In 1995, political scientist Robert D. Putnam proposed a compelling theory: civic life in America was on the decline. Americans, Putnam argued in “Bowling Alone,” were less engaged with their communities and their country. We were voting less often, going to fewer public meetings, and even joining fewer bowling leagues, preferring instead to go bowling alone (a phenomenon Putnam used as the title for his essay, and eventual book, on this topic).
Although Putnam’s theory faced some pushback — and, it should be noted, was probably relying heavily on a white male definition of civic engagement to make his case — it’s hard to deny that, 27 years after “Bowling Alone,” its core argument still feels very true. On the national level, our political landscape is incredibly polarized, unable to achieve basic bipartisan consensus around critical issues like renewing pandemic funding while we’re still in a pandemic. Individually, many of us are locked into our own bubbles of pop culture, political viewpoints, and even interpretations of basic tenets of reality. On top of all that, the coronavirus pandemic has been shadowed by a secondary pandemic of loneliness, with many Americans isolated, depressed, and suicidal.
It’s into that landscape that the new thriller Severance has dropped (fittingly, on Apple TV Plus, a streaming service that’s helped contribute to the further fracturing of our collective culture into infinite niches). Though it’s primarily been discussed as a commentary on the ways that corporations exploit workers, using the language of family and company mythology to trap employees in a cult-like environment, writer Dan Erickson’s series can also be read as a deeper commentary on modern isolation itself. The severance procedure that literally bisects a group of Lumon employees into “innies” and “outies” may be the most obvious and striking example of isolation with Severance. But it’s hardly the only one. Throughout the show, everyone seems to be a little bit severed — from friends, from family, from community, even from history.
Take our protagonist, Mark Scout (Adam Scott). As a severed Lumon employee, he’s obviously cut off from his work self, Mark S. But his alienation doesn’t end there. Outside of work, Mark’s generally disconnected as well. He lives alone in Lumon employee housing, where his only neighbor is Ms. Selvig (who, unbeknownst to him, is also his Lumon boss, Harmony Cobel — more on her in a second). His social circle consists almost exclusively of his sister, Devon, and her husband Rickon, who seem to be his only connection to other people. Mark’s romantic interest? Devon’s doula. His big night out? A gathering with Rickon’s friends. When an unsevered Petey shows up on his doorstep, he’s the closest we’ve seen to Mark having an actual friend of his own.
Unsurprisingly, Petey also seems cut off from his own life. Though the details we have about him are scarce, we know that he’s divorced and estranged from his daughter, and likely everyone else in his life. Why else would he wind up utterly alone in his moment of crisis, with no one to turn to save a man who doesn’t even know that they’re friends?
But it’s not just the severed workers who can’t seem to connect with others. Mark’s boss, Harmony Cobel, may not have gone through the severance procedure, but she’s as fused to Lumon as any of the workers she supervises. Even when she’s off the clock, she still worships at the altar of Lumon (quite literally, as the opening scene of episode 6 makes clear). She may use two different names, but they both serve the same purpose, enabling her single-minded mission to serve Lumon at all times: As Ms. Selvig, she seems more interested in surveilling Mark than connecting with friends or family or exploring hobbies. She watches him come and go, steals his packages, and even spies on his sister by pretending to be a lactation consultant. Lumon seems to be the closest thing Harmony has to a life — and even there, she’s not fully integrated into a community. Notably, her reconnaissance work often seems to occur without the knowledge or approval of her coworkers.
Unlike the Lumon severeds, who have no say in their creation and no meaningful control over their lives — as Helly is harshly reminded after a suicide attempt, she’s not a real person — Harmony is choosing to fuse herself with Lumon, to render her personal life indistinguishable from her professional life. Financial necessity and personal crises may have thrust Mark and his colleagues into their severed states, but at least one of their bosses has opted into a form of isolation all on her own.
And then there are the characters who exist in the world outside of Lumon. Mark’s sister Devon may feel uncomfortable with his severance, but she’s nevertheless isolated in her own way. She gives birth to her kid in a remote cabin, where she winds up so desperate for connection with other pregnant women that she hits up a total stranger for coffee. When she later runs into that woman at the park, she’s shocked to discover their mid-labor moment of bonding didn’t create any lasting connection; her fellow pregnant retreat attendee seems to have been severed during her experience of labor, a detail reminiscent of the early 20th-century practice of “twilight sleep,” in which pregnant women’s “painless” childbirth actually turned out to be a horrifying birth experience that a mixture of morphine and scopolamine erased from the memory banks.
Perhaps most striking is this: while the innies have a deep and rich knowledge of the history (or at least mythology) of Lumon and the Eagan family, outside of Lumon, awareness of world history seems minimal at best. At Rickon’s party, Mark is the only guest with a basic grasp on the details of World War I — even the fact that it couldn’t be the first world war without a second world war eludes the other guests.
On the Lumon severed floor, it makes sense that there’s no awareness of non-Lumon history — that Dylan muses about the outside world being a post-apocalyptic hellscape that Lumon is a refuge from — because that ignorance is one more facet of Lumon’s control over its severed workers, the same way isolating departments from one another and seeding rumors about vicious internal warfare helps keep employees in check and under the power of their management. But what explains this general ignorance in the population at large? Rickons’ friends might not have a severance chip in their heads, but it’s clear that on some level, they’re no more grounded or aware than any of the Lumon innies.
Severance is full of striking images of sci-fi horror, like the Break Room, the baffling tasks assigned to the workers in Metadata Refining and Optics & Design, and, of course, the department seemingly dedicated to raising baby goats. But it’s the more mundane moments — Devon in the birthing cabin, Mark at home in his eerily empty neighborhood, Harmony unable to separate from work — that are the most chilling, perhaps because they feel the most real. We may not have the technology to mentally separate our work selves and home selves into two different people. But we don’t need that tech to achieve the terrifying loneliness that’s at the heart of Severance.