‘Severance,’ Philosophy, and What it Means to Be Human

In a world where you can achieve the ultimate work-life balance of splitting yourself in half, many questions are raised, including how we define what it means to be human.


Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Lead actor Adam Scott, who plays the character of Mark, speaks about the show during a Comic-Con convention.

When watching the television series ‘Severance,’ your first introduction to its world is a woman waking up on top of a table. As she becomes fully aware of her surroundings and begins to panic, she is as confused as we are, a recurring phenomenon throughout the show. 

Once she begins trying to break down the door, a voice begins to play over the intercom, asking Helly, the woman, to complete a survey consisting of questions like “What is your name?” and “Why are you here?” This is where both she and the audience realize that she has no idea. She has retained basic information about the world, such as the fact that Delaware is a state, but has to be told her name. 

She is also told that she has undergone severance, a procedure that drills a hole into your head and inserts a chip, separating your brain into your work self and outside-of-work self. These two halves are colloquially known as your ‘innie’ and ‘outie’ respectively within the show.

She eventually meets the other severed workers in the office, these being Mark S., Dylan G., and Irving B. All four of them are working for the company Lumon, which they know very little about. We also learn that the spot Helly is taking over was originally filled by Peter K., innie Mark’s best friend, who seemingly left out of nowhere. The mystery surrounding Peter is resolved when he meets Mark’s outie, who has no idea who he is. Peter explains that he works with innie Mark, and proceeds to tell him that he has received an illegal surgery that has seemingly done the impossible: his two severed halves have been reintegrated. 

While this is going on outside of the office, inside Helly is quickly shaking things up. Unlike the other members of Macro-Data Refinement (MDR), she is adamant about leaving. She hates her job, especially considering that she never gets the chance to leave the office, because leaving triggers her outie self. The innies are stuck in the office all day, with breaks being few and far between. Helly continually tries running out the door, only to be thrown right back in, as her outie keeps walking right back in the door. The only way for her to quit in accordance with company policy would be to send a letter to her outie and have her outie quit. Considering that her outie is entirely unaware of the miserable work conditions her innie is experiencing, this attempt inevitably fails. 

She then tries to write a note about how awful the office is and keeps it in her pocket so her outie will see it, but Mark informs her that the elevators are able to detect any writing she has with her. He then tells her of the various ways these messages would be removed from her body, including the “bad soap” and messages being extracted from the body by one of their bosses, Milchick. 

However, Helly’s rebellious spirit continues, and when in the Perpetuity Wing — a monument dedicated to Lumon’s founder that is almost religious in its level of worship — she sees the perfect opportunity to escape. She is caught once more, but this time, there are real consequences, and she is taken to the break room. We do not see what happens, but when she comes back, it is clear that her spirit has been broken. 

Meanwhile, outie Mark is experiencing his own problems, as Peter has died from reintegration surgery. He goes to the funeral and meets Peter’s daughter, who bluntly asks Mark why a person would ever want to undergo the severance procedure. At this point, we have learned that Mark lost his wife, and underwent this procedure to get a few hours of reprieve from his grief every day. 

As the show continues, the rebelliousness that Helly brought to the office begins to rub off on her co-workers, with Mark even directly violating company orders by continuing to visit other severed departments when he was explicitly told not to. All four begin to question the company they are working for, and desire to take it down from the inside. The season ends on not one but several cliffhangers, leaving fans desperate for a second season. 

‘Severance’ can be analyzed through a variety of lenses, including a philosophical one. The very idea of having two versions of yourself is a scenario that has been explored in many thought experiments. One of the most well-known ones is that you are going to Mars, and need to decide how you will get there. You can choose the more expensive option, which is to send your current self to Mars. Or, you can choose the cheaper option, which is that you will be cloned, your consciousness will be copied and placed into this clone, and the clone will be sent to Mars. The idea is supposed to be that if you see yourself as being your consciousness, then you will have no problem choosing the cheaper option. But if you see yourself as being your physical body, then you would choose the more expensive option. 

The question of what defines our identity is explored throughout ‘Severance.’ Considering that the innies and outies come from the same body, are they the same person? Or, are they two separate people because they have lived entirely different experiences and do not share any memories? The show does not answer this question, allowing the audience to have its own takeaway. The dilemma is referenced, such as when Mark’s innie meets his sister, who awkwardly says, “He lost his wife. You lost your wife.” 

On this topic, Chase Teichholz ’24 said, “The dilemma comes when we understand that the innie is only real when the outie deems it best. There is a reliance that makes the innie really just a part of the outie. However, for the innie, the workplace is a prison, and thus, they feel entirely disconnected from the outie.” 

This question has been explored by philosophers such as John Locke for centuries. Locke viewed personal identity as being based on our consciousness, or in other words, our memories. He believed that the body had nothing to do with the matter of the self. 

We can also find real-world parallels to being severed. The most obvious one is Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID. This disorder is caused by a trauma that impacted a person when they were so young their personality was not fully formed, resulting in several distinct personalities forming, otherwise known as alters. These alters have very different personalities, experiences, and names. By definition, they would be distinct people. Considering that being severed also leads to you having two alters that have separate experiences, would that not mean they are also two separate people?

