In Severance, Ben Stiller’s TV series directorial debut and sleeper hit of 2022, work-life is entirely separate from home life. The titular procedure creates a division between the two consciousnesses, leading to an “innie”, who is all work and no play, and an “outie”, which is the opposite. If this is anyone’s worst nightmare, it’s Dunder Mifflin’s Michael Scott.
Looking at The Office in a post-Severance world, the workplace sitcom now looks more like a piece of propaganda for the millions doomed to mundane work than it does an affable comedy. As far as middle-management boss Michael is concerned, if not all the workers at Dunder Mifflin, the office isn’t just the office. It’s the place you met your wife, or your best friend, it’s where you make a new family, and you wouldn’t be the same without it.
If the overarching narrative of Severance hadn’t already shattered this illusion, the season finale goes the extra mile to pull down the curtain. After Helly R’s big reveal, the character walks around a conference displaying images of her time on the severed floor, also revealing the reason for Milchick’s sporadic office photography. It’s these images, all of which show the Helly R we know to be suicidal as perfectly happy in her severed office setting, that we stop questioning just what happens in the workplace, but how that is represented.
Effectively, the executives at Lumon have created their own in-universe version of The Office with Helly R’s documentary piece. Much like what we see in the offices of Dunder Mifflin, we are spared the negatives, the arguments, and fallout – or at least the ones that don’t have a quick fix – and all that comes across is a workspace that is as productive as it is banter enthused.
Stiller himself has commented on the overall similarities he found in Dan Erickson’s 2015 drafts for what would become Severance.
“To me, it was almost like he was playing with this familiar tone and comedic cadence in the dialogue of people who joke with each other and banter at the office. And yet there was this other layer to it, which was the question of ‘who are they, what are they doing, why are they there?’ And none of them even knew that. So, it had this surreal undertone.”
The surreal undertone Stiller is talking about is the core reason Severance works so well, it leads us to question the rhyme and reason of our own work, and especially our own work self. However, what the writers might not have imagined was how Severance frames the severed experience not just in the context of the show, but also how The Office and other workplace comedies continue to frame the world of work.
There is, surprisingly, one thing in common behind the driving factors of the two sets of workers in The Office and Severance that is rarely discussed in either: wages. What was once considered the primary factor behind taking a role is almost entirely absent from both shows, especially Stiller’s thriller, and its absence leads you to question ever further ‘what exactly it is keeping the macro-data refinement employees returning to the office?’
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With the real world tending to rely on capitalist traditions like the romanticised concept of “hard graft”, promotion, or bonuses to create dependable workers, Severance brings the analogy of corporations as cult-like organisations into the foreground with the writings of Keir.
In each office on the severed floor, there is a book-bound collection of commandments from Keir, banning sleeping in the workplace, any kind of co-worker fraternization, as well as other sins that would land the workers of Dunder Mifflin in hot water before 9:05.
While you can hardly compare the specifics of the cult of Keir and the Dunder Mifflin workplace family, the inclusion of both shows that the writers are aware that the modern worker feels there is some need for meaning in their labour, and that in many cases this comes above financial gain. Lumon, and Keir’s followers, are just not taking the chance for that meaning to appear organically.
There is no Lumon worker for who this is more obvious than Dylan, and it’s through his change that Stiller and Erickson elaborate their scepticism towards the idea of commitment to workplace ideals, as well as the concept of workplace family. We’re introduced to Dylan in episode one as a perk loving jobsworth with a solid sense of detachment from his work, and more importantly his outie.
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By the season finale, Dylan is a distinctly different character. This is in part due to an overarching mood shift in the office, but the change really comes into fruition in episode eight, when Milchick wakes Dylan up in his home for a few seconds, only for the worker’s infant son to burst into the room looking for his father.
From this moment on, the chase-the-dragon search for meaning that the office presents him with is no longer a temptation, or a driving force, now that he knows he has a concrete purpose. With this knowledge, he’s no longer happy enough to claim his perks and get on with the job at hand, as he knows he is missing out on something truly meaningful, and something that his job is keeping him away from in both a mental and physical sense.
Ironically, it’s learning he has a real family that brings Dylan closer to his colleagues, all of whom at this point are willing to go against the word of Keir. This is a final, more subtle comment on the idea of a workplace family from Stiller and Erickson. While a corporation might try and artificially bond their workers through office parties and melon breaks, history shows that humans have always acted with more urgency when they’re united by something real or organic.
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This is the real discerning point between The Office and Severance. While Gervais’ comedy positions the office as a sort of escape from real life, take for instance Meredith’s aversion to parenthood, Severance points out the half of your life you sacrifice for the quality of the other half.
What Stiller’s dark comedy shows us is that watching The Office is in a sense its own form of severance. When you’re watching Jim carefully construct a jelly prison for Dwight’s stapler, or Michael trying to find a way around dating his boss, you’re deconditioning yourself from the real world of work, and what happens when you’re there.
In Severance, however, the painful truth about mundane work and capitalist systems of control is laid bare, as is the faceless beast that enables them, and no amount of pancake dinners can make that any easier to swallow.
You can now watch Severance on the streaming service Apple TV Plus. For office antics here is our guide to Severance season 2.