America has always fascinated me, whether I like to admit it or not. As a child of the 1990s, I grew up with all the clichés you can imagine and, above all, all the cultural references from the other side of the Atlantic: Friends and its vision of New York, the strange America of the X-Files, American sports with the NBA, blockbusters and so on. I knew this country without ever having set foot in it. And this feeling took on a whole new dimension when I traveled to California for the first time. Nothing was unfamiliar to me, I felt I knew this place, I knew what was behind every new street. The same feeling reappeared when I went to New Orleans, then New York, then Boston… you get the picture.
This fascination slowly faded with age and the turn Uncle Sam’s country was taking. My desire to live in the country where my imagination resided gradually faded. Over the past few years, through cultural discoveries and adult eyes, I’ve come to see another side of the American (non)dream. It’s far less glittering, less glamorous, and the glitter has been replaced by an ambient sense of despair, heavy with meaning. I’m discovering an America on the frontier of capitalism crushing former rural areas, of an ecological disaster crushing entire communities, I was putting my finger on the American liminality.
The American Dream doesn’t (make me) dream anymore, and we’re a long way from that spirit that everything is possible, as certain Westerns made us understand. The Red Dead Redemption saga is a precursory example of this in its own time: the ultimate freedom of the Wild West fades in the face of industrialization and modernism. This version of the American dream was murdered by the very settlers who believed in it. With the death of this dream, the West is no longer a place where impoverished workers can build farming communities; industrialization is closing in on the region. Even the settlements of Strawberry, Valentine and Emerald Ranch, all small communities with little industry, would soon become vessels for capitalist profit. The American Dream of the 1800s did exactly what it was supposed to do: give people a promise, make that promise tangible, then destroy it as soon as corporations could monetize it. This wasn’t just the case in the Wild West. The American dream of the nuclear family living in the suburbs after World War II comforted white Americans, while the evils of racism continued to fester and attack the heart of civilization.
The post-Cold War American dream was exported around the world. The dream of liberal democracy and reigning neoliberal capitalism was the height of idealism for many young people who had only known authoritarianism. Most of the former Soviet republics were democratic in the early 1990s. Many of them sank into kleptocracy, despotism and corruption shortly after the first ballots were cast. Sham elections, drastically reduced life expectancy and oligarchy became the norm. Russians today have less freedom than they had in many eras of the Soviet Union. These young idealists have seen the American dream disappear before it has even begun. Meanwhile, in the U.S., corporate profits have soared thanks to pressure to adopt free-trade policies such as NAFTA. Unionized jobs evaporated overnight, whole towns were laid off, while sweatshops opened overseas. Clinton-era policies gutted welfare, criminalized poverty and created predatory organizations like the WTO. It wasn’t the end of history, but the recycling of authority.
In the midst of eternal warfare, a loaded gun was fired at the heart of the modern American dream. The goal of going to college, getting a degree, buying a house and living a life better than your parents’ came to a screeching halt. The housing market collapsed, millions of honest, hard-working Americans found themselves without jobs or homes, all because of corporate greed. Instead of being jailed, Wall Street bankers were bailed out. Many of these same banks are now making record profits. This same crush runs through the work of David Lynch, independent games such as Norco and Kentucky Route Zero, and the Severance series. These are portraits of characters trying to find their place in an America that no longer recognizes them. It’s in this sense that Twin Peaks, Lynch and Mark Frost’s flagship series, perfectly captured this liminal space, between rural surroundings and rampant capitalism.
America created and told by David Lynch
“There’s a sort of evil out there”Sheriff Truman (Twin Peaks)
This phrase lies at the heart of David Lynch’s work, which reflects the dark, disquieting and often bizarre underbelly of American culture, a culture that is increasingly coming out of the shadows today. The filmmaker’s filmography unfolds in a Lynchian version of the here and now, where time is non-linear and past and future constantly encroach on the present. And, of course, where the 1950s never really ended.
A particular kind of nostalgia for this period hangs over Lynch’s work, as well as its reception. Anyone who lived through the Twin Peaks craze of 1990 will never forget the series’ hypnotic, fetishistic appeal, which influenced the way people dressed and talked, and even what they ate and drank. For all its quirks, the series resonated in part thanks to our fascination with the “fantasy decade” that preceded it. By blending this nostalgic aura with his more new age influences (often expressed by Angelo Badalamenti’s score), Lynch sometimes seemed to have created an idealized world, one in which many of us wish we could live. And along the way, he became something of an icon. Millions of people have never seen a David Lynch film, but immediately know what the word “Lynchian” means.
