The hunt for that one elusive show, the series that hooks you from the start with its concept and then slowly peels off its layers one by one, viewers perpetually fed dopamine high on every new revelation – conceptually speaking, that is a show that is very difficult to structure and space out via a set span of episodes. For the majority of such shows, the story gets bogged down by numerous subplots that are connected to the main plot initially, but which slowly and steadily take you away from the main narrative. The other option of being the main narrative is intriguing, conceptually, but it falters on execution. This is all a big lead-up to stating that “Severance” is one of those elusive shows.
“Severance” Season 1 has a very intriguing hook as the main plot, and its subplots are intrinsically tied to their main plots in interesting and unique ways that don’t deter from the main narrative, but rather enhance it.
‘Severance’ Season 1: The Premise And The Broader Implications
Work-life balance is one of these theoretical concepts to lead a balanced life by keeping work and personal life separate from each other, with none of its effects bleeding into the other and hampering both of them, destroying the balance as a result. Pragmatically speaking, that is almost a herculean feat, which is why creator Dan Erickson conceptualized “Severance” from a stray thought he had – “what if I could forget the eight hours of my work life?”
The show that follows feels like an eldritch nightmare come to life. Lumon is the dystopian corporation where the narrative of the show primarily takes place. The main foci are in the Macro data department, where Adam Scott’s Mark S. is the department head, with Helly R. (Britt Lower), Dylan G. (Zach Cherry), and Irving B. (John Turturro) rounding up the four-man department called the “Refiners.” Employees in the department must undergo the surgical procedure known as “severance” to maintain the aforementioned confidentiality. Here, the employee is implanted with a chip in their cerebral cortex, which is used to separate the brain’s memories to the extremities of the concept, such that the work-life and personal life are two entirely different personalities inhabiting the same body, unable to access the memories of the other personality.
It manages to be beneficial for both the parties involved. For the severed workers, it allows them to be completely free of the emotional baggage of their personal lives seeping into their work-life, as they effectively don’t remember these eight hours. For the organization, it increases the efficiency of their company to astronomical heights because any workforce completely dedicated to the ethos of the company is a worker valuable enough to be bent to the company’s whims with promises of rewards like waffle parties, caricature photos, etc. Superficially, the hush-hush nature and the severance procedure would seem to be an elaborate methodology to secure top-secret data, but it feels more like an elaborate control mechanism.
Characters of ‘Severance’ Season 1: Explained
There are primarily four characters involved in the day-to-day workings of the Macro data Department and thus the narrative itself. But Severance’s dealings with the characters inside Lumon (Innie) and the characters they become outside Lumon (Outie) are the primary USP of the show, especially the level of dissociation we see among the personalities involved.
Mark S. is the head of the Microdata Refinement Division at Lumon Industries. That is what his innie got promoted to after his friend Petey’s sudden departure. Adam Scott’s portrayal of the Innie side of Mark is a typical nebbish sort of boss, lacking certain confidence, but his charm gets him through. His “outie,” on the other hand, was an ex-history professor mourning the death of his wife Gemma and taking the severed job as an emotional compromise so that he didn’t have to face the mourning and natural grieving process of her death.
Mark’s relationship with his sister belies the closeness you would expect from a family member used to having each other after both their parents have passed away. His life as a department leader, on the other hand, is far more of an active life than his outie life until Petey comes to his “outie” and hands him cryptic directions to meet him at an abandoned greenhouse. There, Mark and the audience come to know that Petey had undergone the process of reintegration, which is forcibly causing his inner and outer consciousness to juxtapose against each other. Perhaps because of that fear, Mark rejects Petey’s idea of reintegration, but he does shelter Petey at his house. His innie, on the other hand, thwarts Helly’s repeated methods to escape from the workplace, either by handing her resignation request or smuggling different messages orally or via scribbling on the walls.
