Parts of People.

“My life has been 107 hours long,” says Ms. Casey, Wellness Counselor at Lumon Industries, moments after learning she won’t be making it to 108. “Of all that time, my favorite was the eight hours I spent in Macrodata Refinement. You could say those were my Good Old Days.”

Of course, Ms. Casey—or whatever her real name is—occupies an adult body, far older than the 107 hours she remembers. That’s because she’s been “severed”: implanted with a chip that partitions her episodic memories between work hours and other. When she’s outside the Severed Floor at Lumon, she contains a lifetime’s accumulated experience; she remembers anything any normal human could, except for whatever it is she does at work. When at work, she remembers nothing but her time on the floor. Her memories, her consciousness itself, have been—partitioned. Ex uno, duo.

The show, of course, is “Severance”—and if you haven’t seen it yet, holy shit are you in for a ride.

It is difficult to know how to describe this animal. It evokes Brazil and The Prisoner and The Office and Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, channels Kubrick and Lynch and Kafka and even the weird-ass technological anachronism of “Archer”. It taps into all those feeds, mixes them together and transmogrifies them into a curiously low-key, utterly compelling remix that is somehow uniquely its own thing. It’s a very human tragedy about loss. It’s a brilliant satire on corporate bureaucracy. It’s a neurophilosophical rumination on the nature of identity. If I had to describe the show in terms of my own gut reaction, I’d have to say it’s simply awe-inspiring.

*

Put yourself in this head:

You wake up on a table in a conference room, with no recollection of who you are or how you got there. Your procedural memories are intact: you can speak, tell jokes, you know what cars and movies are even though you can’t remember ever seeing one. Your job is to sit at a desk and sort numbers on a strangely anachronistic computer terminal; you don’t even know what the numbers mean, except that certain combinations evoke an emotional response you don’t quite understand. (One of your office-mates believes that the numbers represent killer eels, that you’re programming robot submarines to get rid of nasty predators and make the deep sea safe for human habitation; another thinks you’re editing swear words out of movie soundtracks.)

Around five o’clock you leave for the day—but the moment the elevator doors close on you they open again and you’re back at work. You have no idea what happened in the interim; you might feel sick or hung-over, full of energy, in physical pain. You never know why. Your entire life is spent on this floor, crunching numbers, chatting with fellow “innies” at the coffee maker, winning tawdry little prizes (finger traps, caricature portraits) if you perform well. Maybe you have a family; you’ll never know. Maybe you meet someone here at Lumon and fall in love; outside, you won’t even recognize each other on the street. You’re allowed to quit, but you aren’t. That decision is left to your “outie”—the baseline version of you with the real-world life, the person who applied for this job and agreed to the implant and authorized your very fucking existence in this interminable purgatory. The “you” in charge. They get to quit, if they want, but there’s no way for you to communicate directly with that ranking entity. As veteran innie Mark S. tells newcomer Helly R.: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.”

It’s the perfect work/life balance. How many times have we heard people complain about having to take their work home with them? That’s not an issue when you don’t even know what your work is the moment you’ve left the office. And after all, why would your innie complain? You made this decision, and they are you, albeit with a massive case of amnesia.

That doesn’t make you a different person though, does it? Is it really any different than that experience we’ve all had, of driving to some destination only to realize that we’ve no memory of the turns and lane-changes and traffic-signals we navigated in getting there? That simple lack of memory isn’t enough to turn one person into another, a saint into a monster, is it? Is it?

In the recorded words of one outie, played to her “innie” after the latter threatens to cut off her own fingers if she’s not allowed to quit: “I am a person. You are not. I make the decisions; you do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you alive long enough to horribly regret that.”

The same brain on both sides of that conversation. The same personality, talking to itself. The only difference is the size of the filing cabinet.

When you think about it, though—no matter how miserable you are down here, are you really unhappy enough to quit when quitting equals suicide? Your entire life has been spent in this maze of hallways, in this vast empty office space with a few workstations clustered in the center like some Euclidian island on a green carpet sea. You were born here; you don’t know anything else. If you quit, your body never returns to this place. If you quit, you die.

*

I don’t know if I can fully describe my delight upon discovering this series.

It’s hardly the first show to wrestle with issues of consciousness and identity, to poke and tug at the question What makes a person? I raved about the first season of Westworld, only to come back and take a dump on its disappointing third. I offhandedly praised “Devs” during its run (I liked it more than a lot of you did, apparently), but never got around to writing up an actual review. “Upload” is a great little show, a sunny dissection of consciousness and capitalism whose bright affect and rom-com one-liners serve mainly to sugarcoat some bitter and brilliant social commentary—but after two delightful seasons it still hasn’t inspired me to get off my ass and tell you all about it. Down at the bottom of the barrel, “Raised by Wolves” and “Humans” struggle with their own inanity as much as the Weighty Issues they so desperately want to be taken seriously for. Not to mention the venerable old Blade Runner franchise.