But what about rape and murder, incest, kidnapping and arson? Beneath Twin Peaks‘ quaint 1950s exterior lie some of the most horrific acts ever seen on television. But the nostalgic indulgences of the original series don’t work in spite of the horrors, they work because of them. Terror and nostalgia are locked in a mutually dependent and parasitic embrace: the madness of Twin Peaks feeds on the repression and carefree atmosphere of its surroundings. In return, this atmosphere allows us to escape the darker aspects of the series. Don’t worry about the terrifying things that happen at night in the woods, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost seem to be saying. You’re just one commercial break away from Sherilyn Fenn and her saddle shoes strutting under the sun in the Double R Diner.
Nostalgia is back in the air, but with a renewed, all-consuming toxicity. In an essay written for the Guardian, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid links different currents across the planet. In entertainment, he explores the obsession with series like Mad Men and Game of Thrones; in technology, he evokes digital flashbacks and the imagined idealized pasts of Facebook memories and Instagram filters. And in politics, there’s Brexit, US elections, nationalist movements around the world and, yes, groups like ISIS, all of which depend on flashbacks to glorious, imagined pasts as a remedy for the fragmentation and anxiety of the present.
Is it nostalgia, born of fear, uncertainty and a longing for simpler times, that has drawn audiences to Twin Peaks, then and now, and that makes Lynch a source of continuing fascination, even for people who haven’t seen his work? Perhaps, but remember that he’s been a constant presence in our culture for decades; he was a recognizable figure long before the Twin Peaks phenomenon, his sensibility connecting with both the ironic, artistic ethos of the 1980s independent music and film scene and the sunny “Morning in America” message of the Reagan era. But it’s weird: Lynch probably has more failures than successes on his CV, and his successes are generally modest. In recent decades, his vitality as a public figure seems only marginally linked to the critical or financial success of his productions.
Throughout his work, Lynch blends the textures of nostalgia with the transgressions of horror, helping us to transcend both. Twin Peaks contrasts are also present in Blue Velvet (1986), with its small-town setting of white picket fences and good-natured atmosphere, pierced by the presence of unspeakable evil. The threat intensifies and becomes even more overwhelming in subsequent films: Mulholland Drive (2001) moves swiftly from an aggressive, picturesque start to a nightmare of fractured identity and omnipresent gloom. The much-maligned Lost Highway (1997), which J. Hoberman called “a bad-boy rockabilly debacle”, starts dark and gets even darker; its borrowings from the past are already steeped in betrayal and decay by the time the film begins. And if Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive had a child secretly in love, and that child had a nightmare, it might look something like Inland Empire (2006).
Lynch helps us to understand people and the forces that dominate us. The director isn’t particularly politicized (though he sometimes gets involved in odd ways, as when he got involved in the presidential campaign of fellow Transcendental Meditator and Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin), but we sometimes wonder if our age of demagogues isn’t a geopolitical variation on one of his films. In many of Lynch’s films lurks a central figure of pure evil: think of Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, Robert Blake’s hideously smiling Mystery Man in Lost Highway, the dark spirit BOB in Twin Peaks, or the terrifying hobo behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive.
But these figures are not external demons. Twin Peaks constantly questions the reality of BOB. Could he just be a channel for people to spiritually absolve themselves of their own murderous deeds? “You invited me,” says Lost Highway’s mystery man, “it’s not my habit to go where I’m not wanted.” He is, in fact, the main character’s jealousy and rage coming to the fore. In other words, evil comes from within. It comes from within us. Perhaps this is why Lynch’s works, for all their retrospective reverie, never end with us wanting to continue living in these environments. They end with us exhausted, anguished, screaming to get out. They end with us waking up from the nightmare and the dream.
This vision of America, rooted in both the past and the present, continues to influence a whole range of creators. Again, without ever having seen one of his films, we know what “Lynchian” means. Today, the notion conjures up concepts of horror, liminality and a very particular geography. Lynch’s filmography (with the exception of Dune) takes place in a liminal version of the United States: on the border between wide-open spaces and disembodied industrialization, excessive economic liberalism and a forgotten naturalistic freedom. This vision can be found in a number of video games that have had a major impact on those who have touched them.