Mark’s Innie finally receives the book “The You You Are” by Ricken Hale, which he finds along with Irving and Dylan in the conference room and keeps the book despite promising to return it to management. The self-help book with strong anti-establishment messaging and new-age gibberish would be laughed out at a modern audience gathering or wouldn’t be taken very seriously, which is the mental structure his outie shares about his brother-in-law. But the dissociation between the two personalities is sound enough, and the lack of any literature in the office other than compliance books forces the workers in the Lumon offices to bring out changes in individuality rather than be part of the hive collective that the head of Lumon wants to propagate. This is due to the self-help book being brought into the office by Harmony Cobel, Mark’s immediate boss, who also doubles as Mrs. Selvig, Mark’s out-of-town neighbor. His relationship with Helly improves drastically as these individualistic thoughts slowly start to resemble suspicions raised by his outie’s about what’s happening in the world. He follows ambulance traffic after his shift to find Petey being carried away from the convenience store that Petey had visited in his hallucination.
In his hallucination, Petey confused the sterile hallways of Lumon’s interior with the outside world, and the inherent confusion and inability to superimpose both of these two personalities together caused his body to break down, leaving Petey to pass away. At his funeral, Mark visits with Mrs. Selvig, where he meets with June, Petey’s daughter and Petey’s ex-wife. The derision he faces from the two of them regarding their job makes you realize how much the overall concept of severance isn’t a very popular one, even on the outside.
There are groups like the World Mind Collective who are protesting against the concept of severance publicly, while secretive groups like the mind behind Petey’s reintegration are content with reversing severance. Selvig goes to Petey’s funeral, unbeknownst to Mark, to acquire Petey and run a diagnostic on reintegration and its effects on the chip.
However, Petey had been mapping the interior hallways of Lumon, which Mark’s innie discovers while cleaning one of the photo frames when he obtains a map hidden in one of these frames. He takes it upon himself and Helly R, whom he had grown close to after Helly’s failed suicide attempt, to save Helly from being sent to the break room. They discover an unknown department where a single employee is feeding baby goats. These events are again opening the mind of Mark’s Innie, who is arguably only two years old from conception in Mark’s brain, and, as a young impressionable person, is being fed differing information and being forced to act. This allies well with the older Mark’s suspicion of what he does in the office and Petey’s incident being swept under the rug as having died of an ailment. Mark finally picks up the mysterious caller on Petey’s phone revealing Reghabi as the person responsible for putting the chips inside the Lumon workers and working with a mole on the inside to bring Lumon down.
However, the chief of security, Graner, follows him due to a tip from campus security. Outie Mark has no idea what Graner’s place is in the hierarchy of the department and was content to believe he was a friend, but Reghabi beats Graner with a baseball bat and kills him, then gives Graner’s security card to Mark, telling him, “he will know what to do.” Turns out Mark’s innie, knows what to do because of the events of Dylan G’s innie, where he was forced to wake up after his shift due to a system called override contingency, which gives all the workers an out to figure out what their outside lives are.
The plan is set, where Dylan stays back at the office while the rest of the team goes outside. When Dylan finally manages to hit the contingency override, the innies are stunned. Mark discovers the outside world, the existence of a sister he never knew, the discovery of Riken Hale, his new anarchic idol as his brother-in-law, and his boss as the babysitter of his niece, much to his sister’s horror, whom Mark already told all of his incidents about. But the biggest shock Mark faces is when he finally discovers who Gemma is, the wife of outie Mark, whom he had heard about, and to some extent, he had subconsciously known about because he sculpted the replica of the tree where his wife’s accident occurred, out of clay at the offices of Ms Casey, the wellness counselor and therapist of the organization.
Mark is a kind soul and a man able to take the faults of others, as his responsibility was similarly shattered upon hearing of Casey’s being fired from her job because she was unable to account for Mark and Helly’s whereabouts during the watch day where she was instructed to watch Helly after her traumatic experience. He was unable to stop her from going to the break room, and you can only imagine Mark’s shock when he realizes that Ms Casey is Mark’s long believed to be deceased wife Gemma, but before he can explain it to his sister, beyond screaming, “She is alive,” the override contingency is turned off, and the season ends.
The audience surrogate character of the show in the beginning, until the show shifts to Mark S. The show opens with Helly, spread-eagled on the table, unconscious and woken up by a retro speaker calling her name and asking her identity. In a moment, straight out of the Twilight Zone, she tries to remember her identity but is unable to. All of her basic details she is unable to recall, but only after she is revealed to her orientation expert, revealed to be Mark, does she get to know her name, Helly.