Even the best of these shows left me with something to criticize, some niggling cop-out or inconsistency, some fridge-logic plot hole. After a single episode of “Severance”, though, I wanted to shout from the mountaintops: here it is: the genre done right. I resisted. I waited it out through all nine episodes, waiting for something to come off the rails.

The person to trust least in this picture is the real one.

It never happened. Oh, it may yet: unanswered questions remain at the end of the first season, any one of which—ineptly resolved, or just ignored a la “Lost”—might compromise the experience in hindsight. What data are they processing on those clunky CRTs? What is Kier’s Grand Design, what is Lumon Industries actually for? What’s up with those goats? Still, the questions that have been answered so far give me hope: this isn’t “The X-Files”, throwing random crap at the wall and hoping to fit it all together further down the road. This is craftsmanship. There is care in this narrative. They know where they’re going.

“Severance” is the best examination of neurological identity I have ever seen on mass media. It’s not just the neurophilosophical issues. It’s the set design; it’s the cinematography, and that haunting soundtrack. (There’s a scene set in a funeral home that combines a corpse, a power drill, and an amateur cover of “Enter Sandman” that I will never forget.) It’s the way you come to know and care about these parts-of-people, both inside and outside the office, as they struggle to come to terms with who and what they are. It’s oh my god those amazing opening credits.

It’s the almost-unprecedented[1] way that existential horror blends together with almost Pythonesque absurdity, the eye-popping inanity of office perks handed out for Jobs Well Done. Melon parties (fifteen minutes out of your workday, free to eat little cubes of cantaloupe and honeydew impaled on toothpicks). The Music Dance Experience, in which innies get to choose from a variety of generic genres (“buoyant reggae”, “defiant jazz”) to accompany their allotted five minutes’ dance time on the company clock. It’s the way that newly-promoted managers are informed that “A handshake is available upon request”.

It’s the Waffle Party.

Believe me when I say: whatever goes through your mind when you read the words “waffle party”, it’s not that. Without giving too much away (it is, after all, the lynchpin of a major plot development), let me just say that if Stanley Kubrick wasn’t long dead, I’d have strongly suspected that he’d co-directed the Waffle Party scene with David Lynch.

(Absurdity is by no mean limited to the halls of Lumon, by the way. In the very first episode, Mark’s outer self attends a “dinner party” where no food is served, where people sit around a table festooned with empty place settings and remark upon how people alive during World War One referred to it as “The Great War”, because by the standards of the times, calling it World War One would have been “a major faux pas”.)

The entire show provokes a chronic sense of dissociation in the viewer. It makes you shudder and giggle at the same time, it makes you shuggle.

It also makes you think.

Perhaps that’s what I find so refreshing about this series. So many shows cut from this thematic cloth pretend to interrogate but really only preach (*cough*Humans*cough*). “Severance” doesn’t stoop to that. Oh, it takes a side, certainly. Mark S., appalled at the news that Ms. Casey has been fired, says “We’re people, not—parts of people”—and you’re right there with him. But these are gut feelings, and the show itself raises enough questions and contradictions to make us wonder why, exactly, these aren’t just “parts of people”. This show makes you rethink what “people” even are.

A few years back I was interviewed by Lightspeed as a sidebar to a story of mine they were reprinting[2]; one of their questions was how I would define “successful narrative conflict”. I suggested that successful narrative conflict makes you squirm at a dissonant bottom line you can’t disprove, even though you desperately want to. Something that forces you to question your own dearly held preconceptions.

Of all the shows I’ve seen, “Severance” comes closest to embodying that concept. I thank all the rudimentarily-conscious panpsychic particles in the universe that it has been renewed for a second season.


  • 1 Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes close, but is way more over-the-top.

  • 2 Apropos of nothing, they’ll be printing a couple of entirely new stories by me in the coming months. Stay tuned.



  • This entry was posted on Saturday, April 16th, 2022 at 9:46 am and is filed under ink on art, neuro. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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    Johnny5
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    Johnny5
    1 month ago

    I was happy to see Ben Stiller (Mystery Men, duh!) doing the pitch worm for this on Seth Meyers’ show. I’ll watch when I have to re-buy HBOMax for the next Godzilla pic.

    pjcamp
    Guest
    pjcamp
    6 days ago
    Reply to  Johnny5

    That should be interesting since it is on Apple+. And the notion of liking both Severance and Godzilla is making my brain vibrate.

    Gord Wait
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    Gord Wait
    1 month ago

    Love everything about Severance, deliciously weird and unpredictable.

