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    Who Are You?

    The show Severance investigates the relation of memory, identity, and selfhood, asking some of the same questions Augustine poses in his Confessions.

    By C. W. Howell

    September 26, 2023

    The screen is still black when the question that frames Severance is posed: “Who are you?”

    A woman with vibrant red hair is lying unconscious on a conference table, and Adam Scott’s disembodied voice interrogates her about her memory. The woman, who we later come to learn is Helly R. (played by Britt Lower), grows increasingly distressed as she realizes she cannot answer any of the questions addressed to her. She does not know her name, she does not know the state in which she was born, she does not know the color of her mother’s eyes. “What did you do to me?” she asks.

    Helly has been severed. This is the premise for AppleTV’s award-winning show Severance (2022–). Following a procedure, her memory was spatially separated – while at work, she cannot access memories of her life at home; outside the office, she cannot recall what she did at work. This, in effect, makes her one body with two selves. The drama of the show revolves around Helly and her coworkers Mark (Adam Scott, in the lead role), Dylan (Zach Cherry), and Irving (John Turturro) as they slowly try to unravel the mysteries behind Lumon, the enigmatic corporation for which they toil. Parallel to this is a separate plotline of Mark’s “outie” as he struggles through his life outside work, growing more curious about the same questions. At times funny, and often satirical, Severance is at bottom a nerve-wracking psychological thriller with an empathetic heart, investigating the relation of memory, identity, and selfhood.

    When I first watched the show, I had been reading through Augustine’s Confessions. The question posed to Helly at the outset of the show is the same one Augustine posed himself. Gazing upon his reflection, he struggles to know himself but can only do so through a glass, darkly. “Then toward myself I turned,” he writes in Book X, “and asked myself, ‘Who are you?’”

    Augustine, too, felt as though he had two selves: his baptized, saved self, and his pre-baptismal self. His memories of both are central to his sense of himself, but his habits and the memories of his past interfere with his present. It is a high price we pay to have memory, he writes in Confessions, for we end with the burden of habit. One’s sins are washed away, but one’s memories of them are not. As the slogan on the wall reads in Lumon’s Perpetuity Wing, “The remembered man does not decay.”

    two people looking out of a large picture window

    Jen Tullock and Adam Scott in Severance TV Series. Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.

    Augustine’s two selves meant that he had two desires. There was the part of him that desired to follow God, and the part that wanted not to. A fallen soul is one that loses its identity, and – in Augustine biographer Peter Brown’s phrasing – becomes “a partial thing, isolated, full of cares, intent upon the fragment, severed from the whole.” This is an apt description of the situation in which the severed characters of Severance find themselves. Each two selves, severed from the whole.

    The show’s plot is kickstarted by Helly’s arrival. She has replaced Mark’s best friend, Petey, who has been abruptly fired under ambiguous circumstances, and at the end of the first episode we discover that Petey has “reintegrated.” His two selves have become whole – but at great cost. When Mark’s outie encounters him, Petey says, with Augustinian overtones, “It’s like having two different lives suddenly stitched together … and with two pasts, it blurs the present, too.”

    What is unusual about Severance is how little of the mystery it unravels – the bread-crumb trail of clues manages to keep the viewer hooked, despite giving away very little about the company, what work it does, why its workers need to be severed to do it, and who Mark’s coworkers are “outside.” With the exception of Mark, the viewer exists in the world the “innies” do, without context, without purpose beyond what the company provides them. “It’s an unnatural state for a person to have no history, history makes us someone, gives us a context,” says Irving, the true believer in Lumon’s mission. Helly may not remember her history, but upon awakening inside Lumon, she is “part of a history now.”

    As many corporations do, Lumon puffs up its workers with obnoxious and faux-sincere language about family, meaning, and happiness. When her Lumon coworkers first meet Helly, they do an introductory game by telling facts about themselves – though it becomes apparent they know so little about themselves they don’t have much to relate. When questioned about Petey’s disappearance, their overbearing manager, Mr. Milchick, tells them that Lumon is free of death, and that “things like deaths happen outside of here.” Lumon is a safe place, a place only with porcelain smiles and the eternal present of workers without history. “Say ‘Gratitude!’” orders Milchick as he takes their first group photo.

    “It would be a worse hell because we wouldn’t realize we were there, we would imagine that we were still in heaven.”

    So deep must be the devotion to Lumon that a pseudo-religion has been erected around its founding CEO, Kier Egan, and his descendants. Egan himself comes across as a mixture of Andrew Carnegie and a revivalist minister. The Handbook, which covers the rules, regulations, and apparently spiritual priorities of Lumon workers, both looks and functions as a Bible. Kitschy paintings that resemble American evangelical art are hung throughout the offices. Without memory, the characters have no choice but to submit fully to this alternate religion. Memory, as Augustine reminds us, is where we come to meet ourselves, and in our understanding of the past we can plan for the future. But without that past – with only an eternal, immortal present – no future other than Lumon’s can be imagined. The workers trudge along, putting “scary numbers” into bins for reasons they do not understand, and are incentivized with silly perks: finger traps, caricatures, or, in what has now entered the popular lexicon, “waffle parties.”

