Take a moment to list the things you have waived for a payslip. Have you ever had to miss a birthday? A wedding? Have you ever had to leave a loved one grieving or sick just because you could not afford to choose them over the job? Has it ever felt like a choice?
2. Resignation, The Apple TV Plus show, created by Dan Erickson, follows the workers of the Micro-Data Refinement department of the fictional Lumon Industries. No one knows what that means, including the workers, who just analyze an array of numbers and delete the numbers that “look scary”. Their work is top secret and they have all undergone a procedure known as “resignation”, their minds are divided in two. Their work themselves have no knowledge of their lives when they first strike out. This means that their workers – called “innies” in common parlance – are actually new people who only know life inside Lumon. One workday runs into the next, with only one elevator ride to separate them.
Now consider all the times you have ordered a cup of coffee at Starbucks using words you would not otherwise use. The times you have referred to a work of art as “content” or “intellectual property”. Life hacks to get through as many podcasts or books as possible. Every time you have promised to “circle back” on a conversation. Who taught you to do that?
4. Mark Scout (Adam Scott) mourns. His “outie” – the brand that exists outside of Lumon – lost his wife, Gemma, in an accident. Resignation, he explains to those who ask, is a way to deal with that loss. It’s eight hours he does not have to think about Gemma or anything. Some argue with him, saying that practice is exploitative; experts on television batter the benefits of the procedure back and forth. It all exhausts him. He gets what he needs out of his resignation, and his life outside of Lumon is really empty.
5. Workplaces and their idiosyncrasies, their little psychological distortion, have always been a part of our pop culture landscape. Art shapes culture, but so does work, and with a stronger hand. It is then natural for them to cross each other: in comedies and procedures in the workplace, where the tension between life on and off the clock provides the conflict that nurtures stories. Usually there is disturbingly little space between the two. And increasingly, the characters in these stories are miserable.
6. In the world of Resignation, ruler Kier Eagan. The founder of Lumon, Kier, is the inspiration for the staff handbook (the only literature allowed on the site), which also serves as a propagandistic hagiography. His life inspires the few works of art on the walls, which are made internally by a team called Optics and Design. Among the recreational activities the Micro-Data Refinement (MDR) team can undertake is a trip to the Hall of Perpetuity, a wax museum that lionizes Kier and his ancestors who shepherded Lumon through American history. Its lobby is adorned with his words: “The remembered man does not decay.” It’s a cruel joke when you rule over the people who work for his company, people who can not remember who they are. Maybe this is by design. Not to remind employees how they should think of their company masters, but how those who represent the company think of them.
7. They talk about the great resignation. As a result of a status quo-shifting pandemic, debates are taking place in national media where no one can agree on whether the teaching from the last two years is that work has been broken, or the workers are, and in what ways. If the labor debate lacks clarity in the abstract, take a closer look and find it in the details, where unions are formed among the workers of one of the world’s largest companies and companies begin to abandon even the notion of interest in workers’ safety as the pandemic continues. World leaders call this “going back to normal.” The normal, however, seems to be one where no one asked questions.
The trick to Resignation‘s metaphor is that there really is none. It just provides a logical explanation for the things we do to ourselves – and which are done to us – every day when we go to work. We did not start our lives talking to each other like that, we did not always look forward to small office parties, we did not put our faith in tycoons and robber barons. It’s learned behavior, but if you adopt it? You’re going to get far, kid.
Genesis presents work as a consequence of the fallen nature of mankind. In the story of Eden, the Earth, originally created as a self-sustaining paradise, is cursed as a judgment for original sin. The first men are judged: by the sweat of thy face, God saith unto them, Thou shalt serve thy bread. It’s a passage better known for how it ends: “For dust you are, and for dust you must return.” So: We are born to work and then die. This is a tragedy. Some seem to think differently.
10. In the penultimate paragraph of ResignationIn the first season of Mark and his three reports in Micro-Data Refinement – the reformed company’s shill Irving (John Turturro), the profane workhorse Dylan (Zach Cherry) and the rebellious newcomer Helly (Britt Lower) – have become dissatisfied, driven by i.a. other things Dylan learns that Lumon can turn on for their cut off people outside the workplace when Supervisor Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman) interrogates him in his outies home. As a result, Dylan learns that he has a child outside of Lumon, and for the first time, everything Lumon takes from him is realized.
11. It takes a lot to quit a job. Most do so when the job becomes impossible rather than unsustainable because life under a capitalist system provides fewer opportunities for those who are less privileged and the number of people who can consider themselves privileged dwindles. When poverty and shelter are at stake, one does not stop to consider their options. This is the hardest part of organizing a workplace – because even with a common adversary in a company that has enormous power over the lives of its employees, inequality is not evenly distributed. Some are expected to suffer more insults than others, and those lucky enough to be protected must be persuaded to risk their employment for those who are not. No one will participate in the match unless it is done personally.
12. You can see Resignation on Apple TV Plus, the streaming service from one of the most powerful technology companies in the world, one that often announces new products on a stage livestreamed to thousands of adoring fans who know the autobiography of the company’s founders by heart. The modern enterprise exists not only to provide a service or a product, but to grow. Infinite and without visible purpose, like cancer. This streaming service is the latest expansion of a company that is running out of space to grow, one that goes from manufacturing only devices for manufacturing reasons to keeping users on them. Entertainment services are now like insurance companies that charge a monthly fee in return for the guarantee that you can watch something when you want to. Maybe you want to do it on a box you bought from the same company, after also signing up from a job in a company owned by them. And it’s fine, for who has the time, the energy to express the nagging sense of how wrong This is.
13. In the season finale, Dylan becomes the means by which the MDR team commits an intriguing robbery of their outies’ lives. He hijacks the Severance control room and uses the switchboard Milchick used on him to wake his colleagues in the middle of their Outies’ lives. It’s an attempt to get the message out about how miserable they all are, with the added pressure of not knowing how long Dylan – who has to stretch across the confined space to keep the contacts on – will be able to keep the inners on the outside. He is eventually discovered, and when Milchick tries to bribe him with perks as he breaks in, Dylan yells at him what he really wants: “I want to remember that my fucking baby was born!” Here, Resignation feels at least like a satire.
14. Again, Resignation is not really a metaphor. There is no need for the overreach of the company it depicts because we are already submitting to it every day. It’s not like we’ve had a choice.