Severance is one of the most uncompromising anti-work shows to appear on TV, turning office comedy cringe to explicit horror. A nightmare masked as fantasy, Severance asks: what if we could have all the benefits of working a boring office job without having to remember doing it?

To that end, the series imagines a procedure where workers could be split into two separate consciousnesses, an "Outie" who only retains memories of experiences outside the workplace, and an "Innie," who is conscious during the workday but remembers nothing of their outside life. The show focuses on the corporation's "Macrodata Refinement division" which employs Mark S. (Adam Scott), Helly R. (Britt Lower), Irv B. (John Turturro), and Dylan G. (Zach Cherry). Of the four, we are only able to regularly follow Mark into his outside life, where we learn that his motivation for undergoing the procedure was to spare his Innie the unbearable pain of having lost his wife in an auto accident, showing that the character is interested not in avoiding work, but in escaping his life outside the workplace.

While the severance process does not help Mark heal, it does serve as a device to expose contemporary forms of worker manipulation and instrumentalization. As the parallel worlds of the Innies and Outies in the show develop we see how workplace discipline is not limited to the office but rather provides a "spirit of capitalism" defined by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello as a "set of beliefs associated with the capitalist order that helps to justify this order and, by legitimating them, to sustain the forms of action and predispositions compatible with it" that encompasses realms of production and reproduction within the waged workplace and in everyday life.1

Unlike such amelioratory office comedies as The Office, Severance reveals the perks and banter of the workplace as palliative extensions of a truly hellish work regime. Interpretations of the show have linked it to the post-COVID enforced return to work or read it as a meditation on our unfulfillable desire for "work/life balance"; the show's horror tropes imply a much more sweeping call for an anti-work critique of what Kathi Weeks calls "the work society," a culture that subjugates every aspect of our lives to the demands of capitalist production and reproduction. 

Severance's counterpart and foil, The Office, imagines a reconciliation of regular guy Jim with the demands of the workplace: in the show's final episode, Jim accomplishes his dream of launching his own sportswear company with his signature laid-back brand his happy ending. In this, the show's message converges with a managerial discourse that, as Weeks argues, "asks workers to bring their authentic selves from outside work into work, attempting thereby to incorporate the whole person into the production matrix."2 By integrating his "true" self into work, Jim intensifies and internalizes his identification with his job. His initial passive cynicism transforms to proactive participation as the show propagandizes emergent managerial strategies. It does so through a mythological structure that Roland Barthes calls "operation margarine," where the apparent interrogation of a phenomenon is a means of inoculating it against further critique, deepening its ideological hold. Severance instead shows the office to be a place where authenticity is manufactured rather than excluded and where, even when we are not physically there, we never actually leave.

Severance's conceit of splitting consciousness into a worker's Outie and Innie helps us understand the absence of agency in our "choice" to go to work and to fashion ourselves as desirable workers. Helly R. spends the entire season trying to opt out of her office job, but her Outie sends her back, even when she attempts to commit suicide. We see and feel the hollowness of "choice" when Mark suggests that she consider her enslavement from the standpoint of her Outie: "Well, every time you find yourself here it's because you chose to come back." This is not so different from the ways we are conditioned to send ourselves back to work day after day, no matter what degree of misery we experience there.

Yet the show goes further by illustrating the difficulty that those on the outside have in making choices that are not guided by a deeply rooted work ethic, partially because labor inside and outside the workplace is so thoroughly entangled. With the injunction to think of their boss as a stern but loving mother, to participate in "synergetic" team building challenges, and to perform expressively "kind eyes," the Lumon workers are simultaneously socialized for the workplace and for everyday life.

In demonstrating the continuity between the workplace and its surrounds through the myth that these two realms can be severed, Severance confirms the notion that the current regime of capitalism involves a "social factory" harnessing outside sociality to the needs of capitalist production and reproduction. As Marxist feminists have long argued, sites of gendered social reproduction such as the home and schools perform a fundamental role in enabling workplace labor to produce surplus value. It is no accident that the brief glance we get of Helly R. in her Outie life shows her to be a powerful woman who "leans in" by supporting her father's corporation, the very same company that is driving her Innie to abject despair. By basing her success on conformity to the work ethic, Helly's Outie ensures that her Innie will be subjugated by her demeaning job. This is a form of feminism that fails, as Weeks argues, "to challenge the dominant legitimating discourse of work." Rather, by reinforcing work's "sanctification" it limits struggles for liberation.3

The misery that initially drove Lumon workers to sever themselves is caused by servility to the work society; far from solving their problems, this "choice" only entrenches Lumon's hold on their Outie. The first season leaves clues that Lumon's ultimate goal is to make its workers full-time Innies and that it is secretly building slave quarters within its walls, but this dream of the really, really full-time worker has already occurred as many of us arrange our eating, sleeping, education, and care towards a goal of succeeding in the work world, not to mention spending our "off hours" answering work emails and texts.

