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The Severance Package
Archetypical and theoretical analysis of the Apple+ show SEVERANCE
The Apple TV+ show Severance is a remarkable study in archetypes. Undoubtedly, it lends itself to multiple channels for interdisciplinary analysis. I’m only going to follow one of these—the four loose archetypes that stood out to me most starkly throughout the show’s nine episodes. (Note: It has been approved for a second season, but with the ongoing SAG-AFTRA & WGA strike, that second season might be longer in coming than we might otherwise anticipate. In full disclosure, I must iterate that I fully support the strikers, who include longtime SAG cardholders Derek Sitter and John Mese, and thus, I endorse the strategy of boycotting streaming services like Apple TV+ until actors and writers achieve the terms and conditions they deserve.)
Severance presents a dystopian view of corporate culture in America. The show, created by Dan Erickson, is premised on a ‘what if’—what if employees at a corporation could have a surgical procedure to sever themselves in two parts—one part employee (“innie”) and the other part “outie” (whatever a person is off the clock and outside of the professional sphere.) The two halves will not interact or have any awareness of the other. The advantage to the person, in theory, is that he or she could enjoy a richer private life, where the domestic sphere would be totally disengaged from professional demands. No more after-hours calls about work, and no memory of traumas or injuries that might have occurred in the workspace…. The corporate advantage, also ‘in theory,’ arises from the boss having a staff that is fully focused on the job—no more distractions in the form of phone calls from home, or parental duties, or scheduling conflicts that bleed over from personal responsibilities. Theoretically, if a person could split themselves in two parts, there would no longer be a question of work-life balance; each part would cover one half of that equation, making the pressing need for “balance” obsolete. One part of you could be fully devoted to work, the other part to personal matters—and since the two consciousnesses would never intersect, neither would have to deal with the traumas and consequences, distractions and issues imposed on the other half.
Right off the bat, we can see there are a lot of holes in this hypothetical severance package. The show addresses all kinds of mysteries about the way consciousness works—or how it could work in this bizarre sci-fi scenario. The employee who is literally ‘just’ an employee is still a person who thinks and feels; there’s still a consciousness, and the detachment from its ‘twin’ consciousness doesn’t mean that it won’t feel what is missing or what has been lost.
The main character, Mike, played by Adam Scott, elects to do the severing procedure in order to forget his grief over the death of his wife. His “outie” still has to grieve, but his “innie” self would, he hoped, be able to function normally as an employee. Similarly, without any distraction imposed by his “innie” consciousness, his “outie” would thus be free to focus on healing. I wrote it down in my notes that he is the Lost Man. He doesn’t really know what he wants. He chose to be “severed,” but as we move through the nine episodes, we see him increasingly confused and disillusioned about that choice. His inner employee (‘innie’) still wants friendship—to be connected somehow to the world and those he interacts with. The grieving ‘outie’ consciousness is distraught over his personal loss and feels disoriented in a world that doesn’t stop for him to catch up.
In the first shot in the first episode, we see Helly (Britt Lower) lain, facedown, on a boardroom table. She wakes up shortly after the “severance” procedure, totally disoriented and having no memory of who she is. She knows one thing, though. Something important has been taken from her. She is acutely conscious of the loss of a sense of complete self. (I love this idea of the consciousness that knows what has been lost, what is not there, or perhaps, what simply isn’t perceived anymore!) Helly’s consciousness has been severed and is painfully aware of the rupture! Helly’s instinct is to fight this fractured state of things. She doesn’t share Mike’s mixed feelings.
Mike and Helly work in the Macrodata Refinement (MDR) division of the Lumon corporation—Lumon Industries. Mike has just been promoted to a supervisory role, replacing his friend “Petey,” who was fired for undisclosed reasons. As we keep learning, there’s a lot that goes undisclosed at Lumon. The powers that be—fronted by Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette)—do not disclose anymore than what is absolutely necessary to the staff. Employees only know what relates to their specific divisions, and their tasks are undertaken without any sense of the bigger picture. There are infinite mysteries at Lumon, and employees are encouraged stay in their respective divisions. They occasionally take supervised “field trips”—just walks around the building, through windowless passages lit by harsh, florescent lighting. They can earn “perks,” and that brings me to another archetype I want to explore.
Dylan George (Zach Cherry) is an intelligent and insightful staffer assigned to MDR. Although disturbed by many of the practices at Lumon, he cleverly finds ways to work the system to his benefit. From a managerial perspective, he is in many ways an ideal employee. He does his job well and is easy to please. He loves earning “perks” for jobs well done. He is kept satisfied in a dog-and-bone reward system. It’s only when he is accidentally force-fed a glimpse of his ‘outie’ consciousness that he begins to sense the man behind the curtain. The supervisor of all the severed employees at Lumon, Seth Milchick, played by Tramell Tillman, uses an “overtime” protocol to temporarily unite Dylan’s two selves, thus giving Dylan an alarming and unforgettable glimpse of what he is missing. Here is the point of no return for the character. He cannot proceed as he was; he can no longer be quelled by the company perks.
The fourth archetype (easy to identify as the “true believer”) is represented by Irving Bailiff (John Turturro.) Irving has memorized the company’s nine core principles. Asked at one point which core principle he favors, he cannot say. It’s as if, in memorizing the nine core values, he has merely memorized the words, but he fails to distinguish one from another. He is a devout follower of the late Kier Eagan—the visionary behind Lumon Industries who inspires divine-line reverence in all true believers. Irving believes in Kier’s vision because he wants to believe in a greater good beyond the mundane; he wants to believe that he, otherwise ‘just’ an employee, is part of a greater vision. It takes a lot to break down the devotion of a true believer. In Irving’s case, that bar is nothing short of romantic love. He develops a real love for Burt Goodman (Christopher Walken) and when company policy threatens that very relationship, Irving’s worldview begins to crack.
