in his off hours goes to a live music event where a band sings a song about how much they hate the company Lumen.

Why, though? When we’re in the world outside of the company, we are given no sense at all about why anyone should care that much about Lumen. There’s no indication it’s polluting the environment, it’s not a social network fostering political divides, it’s not selling arms to dictators… so far as we know, it’s not doing anything wrong. We actually have no idea what it does at all, good or bad.

The only reason we, the audience, are certain this company is evil is because if it isn’t, then there’s no story. And that’s not enough to make me care. And I don’t see why most people in the universe of this story should either.

The only thing that is spoken about as if it’s a controversy is the fact that Lumen has some employees do this whole thing with forgetting everything they do at work. Which does seem a little concerning as a business practice. But, on the other hand, there’s no indication anyone is coerced into it. All the employees we get to know over the course of the season seem to have volunteered. On top of that, they all seem to be compensated very well. So far as we can see, they all have nice houses, good incomes, and very livable lives outside of the company.

But there’s definitely an ethical issue to be talked about. What are the rights of these workers who are in some sense completely separate people from who they are when off work? One of the issues is that if any employee wants to quit, they have to submit a request that is given to the version of themselves outside the office, and if that “outie,” as they’re called, agrees, then they can leave their job. The “innies,” the people inside the office, are in effect put into a form of slavery, but to themselves, so it’s a complicated moral question.

And I’d like to see that moral question be explored. The best parts of this story are where the employees start struggling to be free, to get their own lives, or find out what lives they may have outside of work, and explore the question of whether or not they have a claim to those outside lives.

With one of the main characters, her “outie” explicitly tells her “innie” through a video message that she does not even consider her “innie” self to be an actual person. When we find out more about who her “outie” version is, something you’ll mostly figure out in advance before the big reveal, her story in particular becomes an allegory of class warfare played out in a single person. Really good stuff. More of that please.

But let me cut to the moment that absolutely killed my interest in a second season, even though there was a lot of interesting potential in this show. It’s the Lost effect. I am just not going to watch a show where a fundamental feature of the narrative is stringing the audience along with clues to mysteries that you don’t even know what it is you’re trying to solve.

I’m about to tell you something that’s kind of a spoiler in that it happens in the very last episode, but it’s also not a spoiler in that it doesn’t mean a damn thing, and that’s the problem.

One of the characters in the office succeeds at some work task and is rewarded with a “waffle party.” The waffle party is referenced before, and it’s all part of the milieu of how this office has a quirky and off-kilter culture. When we finally see this guy go to the waffle party, he goes to this reconstruction of an old house that we saw in a previous episode. Inside the house, there are, as promised, waffles. With maple syrup.

The guy finishes the waffles, and then, partly following instructions and partly because this particular character seems to have been to a waffle party before and knows what to do, he gets up from the table and goes to a nearby bed. On the bed is a kind of shitty looking mask of an old man, presumably one of the company founders. I’m not sure if we’re supposed to recognize the face, but we’ve been given some lore about the company founders before, so I think it can be inferred. Doesn’t matter that much.

Dude puts the mask on, sits on the bed, and then a bunch of dancers enter the room, all wearing shitty masks of vaguely Satanic goats heads and women’s faces or whatever. Because of the editing I lost track, but I think it’s two women and one dude, all with great bodies. The women were wearing lingerie, and I didn’t catch what the guy was wearing, but he had his shirt off.

It’s supposed to be this disturbing and sexy and strange ritualistic performance that makes you wonder what it’s all for and why would this happen and…

No, fuck off. I know what’s happening. Nothing. That’s what’s happening. Nothing at all. This isn’t “weird” or “surreal,” it’s merely arbitrary, which is empty and does not evoke anything. This scene is literally just here to be strange for the sake of strangeness, and there is no way, not a single shot in hell, that they are going to be able to retroactively justify why this would happen in a broader context of the story.

Why would anyone sit there and even watch this shitty interpretive dance performance, let alone be able to not burst out laughing at how bad it is? Why would anyone want to sit there wearing a clunky mask so that you can’t even see the shitty dance performance that well anyway? And this is all supposed to be some kind of reward. Waffles are a reward, that part I’m on board with. The rest of it is writers who are struggling to get out of their heads enough to imagine something that would be truly different from a normal experience.