Later, she is introduced to her coworkers, Dylan and Irving, and it is revealed that she is a replacement for Petey, who is ominously told has retired. She is unable to accept her position, which does bring to light some of the basic attributes that both the innies and outies share. The strong will of mind and character is a trait they both share, along with a maddening streak of stubbornness. Her job, she learns, is to sort encrypted numbers as part of macro data refinement, which is vague enough that it is impossible to decipher what they do, beyond “the work is mysterious and thus very important.”
Unwilling to subscribe to such a dogmatic point of view she writes a resignation letter to her outie, but the elevator shuts down because of some “code detectors,” that are designed by Lumon’s built-in. Helly resourcefully tries to smuggle messages out of the office but to no avail, after which she and her team are led to the Perpetuity Wing by Irving to make her understand the ethos of Kier and Lumon.
Within the chaos and roaming around, she plans another escape but barely manages to, cutting her hand in the process, and being exiled to the break room. Within two days, she is forced to recite the written apology over a thousand times. Via Helly’s point-of-view, we can witness the thin line that exists between corporate culture and something far more sinister – the vibe of cult indoctrination.
And with an organization like Lumon, a large, shapeless organization, having its pies everywhere, capitalism’s tendrils spread everywhere, bringing the whole world under its control are brought to life via very sinister details. Helly finally resorts to threatening to cut her finger off until she is allowed to record her resignation to be sent to her outie, which again is to no avail; her outie rejects her resignation outright. This change of the road in the narrative structure shows the dissociation of the two halves of the personality, the bifurcation, which again causes a class divide. “Innies” are treated as almost second-class citizens, perhaps due to the shorter time of their conception and thus far fewer points of view regarding the outside world. Thus, their rights aren’t taken into account – another interesting prospect explored by the show because it cleverly crafts a premise where two different personalities can co-exist within the same body with no chances of any of the later formed traits seeping through, but even this attribute, we will see, isn’t entirely accurate.
Helly then tries to commit suicide by hanging an extension cable in the elevator shaft. She is barely rescued by Mark and the security chief, Graner, after which she returns as if she just awoke after her ordeal and not a couple of hours had passed between. It brings into sharp focus how sleep as a concept is practically non-existent for innies. As Helly returns and works with Mark to reform the map and learns of the contingency override from Dylan, she manages to escape to the outside world via said override and discovers her true identity – she is Helena Eagan, daughter of the founder of Kier and Lumon, a massive conglomerate that existed long before severance even came into the spotlight.
Helena undergoes severance as a PR move to propagate the usefulness of severance and thus get it legalized. However, Innie Helly’s repeated plans to escape Lumon had been throwing little wrenches in Helena’s plans, and now as Helly takes over Helena’s body, she manages to throw the biggest wrench in by sabotaging her speech and describing the unjust ways in which innies are treated. She is stopped, and the override is shut down by the time the season is over, but the damage is too far done by that point, it seems.
Easily the least interesting character initially because of how archetypal the character feels, Irving is the oldest worker in the Macro Data Refinery Department and the most loyal to Lumon and Kier’s ethos, almost to the fault. From a narrative standpoint, in a mystery involving two differing personalities, if one personality has such an extremist approach towards life, it might make sense that this character is certainly the most well-constructed, or carefully built, of the lot.
Irving is also the de-facto exposition machine of the whole narrative, and thus the one responsible for building mythology throughout the story. The Compliance is almost a Bible; Kier is supplanted by Jesus, and the loyalist nature of Irving brings to life the cult-like nature of the corporate structure of Lumon. Irving’s relationship with Burt (Christopher Walken), the head of the Optics and Design Department, is also the heart of the show, even as both of them are careful enough to know that “fraternization of a romantic nature” is forbidden within the company walls.
Milchick running a “266” on Irving, causing the printer in MDR to print out a painting showing the MDR employees murdering O&D workers, is a shock to Irving, a man who is a lover of the paintings hung around the offices of Lumon, especially outside Ms Casey office. The key revelation, however, occurs when a similar painting is discovered by both Irving and Burt in the archives of O & D, except the tags are reversed. This is interesting as it shows Lumon subtly involving tactics to separate the two departments to fraternize with each other, perhaps sowing seeds of discord to keep them separate and whole as an individual entity, than running the risk of working together and rising in revolt.