Norco is a multi-headed creature, a narrative hydra of place, person, nostalgia and spirituality. Remind you of someone’s cinema? But to start with the basics, this is a real-life Louisiana town named after the New Orleans Refining Company, but above all a monumental work of psychogeographical storytelling.
Conceived by a small collective, Geography of Robots, the game quickly gained an online following for its graphics, which evoke a Louisiana of the near future in twilight tableaux: an android with a cap on the hood of a pickup truck, elevated highways crossing ancient swamps, refinery smokestacks standing out against an emerald sky. The moody style is reminiscent of a gothic, southern Blade Runner. Underlying its attraction is a question specific to the climatic grief of our time: what does it mean to love a landscape that is organizing its own demise?
The game begins with a melancholy homecoming. The player-character, a young woman named Kay, has returned to the eponymous town after years on the road, fighting militias and camping out in deserted nuclear shelters across an increasingly lawless United States. She has arrived to settle the affairs of her deceased mother, a researcher investigating illegal construction near a nearby lake, and to find her unstable brother, who has vanished into thin air. The search extends from closed curio stores to abandoned shopping malls and overgrown developments, gradually revealing a delirious conspiracy involving crypto-currencies, an app-based cult and a sinister convergence between the oil industry and the legacy of another era. One of the most spectacular scenes takes place during a masked ball in a plantation house, hidden away on the grounds of the android-controlled Shield oil refinery, as if David Lynch had wanted to direct his version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in Louisiana.
As surreal as it sounds, the story isn’t entirely so. Norco is a remarkable portrait of an equally bewitching place. Its namesake is a community twenty miles upriver from New Orleans, where suburban ranches nestle beneath an Oz-like petrochemical complex. On the city’s western border is the Bonnet Carré Spillway, a pharaonic flood-control structure with over 300 bays, which, in an emergency, diverts water from the Mississippi into Lake Pontchartrain. The waterfront was once divided into sugar and cotton plantations, some of which later served as offices or executive residences for oil companies. Today, Shell reigns supreme over the region, with sleek advertisements testifying to its lordly benevolence (“Creative Energy: The Rhythm of Louisiana”) all over town.
This reality, this ecological and ideological disaster, is as much at the heart of Norco’s story as it is its setting. We find the themes of David Lynch’s America: a suburb as reassuring as it is depressing, an ambient surrealism strangely acceptable, a terrible industrialization… We’re not talking about Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks or Eraserhead, but Norco. While the game doesn’t directly claim this affiliation, we can clearly see how it fits into a certain representation of the United States. The bright nostalgia of the post-war ’50s is there only to be scratched by the imprint of capitalism and industrialization. The inhabitants of this semi-fictional town live in the shadow of the industry that is destroying them, occupying what natural spaces they have left and sinking into a nostalgia tinged with surrealism.
Norco‘s first scene creates an atmosphere of intimate suburban gloom. The player awakens to the debris of Kay’s nursery and his mother’s interrupted life. Moving from room to room, object to object, we piece together a biography from fragments of exposure: the missing brother’s comments on a forum for local outdoor enthusiasts, her mother’s pain pills, remnants of a cancer treatment, and shelves of local history. The excerpts, which cover topics as varied as hurricanes and the oil industry’s efforts to drive out the neighbors, testify to the exceptional quality of the game’s writing. In Kay’s bedroom, a magazine criticizes the region’s “ruin porn” (“Proto-disaster tourism began as soon as the floodwaters receded”) and suggests the adolescence of a book-loving punk.
Adventure games, from Zork to Myst, tell stories through hands-on investigation. Norco uses the conventions of the genre to recreate the experience of mourning, skilfully adapting the mechanics of exploration to the examination of the traces left behind by a loved one. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard writes that “the house where we were born is physically inscribed in us”, a profound sentiment that Norco conveys with understated force. “Your mother spent her whole life researching this city,” Million, the family android, explains to the player in her garden. “She knew stories that others have forgotten.”
Kay and Million travel around Norco on motorcycles, looking for anyone who might know about the mother’s research or the brother’s whereabouts. The soundtrack, a lo-fi arrangement of nocturnal synthesizers by composer Gewgawly I, could sound like hypnotic highway music. Domestic scenes give way to dingy stores, aimless children on street corners and a horse drinking contaminated Mississippi water. Every other time, the refinery stretches to the horizon, usually against the backdrop of a steamy sunset. It’s landscapes like these, widely shared on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter, that have earned Norco a following and, in 2020, a contract with Swedish independent publisher Raw Fury. The art has resonated not only with viewers in Louisiana, but around the world, wherever “home” is a quiet place in the shadow of zombie infrastructure on a dying planet.