And I sympathize with that. It’s actually really, really hard to write something truly surreal because surreality requires that you not only break expectations, but also not merely be the breaking of expectations. Going backward when everyone expects you to go forward isn’t being surreal, it’s just making a different choice. To be truly surreal, you have to not just be arbitrary, random, or different, you have to break the bounds of what it means to have expectations at all. A herky jerky dance performance with shoddy costumes isn’t challenging my perceptions, it’s just a standard night out at lots of self indulgent black box theater productions.

At that moment, I realized the creators of this show had painted themselves into the same corner that ruined Twin Peaks, Lost, and Raised by Wolves. If they start answering questions, the show starts to end. If they try to keep mysteries afloat, all the clues they present will pile up to the point where the attempt to account for them all will result in unsatisfying chaos. I’m not going on that ride. Never again.

That said, at this point, having finished the first season, I don’t think this show is as bad as Lost or Twin Peaks. Putting aside the compounding mysteries problem, the rest of it is quite good, and I could be talked back into watching season two. I think this would have been way better as a stand alone single season where everything got wrapped up, but, they’re going longer with it, and maybe it could still pan out.

One thing that would sway me would be whether or not the second season gave some specific shape to what makes this company evil in a way that the world outside of its employees should care about. It would also raise the stakes and make the show more interesting. If we knew the company was trying, for example, to perfect their brain controlling, amnesia inducing, technology to take over the world or something, then the struggle of these “innie” employees fighting for freedom becomes a struggle for all of us, not just for them. But it would have to be more than just mere implications that this technology is morally complicated, because we already have that. It would have to be a specifically sinister plot we want our heroes to foil.

Another area where the show could stand to course correct a bit is being a little more distinct about the difference between at-work world and off-hours world.

The world of the office is decidedly strange and different from normal life, and that part is fine.

Off-hours world, though, sometimes dips in and out of being a little strange itself, and for me that reduces the impact of at-work world. Sometimes off-hours world is a mundane, somewhat realistic, portrayal of life, with compelling characters who you can relate to. The main character’s sister is the best example, a level headed character who generally behaves like people do.

Other times, some characters are comedically silly or just plain strange. Like the sister’s husband, who is sometimes a relatable guy with a human failing of being a little too self serious, but at other times is a caricature of a self help guru who does outright bizarre things. Am I supposed to take him seriously or not? Or a guy we meet early on who makes ridiculous statements about history, and then later on is strangely insistent at being the one to get credit for finding a baby everyone thought was lost.

Also… just a small note, how big would a house have to be for two dozen actively searching adults to not be able to almost immediately find a crying baby left alone in one of the rooms? Way, way bigger than the house we’re shown. Just a minor moment that popped me out of the story.

Anyway, just from a narrative point of view, if people from a reasonably realistically depicted world confront a sinister and strange world, I can get invested in their shock and horror at what they find. If people from a vaguely strange world confront a world that is also strange, just in a different way, I’m less invested because I don’t know where their standards are.

The self help book, written by the sister’s husband, that is a satire of how insipid self help books can be, was very good. I think it represented the balance of comedy and realism that the creators wanted to set against the work-world’s sinister awkwardness. It’s the kind of thing that shows me what I think the creators were going for, but were just a little uneven in their application. The balance of humor and reality could be refined a little in the next season and potentially elevate the show.

Where the show really succeeds is on the personal level of the characters. Over the course of the show, right up to the last moments, each of the four main “innie” protagonists is finding their own personal reasons why they want to break free of their situation. They’re all personable and relatable and I was invested in rooting for them to succeed. And their struggle could possibly mean the destruction of their “outie” selves, which is a fantastic moral conundrum to explore. I’m somewhat curious to find out where they end up.

Not enough to care about why there’s a room in the office with baby goats, though. That’s just arbitrary bullshit.

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Dave Gutteridge
My Rambling Reviews

I don't post often because I think about what I write. Topics include ethics, relationships, and philosophy.