It is not that simple. While in DID, if one alter has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, the other alters would not necessarily have the same disorder. However, with severance, if the outie has ADHD, then so would the innie, because their brains would function the same exact way.  

The real-world connections do not end there, however. Established tech figure Elon Musk has plans to sew machines into his workers’ brains through his company Neuralink. Musk has invested over $100 million into the company, which would implant the machine into the workers’ brain, similar to how Lumon implants the severance chip. 

Musk claims that this procedure would have many potential health benefits, such as helping blind people to see in a limited capacity, but the main purpose is clear. By connecting workers’ brains to the computer, they would have access to everything on the internet, making them more efficient and effective workers. Even the fact that the surgery would be relatively painless is so the worker can return back to work immediately, similar to how the severed workers start work almost immediately after receiving the procedure. 

There are also many ethical questions raised by the very concept of severance. As an outie, you are forcing someone to do your job for you, and they do not even see any of the monetary benefits of the work they are doing. Severance also strips the innie of their consent, as the outie is the only person that agrees to this surgery, and the innie has no say in the matter. The innies also have no say in their future, as seen with Helly.

The pain some innies are forced to go through without their consent can be described as inhumane. For example, in the show it is alluded to that a woman Mark’s sister meets before she gives birth is severed specifically for the birthing process. Being severed for pregnancy means that the innie has no life outside of the excruciatingly painful experience of childbirth. Once it’s over, the child still does not belong to the innie, they belong to the outie. 

It is clear that many of the outies, or even entirely unsevered people, feel comfortable with what may seem like cruel acts because the innies are seen as less than human. This sentiment persists throughout the show, as seen when Helly’s outie sends a video message to her innie, saying, “I am a person. You are not.” This is in response to Helly’s innie attempting to harm herself when she is not being let out of work. 

The debate on whether they are the same person is further complicated by the fact that if innie Helly were to harm herself, outie Helly would also be harmed.  Even if they have different memories, they still possess the same body, and still have the same, basic, brain functioning.

Even so, many continue to believe that they are two different people. As Jayden Yurasits ’26 said, “… they are probably different people because memories make up who you are.” 

This point was expanded upon by Tammy Lam ’25, who said, “… I see the split as being two separate people. The procedure essentially strips the duality of having one singular, complex identity. The premise reminds me of the concept of id, ego, and superego — while these are very different aspects of one’s psyche, no one only uses one, and we need all three for balance. The procedure, however, abandons these intricacies.” 

We can also connect the severance procedure to the concept of our inner child. The inner child is a concept that arises from psychotherapy, and is the belief that all of us have a childlike aspect within our mind that still experiences life as a child. It is believed that by healing this inner child, we can move on from our childhood wounds. 

This relates to the severance procedure because the innie is, in many ways, a child. This is their first time experiencing the world, and they have a very limited understanding of their environment and complex emotions. Unlike their outie, they have not gone through major life events like getting married or having a child. In this respect, they could be viewed as the inner child of the outie, a younger, less experienced, and in some ways, more optimistic version. 

This is especially obvious when looking at the differences between Mark’s innie and outie. Mark’s outie has been jaded by life, especially after the death of his wife, and he is often found crying in his car or struggling to make friends. Mark’s innie, on the other hand, is chipper, especially at the beginning of the show, able to develop deep friendships with his coworkers, and  generally less hurt by life. It can be argued that, through the severance procedure, Mark was attempting to create an inner child who is entirely unaware of the traumas his outie experienced, allowing at least some version of himself to go several hours everyday without feeling an insurmountable grief. 

Perhaps the most obvious real-world connection in this show is the work-life balance. The core tenant of work-life balance is making sure your work life does not bleed into your personal life, and vice versa. This ensures that when you get home after a long day of work, you are able to actually spend time with friends and family without thinking about your job. This could be a potential reason people would opt-in for this procedure, because your work life and personal life are quite literally separated, so they would not conflict with each other. 

We can also connect the innies and outies to the way we change when we are at work versus at home. This change can be attributed to free-trait behavior, or acting out of character in order to accomplish something. Free-trait behavior is very common in the workplace, with many introverts being forced to behave as pseudo-extraverts for the sake of their career. Mark exemplifies this phenomenon, with outie Mark struggling with depression and spending most of his time alone, whereas innie Mark is a team player and is friendly with his coworkers. 

While all of the questions raised by the first season have yet to be answered, there is still hope, as a second season has been greenlit. When this second season will drop continues to be yet another unanswered question by this show. 

To watch ‘Severance’ on Apple TV (subscription required), click HERE.

On this topic, Chase Teichholz ’24 said, “The dilemma comes when we understand that the innie is only real when the outie deems it best. There is a reliance that makes the innie really just a part of the outie. However, for the innie, the workplace is a prison, and thus, they feel entirely disconnected from the outie.”