This expansion of work values to all of life is facilitated by the shifting nature of work itself. With the diminishment of manufacturing work and the rise of service industries, qualities that were developed outside of the workplace (often by women) are now appropriated by it. Communication, emotional display, and care are central to both waged and unwaged work, further blurring the Innie and Outie. We see this at Lumon as the workers are constantly disciplined by emotional requirements and rules. While this might be seen to enhance workers' emotional development, Arlie Hochschild argues that the demands of the post-Fordist workplace lead to a "deskilling" of emotional labor, which is functionalized and routinized.4

At Lumon, where workers are stripped of their entire history and homelife, this deskilling is clearly shown. At Helly's "welcome party," Mr. Milchick (Trammell Tillman) insists that the members of the department sit in a circle and pass a ball to each other. Whoever receives the ball must tell the rest of the group something about themselves. Since no one knows who they are, this is a challenge. The workers are required to gamely participate regardless. We learn that there are wrong answers when Mark gives a reply that he has already used at a previous party and Milchick gently but firmly insists that he try again. This emotional labor does not help the department fulfill its quota of macrodata refinement (whatever that is they don't know either), but it does reinforce their subjugation to the needs of the workplace and is not far from ice-breaker activities in many offices where workers are required to simultaneously simplify and instrumentalize their range of feelings.

The deskilling and impoverishment of emotional life in the contemporary work world are also reflected in the ways both Innies and Outies are infantilized and homogenized. Bereft of a life outside work, the employees at Lumon are motivated by perks carefully chosen to foreclose any desire for growth or complexity. Food rewards, such as melon bars, egg bars, and waffle parties, are chosen, as Emma Stefansky argues, because they are "tasty and soft, nonthreatening yet infantilizing . . . the type of food that would excite a 6 year old more than a working adult." The other most common incentive is a Chinese finger trap which is not only a childish toy but a reminder, Elizabeth Spiers contends, that the only way employees can "win" is to stop trying to fight the system and trust the bonds will loosen of their own accord: "In this sense, the finger traps are not just a toy; they're a kind of corporate indoctrination."

But these infantilizing perks are not limited to the world of the Innie. At one point, Mark is tortured at work, which means that his Outie sustains an injury. These suspicious mishaps occur frequently, but Mark accepts Lumon's explanations that his gashes and bruises are the result of banal office accidents. In this case, Lumon "compensates" him with a gift certificate to the VIP area of a restaurant called Pips. Later, he will eat dinner alone at Pips, an anonymous chain that has about as much personality and hominess as Mark's office cubicle, and whose VIP section is no different from the rest of the establishment, except it is cordoned off by a rope. Pip's childish name combines with its bland décor to show Mark's outer life as an extension of his office experience, only lonelier. In this, and many moments throughout the show, Mark is filmed in long shots emphasizing the emptiness that envelops him. This sense of isolation, homogeny, and emotional impoverishment follows him from the office to his monk-like living quarters. To underscore the Outie's despairing condition, we see he lives in an anonymous row house in a depopulated Lumon company town. He has no neighbors except the nosy woman next door, who, unknown to his Outie, is actually his boss. In other words, even though he doesn't know who he is at work, the office comes home with him.

The ascetic austerity of Mark's home life illustrates Weeks' point that the appearance of a secular consumer society masks the quasi-theological doxa that controls our behavior and so-called choices. As Max Weber famously explained, capitalism itself is devoid of the ethical, psychological, and cultural dimensions needed to organize social life, and thus it is parasitic upon other systems of meaning. Weber argued that in the early stages of capitalism, the Protestant ethic filled these needs. Under this regime, the willingness "to commit to tireless, endless, and often meaningless labor," as Annie McClanahan explains, became an ethical stance and a mark of character. As Boltanski and Chiapello characterize it, work becomes a calling, or a "religious vocation demanding fulfilment," even if Capitalism itself lacks "intrinsic interest and qualities."5 Both the Innies and Outies in Severance subscribe to these measures of self-worth, and this subjugates them to their work. But it is inside Lumon where this theology of capitalism is manufactured and made explicit.

After one of Helly's many fruitless attempts to resign, the most self-serious worker in the office, Irv, suggests that a sense of purpose will give her life meaning and that the group should visit the "perpetuity wing" of the Lumon complex. There, we find that the rules in the company's "Employee Compliance Handbook" are actually a set of spiritual laws designed to cement hierarchical relationships "in perpetuity." As we are introduced to the monuments and garish oil paintings decorating this section of the building, we come to understand the ersatz Protestant, Victorian world perpetuated by the company's founder, Kier Eagan. The Lumon handbook is a bible of Kier's exhortations to the company's employees, shaping them to see Lumon's success as their own salvation. Employees are constructed as children subject to the stern but benevolent authority of the founder and the CEOs who follow him, all members of the same ruling-class family.