Norco joins a growing school of eco-critical art. Examples include Edward Burtynsky‘s perversely mesmerizing aerial shots of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Patrick Nagatani‘s surreal collages of nuclear infrastructure in the New Mexico desert, and Olalekan Jeyifous‘s installation The Frozen Neighborhoods, which envisions Crown Heights in a “green” future stratified by differentiated access to transportation. It also echoes an older tradition of reading omens into the landscape, from the Romantics who chronicled the Industrial Revolution to the Hudson River School.
The games, however, may have a singular kinship with our contemporary ruins, beginning as they so often do in dungeons, abandoned space stations, ships and deserted cities. This representation of an America in perdition, of a shattered American dream, is increasingly present on the independent video game scene. Norco could not have existed in the early 2000s. It is the fruit of its time, made possible by tools like Unity, the emergence of participatory funding platforms and the renaissance of the independent games community. What all these factors have in common is that they reflect a need to move away from dependence on large, overwhelming monopolistic institutions and return to something independent, with strong messages. Perhaps Norco‘s greatest impact as a game (and interactive artwork) is its place in a small but vital group of narrative hyperlocal point-and-click games that focus on the material world: the class, social and economic issues that define distinct regions and industries across the United States. This began to look like a trend with Night in the Woods, which came out in 2017, and peaked around 2020 with the final acts of Kentucky Route Zero.
When society abandons us
In one of Kentucky Route Zero‘s four “interludes”, you’re plunged into the heart of “The Entertainment“, a four-act play, all from a first-person perspective. Your options are varied: you can explore the theater at your leisure, leaf through production notes, decipher sound and light cues, and revel in enthusiastic audience reviews. However, one crucial detail deserves your attention: the action comes to a screeching halt if you look away from the actors on stage as they recite their lines. This play within a play tells a fascinating story, as it is the result of an unusual fusion of two separate works by renowned local playwright Lem Doolittle. You witness the joint performance of A Reckoning and A Bar-Fly, two formerly autonomous plays now running simultaneously. Curiously, during this interlude, you slip into the role of the famous bar fly who plays the lead in the second play, transforming what was initially a solitary mime into a shared stage ensemble. The event gives rise to a unique artistic experience, in which the two pieces coexist without ever fully integrating or remaining truly autonomous. One could say that they evolve in a blurred zone, offering spectators an unprecedented theatrical experience.
“A gripping, if unfocused drama”, as one enthusiastic reviewer describes it.
Like this play, Kentucky Route Zero is divided into acts. This seemingly simple narrative structure transcends the notion of a single-objective game. Initially, we follow driver Conway as he strives to complete his latest delivery for a doomed store, giving the impression of witnessing an end in itself. However, at the game’s close, where the sun rises over a town hit by a devastating storm, we feel more like a rebirth, a new beginning. Kentucky Route Zero not only transcends the format of traditional games, eschewing complex puzzles or challenges to timing and endurance, it also overturns the narrative conventions of the videogame medium. This narrative audacity accentuates the liminal nature of the story, the characters and, above all, the game’s universe.
The concept of liminality remains, as it should, rich in nuance and devoid of rigid definition. In short, it evokes the ambiguity of the in-between, a transitional zone, a threshold, if you like. It’s that period suspended between two projects, where uncertainty reigns, or that deserted studio in the heart of the forest on the edge of town, where the order of modern life collides with the savagery of a forgotten world. It’s that mythical crossroads where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil, that deserted corridor in a university dorm where the student can never quite feel at home. It’s that indecisive hour between day and night, or the solstice, when the boundary between the seasons fades into a soft mist.
In folklore, liminality often takes on a profound meaning, like Lleu Llaw Gyffes in Welsh mythology, who was said to be indestructible as long as he was neither inside nor outside, neither on horseback nor on foot. His tragic end came when he was stabbed, one foot in a bathtub and the other on a goat. A similar notion can be found in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke, where the Spirit of the Forest can only be defeated when it metamorphoses from one form to another. More recently, the book Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts popularized the use of this term, brilliantly coined by writer Marion Shoard. In short, it refers to those areas with no clearly defined identity, outside urban or rural categories, such as overgrown parking lots, abandoned scrap yards, or those neglected patches of bitumen, almost completely forgotten by everyone.
