Imagine a world without work. I know it seems impossible considering our collective experience under capitalism is defined by our relationship to work as a force that monopolizes not just our productive hours and time but virtually all our waking ones. It’s no wonder why it’s a concept not even the characters of Severance can imagine. In a sci-fi world not dissimilar to our own with increased technology, medicine, and automation, work doesn’t become nonexistent, instead it’s transformed, from a drudging monotony one endures to survive, to a drudging monotony the other you endures. The rundown is as follows. In severance you undergo a procedure in which your work self is separated from your personal self. When you clock in at 9am you have no memories of your outside life and existence. When you clock out around 5pm you have no memory of your work life. The assignments and tasks you do, the coworkers and colleagues you interact with, and the true nature of your employment. It’s a disturbing sci-fi experiment with shades of Westworld automation meets dystopian horror and it’s this setup that provides a chilling depiction of the shrewd dark comedy that takes place within the capitalist workplace, one we’re all too familiar with.
The button pushing, the overly chipper middle management, the artificiality of a job that’s been obscurely lengthened to 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, filled with.tasks that overwhelm both the body and the mind, in a constant cycle of tedium and monotony. And when it comes to the intense monotony of work under capitalism, Severance hits all the grace notes. The work the innies do is non specific and shrouded, the prizes they receive for completing work are laughable and childish, from chinese finger traps, to melon bars, to waffle parties. Unlike a show like Westworld, which explores the adverse effects of society under automation gone wrong, the innies of severance aren’t robots at all, they’re people. With just as much natural humanity and understanding of their existence as the outies or anybody else does, making them, in effect, slaves. But where slaves understand their specific role within the capitalistic paradigm, the innies gain no such knowledge to the specificity of their plight. With job divisions like “data refinement” or “optics and design” that are as obscure and non-clarifying as they sound.
This is one of Severance’s greatest strengths. From the unnatural overly pristine pastel color palette, to the isolating monolithic cubicles, to the long white winding hallways giving way to the maze-like atmosphere of the Lumon offices, every aspect of Severance works to detail just how bullshitty the song and dance of the workplace can be, as well as how aimless the quest to find purpose through one’s work under capitalism truly is. Which must be the reason so many look to severance in the first place, as a way of not even being tempted to find value through work in the first place. Of course to understand the concept of work-life balance we have to take a critical look at its history. The workday, as we know it, is a distinctly modern phenomenon. With its emphasis on profits, bottom lines, and unsustainable productivity. Business that is distinctly separate from your home and outside life. Early civilizations, going all the way back to antiquity were dominated by people inhabiting their place of production, motivated more by the changing of the seasons than profit margins or expenditures. Living on the very same land that provided all they needed to survive, from food, clothes, water, and shelter.
With the advent of capitalism, descended from the mercantilism of the early Renaissance, the natural connection humanity had with nature was ruptured as workers crammed into urban city centers rather than country farm lands, needed now more than ever to sell their labor for wages to survive. And with that need came a deeper more cerebral need as well. The need to compartmentalize ourselves. To draw distinct separations between the version of us that works, and toils, and attempts to bend without breaking, from whatever’s left.
It’s an unnatural balance, one the Severance’s heightened reality plays into, and the dark irony of capitalism is that it’s an imbalance it created in the first place, while simultaneously asking individuals to correct it. Not on the company’s time, of course, but their own time. It’s in this way the horrors of work seep into the so-called free time, so often existing in the form of off-the-clock meetings, or being on-call, or simply the haunting specter that exists in the background of your life, as you can’t help but find yourself in the same dreary place come Monday.
It’s because of this that I can’t really fault the characters of severance for choosing this life. The opportunity to work without having to bring that baggage back home is a luxury for the outties, but it’s that very separation of work and life, that makes both a slave out of a part of oursevles, and deradicalizes the other part,and it’s a line that’s drawn more strikingly in Severance than in our own lives.
To become deradicalized in this way, to become disharmonized from the injustices inflicted upon your person in the workplace is to imbue the capitalist power structures with even more power, more control and dominion over our own agency. The last semblance of solitude and freedom one has exists within the mind, and when that’s able to be controlled, to be yoked for 8 hours a day well, that might just be the most horrific thing that capitalism could ever imagine. I think if the outies knew, if they truly knew the extent of their unspecific work, or their controlling bosses, or even the simply sheer boredom the innies fell victim to day in and day out they might have half a mind to pull the plug themselves. I wouldn’t necessarily hold my breath though, after all the people who choose to do severance often do it because they’re at their most vulnerable. Suffering from loss, PTSD, and or depression and it’s because of this that Severance doesn’t truly offer complete escape from the monotony or dreadfulness of life, but instead exists as a necessary evil to make that long-lasting pain just a little more bearable.
In a world that doesn't care about you or your time, a world that continues to encroach upon every facet out our lives, both on and off the clock. Severance wants you not only to sympathize with the innies but to also draw the deep connection that they truly are closer to us and our modern sensibilities than the outies are. They work, they toil, they bend without breaking and they understand the imbalance that work without purpose truly creates, more than maybe anybody else does. It’s through Capitalism that we are molded to serve, not our own interests but the interests of those more powerful and it’s in doing so we begin to strip away the completeness of ourselves. And when it comes to the deep wounds that capitalism creates, Severance makes it expressly clear that the path to mending those wounds….begins with revolution.
Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, IG, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support, the ko-fi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening, I’ll catch ya next time.