Severed

If you haven’t seen Severance yet (the TV series, not the movie), you just have to, especially if (like me) you’re perennially struggling with work-life balance.

I won’t spoil yesterday’s season finale for you (nor, I hope, the series), but the basic premise is well-known: that we’re all someone different at work–only surgically so for the protagonists, who take on not merely work personas that are treated somewhat like children, but completely separate identities they have no recollection of being once they leave the office.

And in my particular case, having the season finale coincide with my taking some time off was… serendipitous, to say the least.

Why It’s Great

Part of my fascination with Severance stems from its timeliness.

Its premise, plot and visuals (love that classic office look, even down to the computers) make for fantastic counterpoint to what many of us (at least the “lucky” ones) are experiencing now–i.e., that work and personal life have been amalgamated upon the anvil of the pandemic, becoming an intense, almost overwhelmingly hard puzzle where it’s hard to disentangle your personal self from the arcane ceremonies of corprate life.

I also find it profoundly amusing that Apple, of all companies obsessed with secrecy, would be the ones streaming it (yes, it’s on Apple TV+, and definitely worth the money), but that’s almost besides the point right now.

Let’s just say that as someone who’s always had a up on his blog, compartimentalizes his personal and work relationships and managed to keep work matters off the dinner table for decades, Severance can feel very real. Even down to the pointless hunt for moving digits in Excel… ahem “macrodata”.

Some of the brilliant things about Severance for me (there are more, but these five stick out to me in particular):

  • Slaving over apparently meaningless, obscure bits of information that only make sense at work, where ownership and understanding of such is crucial.
  • The dynastic corporate vibe and near-idolatry towards founder and Board.
  • The hardback corporate manuals filled with profane gospel and procedure, embodying the bazillion intranet pages in the real world.
  • Inter-departemental rivalries between vaguely understood, far-off teams turned to legend.
  • Optics and Design as internal marketing & communications, shaping people’s perceptions of their work environment.

…all of this wrapped in that amazing, classical, 60s/80s look that telegraphs to the viewer that the office setting is real in its very own way, while providing an almost asseptic, otherwordly framing for each character’s attempts at figuring out who they are both at work and at play.

Challenging Identity

As someone who’s been struggling with defining who I am over the past few years (am I a systems engineer? a cloud architect with an unusual bent towards both networking and data? a telco expert? a technology strategist, or merely an organizational anthropologist who just happened to be at the right place at arguably the right times to be cast into all of those roles?), Severance has struck a deep chord as I recalled several periods of exaustion, burnout and frustration at being stuck in an office doing meaningless, mindless work that might as well have happened to someone else given that during those periods I only felt myself when I was off the clock.

Like today.

And I think that’s where it grabs the viewer–by exploring that gap you cross when “going to work” and taking on entirely different frames of reference for what is expected, required, and even enjoyable (yes, faux office parties are sumblimely ridiculed, too), as well as taunting us with the idea that to those at work, life can be both meaningless and laced with blissful ignorance of what lies outside.

And then the masterfully written plot goes and flips it all on its head, requiring you to re-assess who is the whole person.

Considering that many (like myself) have never found it easy to do work they didn’t like, understand or found meaningful, and that offices are still being touted as havens of productivity (especially in these post-pandemic days, with many more people aware that working from home works), anything that explores these boundaries is… riveting, to say the least.

Unsevered?

I know what it’s like to need… compartimentalization between the various aspects of my work and personal life (so much so that I’ve started avoiding sitting in my home office during weekends for a year or so now), but Severance also makes me wonder if I wouldn’t want to have that kind of quick, painless self-erasure from work.

And I write this even knowing that, until fairly recently, I could never disconnect from it altogether. That is always hard for me, since I tend to work relentlessly when I find meaning in what I’m doing–which is seldom of late, but that’s another story.

Given the amount of times I’ve found myself struggling to focus on meaningless meetings and disconnect from work after long days of utterly pointless, completely unrewarding tasks that make no use whatsoever of my real skills but force me to maintain a sharp, “can do” work persona who might as well be looking at a screen for “scary” numbers and repeatedly gets tasked to deal with particularly nasty ones, well… Severance feels like a distillation of what my relationship with work could be like if taken to (perhaps not too distant) extremes.

Work/Life Balance, But Work

Like the pun goes, all the corporate proponents of work/life balance are still mentioning work first, and Severance (so far) is definitely casting the spectre of work dominating our lives in multiple ways.

I can’t wait for Season 2. Nor for such a time when I can actually be myself again.