Liminality is characterized by its unconventionality and lack of clarity. It can be a space filled with infinite promise and opportunity, or a disconcerting, even unsettling territory where the paths to follow seem blurred and indistinct. Kentucky Route Zero unfolds almost entirely within this undefined in-between space, a vast edgeland where everything oscillates between reality and surrealism. It’s a game that turns confusion into a virtue, arousing not frustration or exasperation, but rather a peaceful, melancholy wandering through a world where nothing makes sense, because the rules are long forgotten, or perhaps not yet fully defined.
This sense of ambiguity is reinforced by the artistic style and the way in which the boundary between “outside” and “inside” remains blurred throughout the story. A dark cave seems to stretch on forever, while the roof disappears to reveal a starry sky while a singer sings a melancholy ballad. When you arrive at the Reclaimed Space Office, a building halfway between cathedral and office, Shannon remarks, “That’s strange, are we inside or outside?“. As Conway, the player has three response options: outside, inside, or both. This duality characterizes the game world, accentuated by its unique approach to dialogue, where the player chooses not only how to answer, but also who should answer, sometimes with restricted options, other times with the freedom to gently steer the story in a given direction. Sometimes, our choices can even influence the story in real time, such as deciding on the name of Conway’s dog (or whether he has one at all) or choosing the name (and by extension the gender) of Shannon’s former partner.
Each of the characters in the game is, in one way or another, on a journey, moving from one state to another with no clear idea of their destination. Conway has been on the road for years and seems to have reached the end of his career, with no real plan for the next step. This struggle is reflected in his battered old van, which he often leaves running when he goes out, fearing he’ll never be able to get it going again. Shannon, who runs a TV repair shop, faces eviction. Ezra, meanwhile, is homeless and desperately searching for his missing family. Junebug and Johnny, itinerant musicians, survive as best they can, having fled a life spent working for the all-powerful Consolidated Power Company. All these destinies intertwine in a tangle of transition, constant displacement, with no definitive destination in sight.
These characters wander without a clear direction, seemingly caught in a state of perpetual transition. They are wanderers in search of purpose, perhaps hoping to find it along the way. Despite their existence in a world blending Southern gothic folklore and magical realism, where Ezra’s brother metamorphoses into a giant eagle and Junebug and Johnny are mechanical androids originally intended for work, their stories resonate strongly in the context of late capitalism. Conway and Shannon face the obsolescence of their jobs, seeking ways to adapt to a changing world. Junebug and Johnny aspire to be unique creators in a society that values productivity above all else. Ezra, meanwhile, is being forcibly evicted, finding himself without a roof over his head or shelter in a system that leaves more and more people by the wayside. These characters embody the uncertainty, vulnerability and instability that characterize the contemporary world.
The gradual deterioration of life can often be a slow, relentless descent into hell, rather than a spectacular tragedy. It’s a reality that many people face on a daily basis, trapped in the twists and turns of economic and emotional hardship. In the game, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between Conway’s situation and the struggle of many American citizens to access medical care and avoid crushing debt. Conway, forced to work in a distillery and pursued by skeletons, begins his own transformation into one of these beings after having his injured leg treated. Initially reluctant to accept this new job, he nevertheless realizes that, in a ruthless system, he should perhaps be grateful for this opportunity. It’s a sad reality that resonates with many people, where hard choices and compromises have to be made to survive and move forward, despite unfair circumstances.
In Kentucky Route Zero, the universe is radically different from our own, a world woven of underground roads and waterways, where an eternally burning tree guides travelers, and a gas station may appear adrift along a river. Yet, despite these differences, the inhabitants of this world share with us a sense of decadence, loss of meaning and questioning whether their dreams can be realized. The game, which mirrors our own existence, illustrates how difficult times can lead us to question our destination, our purpose, and to doubt the realizability of our dreams.
The soundtrack composed by Ben Babbitt for the game captures this state of mind magnificently. It expresses despair through a poignant rendition of a hymn that originally evoked euphoria and saw Earth itself as a transitional stage on the way to paradise:
“This world is not my home, I’m just passing through…. If heaven is not my home, then Lord, what am I going to do?”
