Severance employs a visual style called retrofuturism, which lays the groundwork for the workplace comedy’s unique take on dystopian horror.
Warning: the following contains SPOILERS for Severance.
Severance tells a story about the effects of futuristic technology – yet Lumon Industries’ floor for severed employees, in which much of the story takes place, is fully outfitted with retro computers and design. The juxtaposition of retro design and advanced technologies that are yet to exist is a characteristic of retrofuturism, a creative movement that was born out of depictions of the distant future as imagined in earlier eras. Indeed, the mid-century look and feel of the severed floor is more than just an aesthetic choice. It serves to immerse the audience into the surreal and futuristic lives of the cast of Severance.
Severance is focused on Lumon Industries’ practice of bifurcating or splitting the memories of employees into two. The “innie” selves of severed employees work 9-5 within a retrofuturistic environment, complete with old school computers and mid-century interior design. Meanwhile, their “outies” have access to smartphones, the internet, and other modern accommodations. Despite this juxtaposition, Severance protagonist Mark Scout’s (Adam Scott) driver’s license shows that he was born in 1978 and that his license will expire in 2020, which means that the show is clearly set within the present.
Severance purposefully employs these visual cues in order to give viewers a glimpse into the confusing and sheltered lives of the severed as well as their place in modern society. The visual language of retrofuturism explores tensions between the past and the future, a comparison of the empowering and alienating effects of advanced technologies – perfect for tackling the effects of employees’ memories being split between their personal and professional lives. By using retrofuturism, Severance sets the ideal stage for a workplace comedy with a uniquely surreal horror spin. Even though the show is clearly set in the present, this helps to establish that the characters exist within a futuristic dystopian society, allowing Severance to more easily drive home its social commentary against the horrors of emerging hypercapitalism in the real world.
Within the reality of Severance, the design also serves a practical purpose. The mid-century aesthetics throughout the severed floor is meant to provide severed employees with a workplace that radiates warmth, comfort, and nostalgia. This makes it easier for severed employees to accept their new lives, the entirety of which will be spent within Lumon Industries’ basement. In short, the homely but minimalist mid-century look of the severed floor is yet another lie to cover up the real purpose of Lumon Industries – a way to discourage the severed from asking too many questions and just do what they’re told.
Indeed, there’s a good reason why severed employees are kept in the dark about the actual outcome of their jobs. As former severed employee Petey (Yul Vasquez) explains to Mark, working in Lumon Industries’ macrodata refinery department means “murdering people 8 hours a day” without even knowing it. In fact, apart from supporting the show’s retrofuturistic look, Lumon’s retro computers are also single-purpose machines that seem impervious to conventional hacking methods – a practical deterrent against both curious employees and corporate spies.
Severance, through Lumon Industries, shares this retrofuturistic, space age 1950s aesthetic with Loki‘s Time Variance Authority, the Fallout series’ Vault-Tec Corporation, and many other fictional institutions that hide sinister purposes behind friendly, colorful branding. These aesthetics also serve as a callback to the only other story with a comparable memory-based concept: Paycheck, a short story that Philip K. Dick published in 1953. In Paycheck, an engineer agrees to work on a secret project for 2 years, after which his memory of the project will be erased, and he’ll receive an inordinate salary. Although Severance wasn’t directly inspired by Paycheck, the series’ visual language and narrative are fitting tributes to Philip K. Dick’s early work.
Severance releases new episodes Fridays on Apple TV+.
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