    Mike Scott
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    Mike Scott
    1 month ago

    Have you read Quarantine by Greg Egan, which explores some of the same concepts (neural technology reprogramming you into an ideal worker, but only during working hours) as far as I can tell from your description (I’ve not seen Severance, but will now aim to do so)?

    Gordan
    Guest
    Gordan
    1 month ago
    Reply to  Mike Scott

    Egan is nice…

    bitec0de
    Guest
    1 month ago
    Reply to  Mike Scott

    Yes, the whole thing has a intensely Eagan vibe. I haven’t gotten as far as the goats yet, but I was wondering if they might play into a “Steve Fever” sort of biocomputer concept, with the office workers being prepped as vessels for someone’s immortality project

    Nestor
    Guest
    1 month ago

    Hm, sounds interesting though in practice I don’t have much tolerance for dystopia in my entertainment nowadays (Never watched much of Black Mirror).

    Watching Devs right now, since D+ is the only streaming service I have access to nowadays. It’s interesting, though I have to wonder at the oversized menace represented by the ageing security chief. You’d think an evil corporation would have more than one intimidating goon.

    Perhaps it’s a millennial thing to find a boomer so terrifying.

    YESMORELIGHT
    Guest
    YESMORELIGHT
    1 month ago

    Severance is my favorite author!

    YESMOREDARK
    Guest
    YESMOREDARK
    1 month ago

    I loved Severance, very permanent, makes me dream of prions for some reason but I think the show was about clouds personally. Seems like people born in a busy office just can’t be trusted under any circumstances.

    Jo Heled
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    Jo Heled
    1 month ago

    I, for one, am still hoping for _something_ RE ‘Devs’ 🙂

    BTW
    Guest
    BTW
    1 month ago

    First episode in I can’t help but giggle the it was originally available via apple TV, but can be watched on amazon prime as well, given the theme.

    Gordan
    Guest
    Gordan
    1 month ago

    I hope it lands in our office for translation/localization/subtitling… Then I will enjoy working and get paid for it 🙂 It is exceptionally rear to see intelligent shows like this seems to be…Books are superior on the other hand…Books are always a subject that gets to be rendered inside owns brain topology and interpreted differently even from a same person in a different time perspective and setting… Thanks for the recommendation.

    Shane
    Guest
    1 month ago

    I am part way through the series and enjoying it immensely. The scientific idea behind the premise is necessarily impossible, but resonates with people who have jobs which are either sensitive (so they are not allowed to discuss it outside) or simply highly technical or boring (that they are free to discuss it outside, but nobody in their life can understand or enjoy the topics). In that sense the underlying dynamic of the innie/outie pairs is relatable. Perhaps this is a relatively new psychosocial phenomenon as a result of hyperspecialisation colliding with hyperindividualism. Previously in history if you had a specialised role like book binder you most likely would be born into a family trade, or end up living closely with similar specialists who could converse about the major focus of your shared lives. Only in industrial society do you get people training to be synthetic chemists who have to live with a family who barely understand chemical bonding, creating a functional kind of severance between their work and home lives.

    popefucker
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    popefucker
    1 month ago
    Reply to  Shane

    Having a specialist job is a little weird. I’m sure many people here appreciate what it’s like to struggle at answering the question “so, what exactly do you *do*?” to those outside of academia.

    BTW
    Guest
    BTW
    1 month ago
    Reply to  popefucker

    my go-to response is usually “I click the computer and the idiots pay me for that”

    David Roman
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    1 month ago

    Thanks for the recommendation, sounds like a good one

    ken
    Guest
    ken
    1 month ago

    +1 for Severance. In a strange art-imitates-life twist, a co-worker recommended this series to me and I’ve never looked back.

    It’s so refreshing to see the genre evolve and surprise us with wonderful little quiet, offbeat, and irreverent series like this.

    And unless I’m mistaken, I believe Peter suggested the used of “severed” soldiers in Echopraxia. As usual, the man is ahead of the curve.

    Anon
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    Anon
    3 days ago
    Reply to  ken

    I am reading Blindsight and there is a passage where Robert Cunningham is severed from his own sensorium.

    “He no longer “felt” the data in his gut; he had to interpret it step by laborious step…”

    The expression “felt the data” grabbed me and kinda made me think of the the parallel situation of what is going on in Microdata Refinement where the workers sort by feeling/emotional response.

    My guess – there is more to this implant than meets the eye. I don’t think it’s just about severing consciousness into innie and outie memories.

    wbbrim
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    wbbrim
    1 month ago

    Perhaps you would enjoy https://delicioustacos.com/2013/02/08/autopilot/
    It handles a similar situation very differently. Content warning: it’s completely fucked.

    Lambert
    Guest
    Lambert
    12 days ago
    Reply to  wbbrim

    I kinda love how every detail of that is hopelessly out of date except the core concept, the reveal, and the sting.