The music is melancholy and emotional, reflecting the reality of many moments in our lives when we find ourselves in an uncertain space-time, searching for meaning and direction, while remaining anchored in an ever-changing world. However, unlike “The Entertainment“, where the characters’ dreams seem hopeless and their lives stagnant, Kentucky Route Zero is not truly a tragedy. A poignant scene between Junebug and Johnny evokes this sense of growth and fulfillment despite uncertainty. Junebug says to Johnny:
“When we met, we were nothing, just little gray shadows. We grew, and we filled out, and… we did it all together.”
This line illustrates one of the game’s central themes, which begins to take shape in its final acts. Kentucky Route Zero explores the notion of melancholy-tinged despair. It uses its fantastical elements not as an escape from reality, but rather as an amplification of it. As it evolves, however, the game gradually moves away from this melancholy to become a story about finding meaning through others, creating an informal community through friendship in response to family dysfunction, and finding unity within this vast, uncertain world.
Interestingly, the name Jesus has been removed from the original lyrics; this doesn’t necessarily remove the song’s religious connotations, but it does change the context from one of a single savior to something broader. As a catchy chorus slowly transforms a solitary song into blissful harmony, the strength of community is resolutely reinforced. When society abandons us and this world leaves us despondent, we’re always there for each other. Aside from this message of hope, it’s the relationship to work and to being crushed by capitalism that is fascinating in this game. These elements are increasingly present in our lives, and no longer just in the rural towns so dear to David Lynch. This liminality is now increasingly present in our professional and corporate lives. One work crystallizes this feeling, this administrative hell, this crushing by brutalist architectures: Severance.
The end of the American dream
In 1995, political scientist Robert D. Putnam proposed a compelling theory: Civic life in America was in decline. Americans, Putnam argued in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, were less engaged with their communities and their country. They voted less often, attended fewer public meetings and even joined bowling leagues less often, preferring to go bowling alone (a phenomenon Putnam used as the title for his essay, then book, on the subject).
Although Putnam’s theory has been the subject of a number of criticisms, it’s hard to deny that, 27 years on from Bowling Alone, his main argument remains very true. On a Western level, the political landscape is incredibly polarized, unable to reach a basic bipartisan consensus on crucial issues like renewing funding for the fight against the pandemic while we’re still in the thick of it. Individually, many of us are locked in our own bubbles of pop culture, political viewpoints and even interpretations of basic principles of reality. To top it all off, the coronavirus pandemic has been overshadowed by a secondary pandemic of loneliness, with many people feeling isolated, depressed and suicidal.
This is the landscape in which the new thriller Severance has emerged. Despite its primary focus on how corporations exploit workers, using the language of family and corporate mythology to trap employees in a cult-like environment, Dan Erickson’s series can also be read as a deeper commentary on modern isolation itself. The dismissal procedure that literally divides a group of Lumon employees into “innies” and “outties” is perhaps the most obvious and striking example of isolation in Severance. But it’s far from the only one. Throughout the series, everyone seems to be somewhat cut off from friends, family, community and even history.
Take the main protagonist, Mark Scout. As a Lumon employee, he’s obviously cut off from his professional identity, Mark S. But his alienation doesn’t stop there. Outside of work, Mark is also generally disconnected. He lives alone in Lumon’s employee housing, where his only neighbor is Mrs. Selvig (who, unbeknownst to him, is also his boss, Harmony Cobel, to which we’ll return in a second). His social circle consists almost exclusively of his sister, Devon, and her husband, Ricken, who seem to be his only connection with other people. Mark’s romantic interest? Devon’s doula. His big night out? A get-together with Ricken’s friends. When Petey, who hasn’t been awake, shows up on his doorstep, he’s the closest we’ve seen Mark come to being a true friend.
Unsurprisingly, Petey seems cut off from his own life. Although the details we have on him are scarce, we do know that he’s divorced, estranged from his daughter, and probably everyone else in his life. Why else would he find himself completely alone at the moment of crisis, with no one to turn to in order to save a man who doesn’t even know they’re friends?
But it’s not just the laid-off workers who can’t seem to connect with each other. Mark’s boss, Harmony Cobel, may not have followed the firing procedure, but she’s as connected to Lumon as any of the workers she supervises. Even when she’s off duty, she prostrates herself before Lumon’s altar (literally, as shown in the opening scene of episode 6). She may use two different names, but they both serve the same purpose, to serve Lumon at all times. As Mrs. Selvig, she seems more interested in watching Mark than relating to his friends, family or hobbies. She watches him come and go, steals his packages and even spies on his sister, posing as a lactation consultant. Lumon seems to be the closest thing Harmony has to a life, and even then, she’s not fully integrated into a community. In particular, her reconnaissance work often seems to be done without the knowledge or approval of her colleagues.
