LOOK CLOSE: “Severance” – All work and no life
By Peg Aloi
Without the perfect performances of the actors, I’m not sure Breakup would work anywhere near as well as it does.
opening scene of Breakup: A white woman with red hair wearing heels and a tight dress lies unconscious on a conference room table. A disembodied voice erupts from the tabletop speaker: “Who are you?” The woman wakes up slowly but is disoriented. The interviewer invites her to take a “short survey” which he says could make her feel “good like the rain”. She is asked to name one of the fifty states – that is the only question she can answer. She finds the questions boring and confusing. The last question, if she can remember the color of her mother’s eyes, seems to cause her sadness and despair.
Isn’t a dystopia so plausible you can taste it? Science fiction often seems like nothing more than escapism because it relies on so many events and situations that just aren’t physically real or even possible. But speculative fiction (like black mirror) takes elements eerily close to reality and blends them into presumably alarming scenarios (technological, social, political, environmental). The results are cautionary tales that, at best, illuminate our very near future. Dystopia, where a society has gone off the rails, is the result of a social order that has become oppressive or perversely cruel (think The Handmaid’s Tale).
In recent months, Americans have seen shit. The pandemic, economic and social instability, the lingering climate crisis, emboldened agents of fascism, and the rise of oppressive political factions that seek to suppress basic freedoms, such as voting and reproductive autonomy. No wonder our entertainment reflects the dark and awful return to us. Among other upheavals, pandemic life has put office culture under scrutiny. Many people who previously worked in offices have transitioned to working remotely from home in the past couple of years; the result is that the idea of going back to work is full of revulsion and comfort. In Breakupthe series created by Dan Erickson and produced by Ben Stiller (who also directed a few episodes), the idea of the workplace as a cold, sterile and cruel environment that denies the more rewarding aspects of life was pushed to the limit to its logical conclusion.
The workplace here is an obscure company called Lumon; no one knows exactly what or what they are doing and departments are separated from each other so information is not easily exchanged. Breakup focuses on a department with four employees: Pete (Yul Vazquez) recently left and the woman on the table, Helly (Britt Lower), is his replacement. There is Mark (big little lies‘ Adam Scott), the apparent protagonist, who has just been promoted to department head (it’s the disembodied voice asking Helly who she is). There’s polite but unofficial Irving (John Turturro in an incandescent performance) and cynical and cunning Dylan (Zach Cherry). Their work is known as “macro data refinement”, and they don’t know what the encoded data they are working with refers to. The company was founded by a man whose legacy is honored in bizarre cult ways inside the building, including a life-size replica of his home, inspirational quotes from his magnum opus hung in every room, and a museum of wax figures of all former CEOs of Lumon.
Many Lumon employees have chosen to go through a procedure called “separation” (invented by the founder), in which a chip is surgically implanted in their brains, which creates a gap between their working selves (called “innies”) and their outside work (“outies”). Their innies have no knowledge or memory of who they are outside of the office; the same goes for the outés, who only know that they go to work and come home every day. The shift in consciousness happens in the elevator. In an instant, employees’ facial expressions change; they seem concerned, distant and somehow colder. Mark and Pete were best friends at work, but don’t know each other outside of Lumon. As Helly settles into her new role, she brings a spark of rebellion to the team, who gradually begin to question whether choosing separation was their best option.
This inventive conceit offers plenty of tension and suspense. But without the perfect performances of the actors, I’m not sure Breakup would work anywhere near as well as it does. Adam Scott is particularly fascinating as the man who chose oblivion over heartbreak. Patricia Arquette is phenomenal in a double role: she is Mark’s boss and also his neighbor (although it will take some time to determine if she too has been the subject of a dismissal procedure). Tramell Tillman is brilliant as a rambunctious office manager and organizer of quirky morale-boosting events like “music and dance experiences” and “waffle parties,” which are considered coveted perks by employees. Then there’s the charming Christopher Walken, senior employee of the company’s Optics and Design department, a secret office that no one seems to know much about. Outside of work, Mark has a close relationship with his sister Devon (Jen Tullock), who is pregnant and married to a rather pretentious author of self-help books (Orange is the new blackby Michael Chernus), one of which turns out to be a key plot element. Mark’s friends know of his departure and one gets the feeling that the people who cast him are being harshly judged by others. Termination as a practice in the workplace is hotly debated.
The show’s immaculate production design is full of striking and memorable visuals – this fictional workplace is a behemoth constructed of glass and metal, with tasteful pops of color thrown in here and there. And the building has the brightest white hallways imaginable, suggesting a liminal place that exists outside of time. Even the snacks in the vending machine don’t look quite real. But, under the icy surface of things, hide startling revelations of beauty and sensuality, as if it were a question of compensation for the loss of humanity suffered by the dismissed employees. The central metaphor of the show is powerful and plausible. There’s no doubt that many viewers will find themselves examining their own work-life balance. But, despite its social relevance, Severance is not moralizing or contrived; it’s thrilling, fascinating and ultimately terrifying.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for boston phoenix and Fellow of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes about film, television and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Hustle, microphone, Orlando Weekly, twisted marqueeand Bloody disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.