Making More of Metaphors
Part of the charm of the series Severance on Apple TV+ is how it uses metaphors as major currency in its storytelling. On face value, it’s a sly psychological thriller castigating the business world and its dehumanization of the American worker. Watch a little closer, however, and you’ll see that the suffocating Lumon Corporation in the show is a company rife in metaphor as well. Sigmund Freud once said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but in the case of Severance, where there’s smoke, there is fire, especially in what Lumon represents.
Like many sci-fi vehicles, Severance operates on two levels. First, there is that which is apparent—the four main characters work for a company in a not-so-distant future which has surgically divided their brains between their work and personal lives. The idea is that one doesn’t interfere with the productivity of the other, though as the nine episodes spooled out, Lumon used their severing tool to gain even more stringent control over their workers’ home lives. The procedure keeps the outside individual from knowing what’s going on inside the company, and it also allows Lumon to spy on the “outies” undetected.
Lumon isn’t really allowing for work/life balance; instead, they’re ensuring that only Lumon holds all the cards.
So, on a literal level, Lumon represents the overreach of corporate America, very likely a tech biggie similar to Facebook or Comcast, tracking our thoughts, interests and ‘likes.’ Exactly why Lumon is doing what they’re doing has yet to be revealed, but as the four main characters (Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro and Zach Cherry, pictured in my caricature) get closer to figuring out how they’re being controlled, the more likely they will find out that Lumon is up to no darn good. (The recently announced second season promises all kinds of discoveries on both sides of their lives.)
Secondly, on a metaphorical level, the series conjures a variety of possibilities. The Lumon name itself suggests The Illuminati, the supposed secret cabal of world leaders, pulling the strings of government, our global economy, and celebrity culture. Another read on Severance is that it’s a commentary on the MAGA crowd, the working class complicit in being duped by autocratic leaders. Perhaps the workers at Lumon are a metaphor for Americans during COVID-19, isolated, compartmentalized, and stuck in a version of self-imposed prison. They could even represent modern society’s screen-obsessed public, hordes of folks staring blithely for hours at cellphones, laptops, and TV screens.
No matter, the use of metaphors makes Severance even more involving. (Have you noticed that there is no escape key on the workers’ computer consoles in the series?) Such a trope always adds extra cleverness to a movie, show, or novel, as it invites the audience to think more. Being spoon-fed every story point or idea can come off as condescending, as the filmmakers of Don’t Look Up found out. It was heavily critiqued far and wide for being too obvious, too strident, and too on-the-nose.
Stories should assume that the audience will get most ideas without blasting them at level 11.
Narratives that traffic in metaphor work shrewdly because they tell the audience that they have confidence in them to “get it” and viewers can’t help but lean in. It’s likely one of the reasons that The Twilight Zone marathons always play so well on the SyFy Channel over New Year’s. Rod Serling and his contributors wrote metaphors into virtually every episode back in the early 60s, out of necessity, in addition to striving for a sense of cleverness. Standards and practices were much more stringent then, so the adroit writer found ways to comment on topics like the American war machine, racial bigotry, and sexual preferences in mostly metaphorical ways.
A writer will often use a metaphor when being too direct might frighten off studios or audiences as well. In 1963, a time when the struggle for Civil Rights was turning into a powder keg, author Pierre Boulle wrote La Planète des singes (Planet of the Apes), a searing argument against racism served up in a metaphor of a planet where monkeys kept humans as servants. (Interestingly, Rod Serling was one of the writers of the film adaptation six years later.)
Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin wrote Groundhog Day in 1993, and it’s one of the most cerebral and sly comedies ever made. It’s also a film chock full of metaphors, from what the groundhog represents—the lead character trying to define his future—to the whole purpose of reliving the same day repeatedly. The film is a very clear metaphor for Buddhism as Bill Murray’s weatherman gets stuck in an endless time loop until he changes his ways and becomes more charitable. That’s a metaphor for the Enlightenment idea that Buddhism extolls.
Science fiction always traffics in the metaphorical; just watch any episode of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek from the 1960s. Roddenberry and his team often attacked sacred cows via metaphor, quite often the sacred. Episodes such as The Apple, Who Mourns for Adonis, and The Mark of Gideon displayed clear anti-religious themes, arguing for less of a deity and more of the community providing the guidance. (In interviews, Roddenberry expressed that his own leanings were towards those of a secular humanist.) The show creator and his writers even stood up for LBGT rights long before it became acceptable to do so with episodes like The Gamesters of Triskelion and The Menagerie where personal sexual choices were referenced and endorsed.
Horror probably has been the genre of storytelling where metaphor has always gone hand in hand with the frights. Few argue that Frankenstein’s creature was a metaphor for the elite’s exploitation of the working class, though some may question if Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining was really about the elite’s exploitation of indigenous people. (Go down that rabbit hole on YouTube if you want to have your mind blown.) Recently, two instant classics that both came out in 2014 did a superb job of trafficking in metaphor. The entirety of David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows was about sexual abuse while Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook turned the pop-up book ghoul into a metaphor the grief-stricken mother’s efforts to blame her bad lot in life on something other than herself.
Metaphors beyond the fantastical genres become rarer upon examination and there are too many films and shows at present that play out so on-the-nose they might as well be blackheads. A lack of layering, symbolism, and the metaphorical is a problem in Hollywood’s repartee these days, suggesting that producers are worried that every audience has been ruined by the short attention span of TikTok. Jerry Orbach’s detective character, Lenny Briscoe, used to be the only character on Law & Order who would state the obvious, breaking everything down into a black-and-white assessment, but now every character on the reboot says out loud that which really should be read between the lines. It’s as if the writers there don’t want to bother with any bigger pictures that metaphors might allow. Each case just is what it is without it standing as a metaphor for something bigger or more interesting.
Granted, we live in polarizing times where anyone can choose this cable news network or that to reflect their political leanings. And nuance, subtlety, and artistry often come up short across the entertainment spectrum due to short attention spans, truncated communication trends, and an audience more and more strapped for time. Still, for storytellers hoping to overcome such hurdles, it would behoove them to consider employing metaphors to increase the cleverness of their narratives. After all, one has to hand it to a show like Severance as it’s not only chock full of metaphors about the dumbing down of America and the corruption of information sharing, but it's doing so on a platform run by those they are critiquing.
Indeed, they’re biting the hand of Apple TV+ that feeds them, and it makes the show all the more deliciously ironic.