Unlike Lumon’s employees, who have no say in their creation and no control over their lives – as Helly is harshly reminded by her outtie after a suicide attempt – she is not a real person, Harmony chooses to blend in with Lumon, to make her personal life inseparable from her professional one. Financial necessity and personal crises may have driven Mark and his colleagues apart, but at least one of their bosses has opted for a form of isolation all her own.
Perhaps most striking is this: the innies have a deep and rich knowledge of the history (or at least mythology) of Lumon and the Eagan family, but outside Lumon, knowledge of world history seems minimal at best. At Ricken’s party, Mark is the only guest with a basic knowledge of the details of the First World War. Even the fact that it couldn’t be World War I without World War II escapes the other guests.
On Lumon soil, it makes sense that there’s no awareness of other people’s history, that Dylan thinks the outside world is a post-apocalyptic hellscape from which Lumon is a refuge, because this ignorance is yet another facet of Lumon’s control over its employees, in the same way that isolating departments from each other and rumors of vicious internal warfare help keep employees under the control and power of their management. But how to explain this general ignorance in the population at large? Ricken’s friends may not have severance chips in their heads, but it’s clear that on some level, they’re no more grounded or aware than anyone else in Lumon.
Severance is full of striking images of horrific science fiction, such as the break room, the baffling tasks assigned to Macrodata Refinement and Optics & Design employees, and, of course, the department seemingly dedicated to raising baby goats. But it’s the most mundane moments – Devon in the delivery room, Mark at home in his strangely empty neighborhood, Harmony unable to separate herself from her work – that are the most chilling, perhaps because they seem the most real. We may not have the technology to mentally separate our professional and domestic selves into two different people. But we don’t need that technology to achieve the terrifying loneliness at the heart of Severance.
The sheer panic of realizing you have no bodily autonomy resonates far beyond office walls in 2023. As state governments and the U.S. Supreme Court continue to make it clear that women and transgender people, in particular, are the property of the state, their bodies to be controlled against the will of the individuals who inhabit them. It has become increasingly difficult for working people to ignore this terrifying world and do our little Zoom to earn enough money to pay the rising cost of rent, care and other essentials of human life.
Yet it’s increasingly urgent for companies to get us to turn a blind eye in the service of productivity, meeting quotas and making profits before the economy tumbles into recession. Companies and business leaders are pushing workers back into offices, writing opinion pieces on the value of the physical workplace and developing new policies that chain employees to their desks. Other companies try the carrot method: they organize parties, concerts and hand out high-end gifts to those who can retrace their steps after years of absence. But these tactics are nothing new. In Severance, Lumon’s genius is to contain people’s fear, not eradicate it. In real life, some companies have tried to do something similar on numerous occasions.
Before the pandemic, I took more than a single personality test at different jobs, memorized company values, developed amusing anecdotes that could be reused for endless ice-breakers, and escaped from numerous meetings with colleagues in order to reshape myself into an appropriate professional persona. It’s surprising how easy dissociation becomes when it’s facilitated by physical compartmentalization. I was encouraged to leave my mood at the door when I identified myself with my smiling badge. The tech companies I worked for decorated their offices optimistically, offering me distant views of the city and wearable proofs of belonging, mugs, stickers, t-shirts and even caps.
But once the pandemic hit and we were confined to our homes, a non-surgical separation became harder to achieve. Suddenly, my professional self and my domestic self were in the same space, the bedroom that served as office, gym, nursery and cafeteria, with no breathing space between child-rearing, meetings and a pared-down creative life. There was no bus to serve as a decompression chamber between worlds, no work uniform to arm me for the professional battle; I only wore shoes to walk my daughter in the park. From one moment to the next, I felt confused about my priorities. I was stunned to hear my own voice telling my daughter that no, I couldn’t have lunch with her because I had to talk to a colleague to help him reset his passwords. As the meetings progressed, I clicked “camera off” to hide the fatigue that was building up in my eyes, threatening to ruin the agreed tone. I stopped showing up for virtual team-building games, but was sick with guilt when my absence was noted. On the hardest days, I even told my colleagues that it didn’t matter what we did. In fact, maybe it did and maybe it does matter, but not to me at that point. The liminality of my professional and personal life exploded completely at that very moment.
