Severance and the Prisoner of Tomorrow
Sunday, July 10, 2022
Comments: 1 (latest 3 days later)
Tagged: severance, tv, be seeing you, television, the prisoner
I normally avoid subscription TV, but my new phone came with three months of free Apple-watching, so I watched Severance. Also Fraggle Rock and Foundation. But Severance is the one to talk about.
(Big ol' SPOILERS for Severance, if that wasn't clear. Read this post after you've finished watching the first season.)
It doesn't take a lot of digging to connect Severance to The Prisoner. If the paranoia, surveillance, off-key horror of daily minutiae, and aseptic surrealism didn't tip you off, you probably caught Helly's last line in the last episode: "We're prisoners--"
Come to think of it, isn't that also the point of the red pajamas in the opening credits? It must be a prison jumpsuit. Just realized that.
But I think there's more to this than a few in-jokes. Severance is aesthetically a tribute to The Prisoner (1967), but it's thematically a reboot-done-right of the 2009 remake miniseries, also called The Prisoner.
The 2009 show wasn't a success, despite Jim Caviezel and Ian McKellen. I wrote about it at the time. My conclusion was that McKellen was magnificent, Caviezel did a great job, the underlying cinematological gimmick was laser-gaze brilliant; but it wasn't The Prisoner. It wasn't memorable either. The 1967 show has a loyal and enduring fandom; the 2009 show vanished without a cultural ripple.
This is a bit of a pity. The 2009 show really did try to reconstruct the themes of the original for the (then-) modern era. Rather than the faceless manipulative forces of the Cold War nation-powers, we had the faceless manipulative forces of corporate America. Number Six has resigned from some kind of corporate data analyst job. It was the right approach; it just didn't do anything convincing with it.
Now Severance picks up the same theme -- with one new insight which pulls it all together. Your opponent, the new Number Two, isn't the Handler or the Boss. He's you. The modern dystopia of employment, after all, is the prison that you check yourself into every morning. The question hanging over your head is: "Why DON'T you resign?" What's stopping you? You are, Number Six!
Severance literalizes this and runs with it. That's what makes the show compelling as hell. The creepy white corridors and the goats and the waffle thing are the set dressing, and they're great, but they're not the show. The show is that, no matter how much you like your job, you're of two minds about it.
This still isn't The Prisoner. The original show gave us the solitary purity of perfect paranoia. Who do I trust? Nobody. Every relationship in Number Six's world is a trap and a betrayal. He only triumphs when he plays others better than they play him.
Severance doesn't go there. Oh, Cobel is a faceless enigma and Milchick is a creepily smiling one. Nobody trusts them, nor Graner or the Board or (whoops) Miss Casey. But the good faith of the MDR team is not really in question. The four protagonists are on the same side. And then the middle arc of the season demonstrates the same about Optics and Design. Lumon wants the teams to be hostile and suspicious of each other, but we know that Irving and Burt's love is pure. (Turturro and Walken are the big names of the cast, and their scenes together show why.)
This is another point that the 2009 Prisoner missed, although I didn't realize it at the time. If the Village is your job, then the Village must admit the possibility of solidarity. We can't trust ourselves but we can trust each other, if we can only realize that.
This is not to say that Severance is perfect. (The Prisoner was perfect.) I think Severance fails to balance the early Village-esque everything-is-weird episodes with the "final" reveal. We spend too much time on the goats and the finger-traps and the scary number screens. Why are Mark's outie friends all flaming weirdos? Why is Cobel spying on his sister? Why is security so ostentatiously bad? It's great setup, but when we get around to the last episode, the only answer on order is "Lumon wants to stress-test the severance procedure." Which means it's all flummery and busywork; it doesn't mean anything. (Except for the specific test of throwing Mark and Miss Casey together.)
It's a fun ride, but it's a bit disappointing when you look back on it. The Prisoner was full of surrealistic theater, but you could fit it into a pattern: everything was intended to wind up Number Six. Everything was an assault on his integrity. Confusion and disorientation were par for the course. I don't think Severance sells its pattern. It's just weird because the audience likes that kind of thing.
(Note how nobody breaks character, not even behind the scenes, until the gala in the last episode. Cobel is a true believer even when it's just Milchick in the room. The Board talks through a mouthpiece, why? Because it was a good gag in Counterpart? None of this has anything to do with severance or Lumon's ostensible goals. And yes, they've got a second season to pull in some of the loose threads, but as it stands I'm not really convinced.)
Anyway, waffling aside, Severance is a good show. Recommended. And I'm happy to see Patrick McGoohan's this-man-is-an-Island isolation disappear with the 20th century. We need more than that to survive today.