Throughout the show, we are treated to fragments of Kier's doctrine: a blend of management rules and archaic theology meant to shape the will of the employees whom he calls "children of my industry." He urges his "children" to follow in his path and "walk into the cave" of their minds, "tame the tempers," and become "keeper[s] of an ethos, a compact of values that we have long held as precious." While only Irv treats this rhetoric devoutly, all but Helly secretly respect it. Even the snarkiest employee, Dylan, has a side to him that is "reverent as fuck." Helly's resistance lands her in the "break room" (the place at Lumon where employees do not take breaks, but rather are broken) and made to endlessly recite a liturgy of atonement: "I am thankful to have been caught, my fall cut short by those wizened hands. All I can be is sorry and that is all that I am" as part of a conditioning technique involving psychological and physical torture. This seemingly spiritual dimension of Lumon, then, is underwritten by the threat of extreme violence.

Mark's spying boss, Harmony Corbel (Patricia Arquette), steals a package from his front door which turns out to be a self-help book written by his brother-in-law, Ricken (Michael Chernus), The You You Are. When it is accidentally left in the office, Irv finds The You You Are and all four employees begin surreptitiously reading the aptly titled book. The Innies have never read any material other than the Lumon compliance handbook and they receive each line of this forbidden text as a subversive message. But The You You Are is just an example of how the outside world does not provide an antidote to the "social ethic of capitalistic culture."6 Far from being an anti-work savior, Ricken has already been established as a buffoon, and the seemingly anti-work messages in The You You Are are actually poorly written endorsements of an individualistic culture. The text is littered with faux-profundities: "A society with festering workers cannot flourish just as a man with rotting toes cannot skip." Or: "Your so-called boss may own the clock that taunts you from the wall but my friends the hour is yours."

These platitudes superficially appear to critique work but can alternately be read as injunctions designed by a smoother, more manipulative management style than that of Lumon. Ricken's new-age rhetoric draws on the spirit of sixties-era criticisms of work and bureaucracy, but not to any insurrectionary ends, supporting Boltanski and Chiapello's argument that post-sixties capitalism internalizes the moral power of critique to ensure that workers will buy into its otherwise soulless ends. In other words, if we look to the outside world's emotional rules for salvation, we will not liberate life from work but only intensify the imbrication of the two categories.

It is not Ricken's patronizing text that loosens Lumon's hold on the members of its Macrodata Refinement department; it is rather the inherent contradictions of their conditions. At one point Mark encounters a former co-worker, Petey (Yul Vazquez), on the outside. Petey has undergone a "reintegration" procedure to fuse his Innie and Outie. However, since he has witnessed his own enslavement at Lumon, this will not be an undoing of severance, but rather the becoming of a whole new person who cannot unsee the horrors of work. This process of reintegration is unbearably painful and disorienting. Yet Petey doesn't regret his decision and encourages Mark to join him in this process. Mark is not ready for this and states, "I'm not going to get 'unsevered.'" "Unsevered isn't a word," Petey responds, "the word is reintegration."

With this distinction, Petey makes a tacit claim that the severance procedure is not an illustration of the schism between workplace and outside world, it is a demystification of that separation. With this clarification, we diverge from commonsense notions of proletarian identity and class struggle. We no longer define a worker as a person who produces value in the workplace, but instead embrace a more encompassing characterization of the worker as one who is subject to capital's demands. This is a recognition that the worker's subjugation to capital does not begin when they enter the workforce. The threat of "becoming surplus" or being relegated to the reserve army of labor disciplines every subject of capitalism. In all, those inside and outside the workplace can be seen as "a common mass of disposable labor power," subject to ongoing precarity.

As Colleen Lye and Chris Nealon imply, the worker's defining condition is not that of "their concrete labor," but that of severance, the "separation from any means of production."7 This recognition recalibrates leftist political strategy. A "workerist" perspective that limits the vision of the proletariat and class struggle to workplace organization is sure to reinforce the obedient values of "the work society" and ultimately demand "freedom for work" rather than "freedom from work." If we are to imagine a genuinely transformed and liberated society that contests what Mareile Pfannebecker and J. A. Smith call the "lifework regime," we must "repurpose our desire" and undergo the painful, disorienting reintegration procedure, taking on the whole of life as grounds for struggle.8

Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. She is the author of Stepford Daughters: Weapons for Feminists in Contemporary Horror (Common Notions Press, 2022).


  1. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2018), 10.[]
  2. Kathi Weeks, The Problem with Work (Duke University Press, 2011), 107.[]
  3. Weeks, The Problem with Work, 13.[]
  4. Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California Press, 1983), 10.[]
  5. Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, 9.[]
  6. Weeks, The Problem with Work, 69.[]
  7. Colleen Lye and Chris Nealon, "Introduction." After Marx, edited by Colleen Lye (Cambridge University Press, 2022), 14.[]
  8. Mareile Pfannebecker and James A. Smith, Work Want Work: Labour and Desire at the End of Capitalism (Zed Books, 2020), xiv.[]