In the Severance series, “reintegration” is possible, but it’s excruciating and plunges employees into an existential spiral. In my life, the collapse of worlds left me feeling like I was losing my mind, as if the illusion of control I’d carefully assembled was shattering again and again as I made my way through an unprecedented period. I missed the peace of dissociation, but was unable to dismantle myself to do the job any longer. My exhaustion and rage spilled over into the workday. My company then provided us with an incredible system of necessary support, allowing us to regain ambitions for ourselves, giving us more time to grow personally and enjoy our loved ones. I needed to forge a different kind of relationship with work.
The tragedy and possibility of a zombie story is that there is no single villain. In Ling Ma’s novel Severance, Bob reminds us of the rules of undead storytelling.
“One zombie can easily be killed,” he tells her, “but a hundred zombies is another story. It’s only when they’re amassed that they really pose a threat.”
Bob is right. We may all be work zombies, lured and forced into semi-consciousness by the brutal financial realities of our times and our economic system, but it’s essential to remember that we’re all in this together. As we’ve seen in recent exhilarating organizing movements in sectors like publishing, technology and film, the real power of work is built by the collective. And I’m certainly not the only one to give up my professional persona. At a time when record numbers of Americans are quitting their jobs and rethinking the sacrifices needed to make a living in this country, the question of how much of ourselves we have to give up to work is essential.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of both Severance is that they externalize a debate that is too often internal, capturing the poetry and violence of the struggle for inner and outer unity in a society that wants to separate us. And both stories suggest that dissociation is, at least in part, a self-hypnotic trick that we can choose to undo. If we can vow to stay present together in the midst of real disaster, then perhaps there’s hope for the future. Like Ma’s novel, Severance‘s first season ends with a cliffhanger. Mark S., Helly R. and the other “inies” hatch a plan to wake up on the outside, inhabiting the forms of their “outies” long enough to grope toward the truth. The show ends as each of them confronts the strangeness of the real world to claim their right to self-determination. Will the innies survive reintegration to bring down Lumon and the dead-eyed oligarchs who control the rest of their world? Here in the real world, we can learn from the innies’ bravery and Candace’s determination. As uncomfortable as change may seem at first, each of us has the power to shed old, mechanical patterns, connect with the people and ideas that deserve our time and effort, and make the work work for us, not the other way around.
The American dream is no more than a sweet dream, a strange nostalgia that we keep in a corner of our minds. Like the cities depicted by David Lynch, this melancholy for the idealized 50s in the USA is now completely parasitized by capitalism. The freedom exuded by the wide-open spaces of the Wild West has now been supplanted by liminal spaces, giving rise to a feeling of disquieting strangeness. The pandemic has been a gas pedal in this respect, and it’s exciting to rediscover the works mentioned in this article through the prism we all still remember.
However, what emerges from these works – Twin Peaks, Norco, Red Dead Redemption 2, Kentucky Route Zero and Severance – can be summed up in a single notion: community. All these stories emphasize the importance of community in confronting an enemy far too great to be conceivable and tangible. It’s time to stop – and I’m the first to do so – fantasizing about an America that never really was, and to appreciate that we’re not alone in this strange contemporary period that no longer makes sense.
Collectif, David Lynch : cauchemar américain, Rockyrama, 2022
David Lynch, Kristine McKenna, L’Espace du rêve, Lgf, 2019
Collectif, S!CK 025 – Alien, Sick Publishing, 2023
Rick Barnes, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Jon Nguyen, David Lynch: The Art Life, 2016, 1h28
Articles – Internet
Gravitas Documentaries, Requiem for the American Dream with Noam Chomsky DOCUMENTARY – Politics, Philosophy, 2023, 1h12, URL : https://youtu.be/WEnv5I8Aq4I?si=TuECs-Ny0uv5I5_L
Epoch Philosophy, The Philosophy of Norco: Southern Gothicism and the Stain of Place, 2023, 21min59, URL : https://youtu.be/ZlRUf46f1xg?si=-fM1v5nrkBZ0p34c
NostalGeek, Les Fantômes de Kentucky Route Zero, 2021, 30min30, URL : https://youtu.be/aW_bq6YdjPw?si=nohs6WkPCF-E_6D2
Meromorphic, Severance & the Critique of Late Capitalism in Media, 2023, 30min34, URL : https://youtu.be/HeAcAgWCX4E?si=6OGo5XAp6fGvg9sT