How Art Helps to Manipulate Minds in Severance


Severance, the Apple TV sci-fi thriller set to return for a second season after premiering in February, is eerily close to our working world. In Dan Erickson’s world, instead of reducing the 45-hour work week, one company, Lumon, finds it easier to operate on their staff, separating their memory between work and home. 

By using the Apple font in Severance’s title sequence, we are reminded that the tech company whose screens we rely on is commenting on the very facet of society it contributes to, an irony that is not lost on the production team. This is only the beginning of the show’s aesthetic intentions, as through Severance’s art-inspired sets, we receive hints of Lumon’s great plans and subliminal manipulation of its employees.

Britt Lower as Helly in Severance, Season 1, Episode 1, “Good News About Hell” (2022) (image courtesy Apple TV+)

The series opens in Lumon’s offices, as Helly (Britt Lower) wakes up on a conference table, with no memory of herself. This room, with its mid-century furnishings, is based on the work of architect Eero Saarinen, and its green hues, reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” (1942). Hopper’s lonely city reverberates throughout Severance, with its stark fluorescent lighting and vast negative space. We understand why the Lumon employees opted for the procedure, as little about their isolating reality is worth remembering.

Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks” (1942), oil on canvas, 33 1/8 x 60 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Christopher Walken as Burt Goodman, John Turturro as Irving, and Zach Cherry as Dylan in Severance, Season 1, Episode 5, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” (2022) (image courtesy Apple TV+)

Some of production designer Jeremy Hindle’s references are so small that if you blink, you miss them. The map made by ex-employee Petey (Yul Vazquez) features a nod to Basquiat: a crude scribble of a crowned head bearing its teeth. Like the artist who railed against society, Petey has revolted against Lumon. Despite undergoing the permanent procedure, the employees’ minds hold echoes of artistic rebellion that seep into their working lives.

A painting in Severance, Season 1, Episode 4, “The You You Are” recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818). (screenshot Billie Walker/Hyperallergic)
Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), oil on canvas, 37 3/10 x 29 2/5 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Francisco Goya, “Saturn Devouring His Son” (1819–1823), mixed media mural transferred to canvas, 56 1/2 x 32 inches (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Lumon creates its own art history, with works that pay homage to Caravaggio and Caspar David Friedrich. Even for those unfamiliar with art history, these paintings or some reference to them exist in the peripheries of our cultural collective. By placing Kier, the company founder, at its visual center, the employees are convinced of a greater purpose.

The same propaganda that is used to inspire the workforce is used to separate them. The employees that are separated into two departments — MDR (Macro Data Refinement) and O&D (Optics and Design) — have been effectively isolated by their shared belief that the other employees are dangerous — a widely held rumor kept alive by the circulation of two versions of the same painting, where raiders wearing department lanyards tear into their victims. Much like the black paintings of Francisco Goya, these mysterious pieces evoke horror at the monstrosity humanity is capable of. In each version, the raiders wear different lanyards to incite fear in the relevant department, because Lumon understands that a workforce separated is less capable of revolt than one united.

Petey’s map in Severance, Season 1, Episode 3, “In Perpetuity” (screenshot Billie Walker/Hyperallergic)
The Macrodata Refinement Calamity painting in Severance, Season 1, Episode 5, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” (screenshot Billie Walker/Hyperallergic)

Despite the crumbling, naïve, and manipulated minds of Lumon’s employees, Severance’s meticulous attention to detail offers a world not soon forgotten with carefully chosen subliminal references lurking in the murky waters of our subconscious. We can be certain that this commitment to visual world-building continues when Severance returns.


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