    The reveal is way over-egged IMO. It only works because the writing is good. Then again, maybe the kinda obvious sting wouldn’t work as well as it does if the reader wasn’t first distracted by eye-rolling at the reveal.

    I’m undecided on whether the biggest plot hole – why are there no marks? – is actually a hole, or an invitation to Fridge Horror.

    Phil
    Guest
    Phil
    1 month ago

    Thanks for the recommendation. Binged it.

    Helly’s anger reminds me of the narrator’s in Greg Egan’s short story Dust, where the narrator has a similar lack of agency (although he does have all of the memories).

    It seems the writers have a lot leeway open to them for coming seasons with a severance process that still has technical problems within the show, and a lack of details shared with us, the audience, about how the process actually works on the human mind.

    I’m glad it got renewed.

    Nestor
    Guest
    26 days ago

    Hm, so did you hear about the guy who set himself on fire to protest climate change? I had a thought I’m not proud of, I wondered if you’d put it on the sidebar as a green or red item…

    Nestor
    Guest
    26 days ago
    Reply to  Peter Watts

    Ah, I see. Let us hope for a wave of copycat immolations among the various western nations then.

    (2000AD actually had a story like that. They send Psi Judge Anderson to investigate and she declares it’s caused by the universal malaise from living in such a shitty place. So the chief Judge fixes it by abolishing the goldfish tax)

    Sergey Simakov
    Guest
    Sergey Simakov
    20 days ago

    Just finished the last episode yesterday.

    Despite the really great idea to look on the life of a secondary personality (or the inferior part of the host) I still feel some breach in the general conception. I mean, who would agree on the existence of the eternal office clerk without even the slightest hope of getting the real life (especially given the fact that innies are prefectly aware of who they are and who their outies are). Therefore the possibility of the revolt in such conditions is not just the likelihood but the matter of time. And what employers would like to have workstaff consisting of potentioal terrorists?

    Still the show is terrfic, look forward to the second season

    Sergey Simakov
    Guest
    Sergey Simakov
    19 days ago
    Reply to  Peter Watts

    My bad, I said it wrong, I meant the innies’ awareness of outies’ superiority towards them (family, memory, right to take a decision about retirement of their innie). And that’s what imo they wanted to change

    Lambert
    Guest
    Lambert
    13 days ago

    TV sci fi giving catch-up classes here. Bringing the “story so far” to a wider audience… now that the wider audience’s conceptual toolbox is up to the task of processing it.

    The neuroscience experiments are decades old. Here’s a pop summary from 2016:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfYbgdo8e-8

    (And it doesn’t even mention some of the most striking results. “Right brain” CAN talk, if you give it scrabble tiles. But replicability is a serious problem, because you can’t just go around severing human corpus callosa for science. Not in the West, anyway.)

    As acknowledged at the end of the video, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Those two “parts of a person” just happen to be the easiest to isolate. Why wouldn’t there be more? Normally they AREN’T isolated, but we do know that there are boundaries within the self – maybe not hard boundaries, but just attenuation of contact – that the partial people can’t see across. We know this because we have words like “unconscious”, “subconscious”, etc, and we wouldn’t have invented those otherwise. We know it because blindsight is a thing!

    (Aside: All the Egan fans here, if they watched that video, should be thinking of his short story “Learning To Be Me”, IMO the most effective horror story ever written.)

    But there is another chapter of this story dropping as we speak. This went viral two years ago:

    https://www.insidemymind.me/blog/brain-stuff/today-i-learned-that-not-everyone-has-an-internal-monologue-and-it-has-ruined-my-day/

    …and the comments have been WILD. W.I.L.D. Back then there were thousands, but for some reason they all disappeared. I remember one in particular, which was from somebody who claimed to be a neuroscientist, and who described that she had no idea how she did math. As she put it: “In my head, I just go ‘la, la, la’ until the answer pops up. It works quite reliably.”

    Unsurprisingly, lots of research now being done on inner monologues, probing the different ways that individuals’ “conscious” experience (i.e. what they can describe in language) is partitioned from their “unconscious” experience (what they can’t). I expect that this is where we should expect to see the next set of results giving an indication of just how many partial-people the average skull contains, even when it hasn’t been split down the middle.

    Because what’s the common denominator of all “conscious” experience that we know anything about, including yours if you can reply to this…? The ability and the opportunity to use language to express yourself, one way or another. Being (or having direct access to) the Human Debugger Module, the part which can give an account of the human’s internal state in an abstract form of sufficient flexibility that it can talk about “me” and have that be interpreted by another organism.

    If you can read this, but you CAN’T reply to it, then you already know what all the talking parts of all the people are just beginning to figure out among themselves. You’ve got read access but not write access. Maybe you feel a bit like those Innies.