    Lewis Mumford, the great historian of technology, observes that the psychological makeup of American work life is a pretend heaven. “Reward them, make them do exactly what you want them to without the whip,” says Mumford in an interview on the megamachine, his concept of global technics. In a corporate setting, one could manipulate people into thinking “they were actually enjoying every moment of it. This is the most dangerous of all systems of compulsion.” Such a system would actually be hell, “and it would be a worse hell because we wouldn’t realize we were there, we would imagine that we were still in heaven.” Lumon, for all its pretense of religious meaning and heavenly rescue from death, is in fact this hell.

    “[My mother] used to say that there was good news and bad news about hell,” relates Harmony Cobel (played by Patricia Arquette), the main villain and omnipresent spy on Mark and company. “The good news is hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.” Fittingly, the title of the first episode is “Good News About Hell.”

    This hell appears to be self-chosen, self-willed. Each character’s outie, after all, chose to take severed jobs. Mark took his job because the death of his wife rendered him incapable of continuing his former career as a history professor, and so he opts to therapeutically delete eight hours of his conscious life each day. The innies, when they begin work, are shown a video of their outie declaring their interest in severance and that they “make these statements freely.”

    The show repeatedly raises the question whether one can be a prisoner of one’s past choices. When Petey, newly reintegrated, confronts Mark’s outie, he says, “I used to think it would take a monster to put someone in a place like that office, especially if the person was himself.” When outie Mark encounters the “whole brain collective,” a group of people protesting Lumon, he lampoons their desire to “save people from their own choices.” What about those who do it willingly? Mark asks facetiously, “I heard that some of them are so deluded, they don’t even know they’re victims – I also heard that if you’re severed, you go to two separate hells. Is that true?” As the confrontation gets tenser, Mark incredulously asks, “So people can just self-imprison?”

    It would appear, at least at first, that this view of hell follows C. S. Lewis’s meditation in The Problem of Pain – that is, hell is self-chosen. In The Great Divorce, Lewis famously writes that there are two types of people: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” In the end, the “gates of hell are locked from the inside.” The psychological degradation of sin and rebellion leaves one incapable of leaving, even if it were possible. This view has garnered support for decades, especially with those made uncomfortable by the biblical and medieval imagery of God casting people into fire. But it’s not the view Severance takes. In fact, the show goes the opposite direction. 

    While at first the characters are relatively content with their lot – “there’s a life to be had here,” Mark tells Helly when she first arrives – they start to change. First is Helly, who begins chafing against her imprisonment right away. She concocts several plots to escape, and at one point when she seems able to finally leave, she declares to her colleagues, “Guess this is the part where I should tell you to ‘go to hell,’ except you’re already here.” Though each of her plans are foiled, her influence eventually bleeds over into the other characters. By the end of the season, each one – even the true believer, Irving – are desperate for an escape. Refined in the illuminating fire (Lumon perhaps an intentional name here), with the habits and foibles and iniquities of their past selves burned off by the severance procedure, the characters are reborn, desiring salvation.

    There is a moral order to creation, in the show, and an obligation to the created. As Mark’s innie comes to desire freedom, his outie is confronted with his role in creating another self. His innie was “brought … into this world without his permission,” one character challenges him. “Maybe he dreams every day about clawing his way to the surface.” Mark is browbeaten, and only sheepishly replies, “I’m not a bad person.…”

    Through this process, both Mark’s selves come to desire the same thing, and he moves toward wholeness. Augustine’s answer to the original question – “who are you?” – turns out to be “a man,” a union of body and soul in search of God. As Peter Brown writes, Augustine sees a human as a discordant self in search of concord (or perhaps reintegration?) and balanced wholeness. The split selves, the disintegrated selves, can be mended – though the transformation is a slow and agonizing process, made difficult by the presence of memory. But, asks Severance, if your memories – and the burdensome habits that come with them – were made ineffective…?

    It seems to me that the future seasons of Severance must hinge on reintegration. Losing memory to save oneself is not worth it if one ceases to be oneself. With each character two selves, our hopes for them, especially their innies, are that they will not be annihilated but rescued, redeemed, and reintegrated. Their salvation must be of their whole selves, for this is the hopeful destiny of humanity. As Augustine prays, “Gather all that I am, my whole disintegrated and deformed self … so you may reshape me to new form, new firmness, for eternity, O my God, my mercy.”

    Contributed By CWHowell C. W. Howell

    C. W. Howell is a writer and scholar based in North Carolina.

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