These four archetypes (Lost Man, Resister/Rebel, Puppet, and True Believer) all work together in MDR. It is fascinating to see them interact with each other. We have the indecisive Mike, defiant Helly, laidback Dylan, and by-the-books Irving. None of these people are friends outside of work. Their ‘outies’ have nothing to do with each other. As the show progresses, however, and as the conflicts intensify, their goals align in proportion to their mutual troubles. Moreover, these characters do not inhabit only one archetype. We see Mike in various degrees of leadership and subservience. We see obstinate Helly increasingly working as part of the team. We see Dylan take on heroic qualities. We see Irving’s eyes opening to the lies he’s been afraid to acknowledge as such.
Paradoxically, it turns out, the show is both a dystopian view of corporate culture and as real as it gets. Everything from the fluorescent lights to the barren, white, windowless walls, as well as the blandly packaged “food” in the vending machine, speaks to the flavorless aesthetic of corporate life. And yet the corporation is full of individuals, all working together to complete tasks that collectively advance an obscure bigger picture. People choose to work for corporations for a number of reasons, whether it’s job security, benefits, or ambition to climb the corporate ladder. All of these things are weighed against an environment that can feel repressive, and, at least in the case of Lumon, outright abusive.
Helly is mysterious and her ‘outie’ is largely unknown to us until the last episode. In a way, though, she’s the most alive of all the characters—Helly raising hell and positively desperate to break out! She’s the most resistant to everything that happens at Lumon. She has the strongest will to fight every corporate policy. Yet we are in the dark as to her “outie” consciousness until that final episode, when her reason for electing the procedure in the first place becomes crystal clear. The Lumon surgeons successfully severed her consciousness, but they could not detach either part of her from her willfulness. She was never lost as Mike was—not in terms of what she wanted. Yet she went into the procedure with a goal that is totally at odds with her driving aim since the severance. Without divulging spoilers, I can say that she does change, as all the characters do, but even though we don’t see her change, since we learn about it after the fact, her change is profound. We are only in the dark about the change because we meet her—the real her, the outie-and-innie awareness her—only after it has taken effect. Conversely, we get to see Mike, Dylan, and Irving as they change.
Helly will never let Lumon take away her identity. She wants her soul back. She wants all of her consciousness to be intact again. Likewise, Irving comes to realize that there are more important things than obedience; Dylan learns that company perks will never make him happy. And Mike? His outie wants his wife back. His innie wants Petey back and to uncover the truth as Petey tried to do. Can they find the real reality? Will they even like it if they can find it?
This show is a fascinating look at the idea of the “whole person,” warts and all; at compartmentalizing; at multitasking; etc. I think the writers have opened a pandora’s box wherein we find a wealth of truth about our need to not only be “whole” but to connect to something higher. Life has no meaning if we are detached from the greater consciousness that connects everything and everyone. We cannot connect to the One Consciousness if we are fractured within ourselves. If we cut ourselves in two, we can’t connect to the greater consciousness that binds us all together. The One Consciousness that binds everything together is found through presence, and stillness. Be still, and look at life, and notice beauty. That’s where you find the One Consciousness, the only thing that never changes and is constantly expanding. Unfortunately, the world of “form,” as I call it (taking the terminology of Eckhart Tolle) calls us back and keeps us in a hamster-wheel existence. But if we can remember to stop sometimes, be still, and notice the present moment, we can develop the habit—which becomes stronger through practice—of noticing that the only thing that exists is the Now. Everything else belongs to the mind and the memory. Everything else is fleeting, something that can change with the snap of the fingers or the blink of an eye. We keep coming back to the Now. That’s where lives the One and the True Consciousness.
Eckhart tells us that Consciousness (meaning the Higher, One, or True Consciousness) wants nothing from you except to awaken you and to keep expanding. Consciousness will break through, even if a human consciousness is fractured in the human’s attempt to ward off pain and suffering. Humans naturally seek ways to mitigate suffering, but it’s only through the suffering that we can reach the other side. If you try to avoid it, or ignore it, it will keep coming back, making you suffer needlessly and repetitiously. Conversely, you can make a choice to suffer through it once and never again. That’s the argument that Michael Singer makes. The author of The Untethered Soul makes the case against the idea of severing your consciousness in order to be happier. You can’t just forget or pretend that triggers (and moods, and annoyances, yada yada) don’t exist. You need to get in touch with the trigger and the feeling, and ultimately learn to transmute it so that, through practice and habit, its power can be vanquished. The full title of the book says it all: The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. So the key to happiness is not to sever your conscious but to go beyond the merely human (what Eckhart calls the form) and to connect with the everlasting, ever-expanding life that lives in the Now. It’s complicated. It takes a lot of reading and meditation to understand all of these ideas. I won’t try to condense them into this article, but I will say that the concept of severing your consciousness and detaching your awareness of certain aspects of your life does have resonance with what Eckhart Tolle says about the ego’s attempts to detach us from higher awareness. The ego tries to trick us into thinking of ourselves as separate; it’s “us against them,” it’s “me” against the odds, or against the world, or against whatever horrible thing, pick your example. Increasingly, though, as we connect with a higher awareness, we realize that all things are connected, and our connection radiates more strongly than our separateness, which we find was only a trick of the ego.
The ego and the trick of severance do pose advantages to the human. It can make us highly effective in the world of form. The issue is that consciousness wants to be, not only united, but expansive—and untethered! Or, as Ron Swanson, the libertarian character on Parks and Recreation put it: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”