Irving was sent to Ms Casey office to do a wellness check because of innies dozing off but was unable to. The innies’ relationship with sleep is interesting because they officially cease to exist as soon as they walk out of Lumon, so effectively, each of them is unable to recall how time passes, thus not accounting for a day’s absence unless informed by Milichek, who is an un-severed employee. Again, this recalls the concept of the minimum wage and maximum effort being applied via capitalism to employees. However, Irving is the only employee we see suffering from hallucinations, via black goo covering the walls of the room as Irving watches helplessly.
However, with the events at the end of the eighth episode, with the contingency turned on, we see Outie Irving as a person who is used to handling enormous amounts of black paint. The love of painting by Innie Irving can also be attributed to elements of Outie’s personality seeping through to affect their inner personality. Outie Irving repeatedly painting the darkened corridor where Ms Casy was sent to by Milicheck has far more of an ominous shade than expected, very much out of the nightmarish imagery that would be produced by a dreamscape. It also might be outie Irving remembering events of Innie Irving’s thoughts, maybe the doorways to both halves of the personality opening through slowly, like fleeting rays of sunlight.
The list of severed employees of Lumon, a list which included the names of both Burt G. and Petey, is pretty damning evidence that Irving might be involved in the reintegration process of severance, as the mole inside Lumon’s offices. His father was a general of the United States Navy, while Outie Irving was also not sleeping at night, which might give credence that Irving was also a military man, who might have suffered from PTSD.
Severance might have been introduced, like most new inventions, as a tool for the military. His PTSD might be the reason for Irving’s choosing to sever, much like Mark’s choosing to sever to deal with his wife’s loss. However, Innie Irving’s choosing to race to Burt’s address feels the most like mainstream TV contrivance; but, the revelation that Burt might have a husband is also one of the more heartbreaking moments of the show, which is why, as the show ends with Irving banging on Burt’s door as the override contingency is turned off, the second season might open with a very awkward conversation with Irving.
One of the least developed characters in the show, until we reach well into the 6th episode, Dylan is Zach Cherry’s comedic shtick that comes to life initially. He is a smart-aleck, able to comment on all of the cult mentality and the workforce issues of Lumon. However, he is also a believer in the rumors of the discord between O & D and MDR, and also manages to prove some of those rumors true, especially how many members of O & D are, and what O & D’s actual function is besides developing tote bags. However, Dylan becomes supremely important in a final couple of episodes of “Severance,” Season 1. Dylan’s innie is awakened for a moment when he is inside his outie’s house to find an infographic card that Dylan stole from O & D. However, at that moment, it is revealed to Dylan’s innie that he has a son and this awakening is done via the override contingency mechanism, a mechanism which Dylan, along with the rest of his group, works out to their advantage.
Dylan has also been known throughout the show as the most capable worker in the department, able to meet their quota in record time. Thus, Dylan takes advantage of the “waffle party” being awarded to him to restart the override contingency because he is fast enough to do a two-man job. The waffle party, though, is the creepiest part of the whole show, where the awarded employee is asked to go to the replica of the estate of Kier Eagan, located at the back of the perpetuity wing. Once having eaten the waffle with syrup, Dylan sits wearing a papier mâché head of Kier Eagan, while four dancers, each wearing kinky costumes and papier mâché heads, representing each of Kier Eagan’s four tempers dances “seductively”.
The existence of Ms. Casey, or as is revealed, Gemma, someone who is already believed dead in the outside world is sent beneath the ominous darkened doors. Ms Casey as an outie effectively doesn’t exist, which might extrapolate to the existence of more such innies. The existence of these innies could be the only way Lumon can host “waffle parties”; kind of like organizations of ancient times or even the lords of ancient times who held such orgies, and since Lumon is essentially trying to be the ruling dynasty here, this extrapolation might just hold. However, Dylan’s motivation for letting the innies take over the outies’ bodies to understand the outside world is that he wants to know the existence of his son, which is why he also manages to lose his temper and beat Milicheck to a pulp during Helly’s completion of the quota party.
“Severance,” Season 1 ends with Milicheck being informed by Cobel (Selvig), who realizes that Innie Mark has taken over the body because he mistakenly called her Ms. Cobel in public. Milicheck races towards the control center, where Dylan is precariously holding both the levers, turning the contingency override on. Milicheck barely manages to enter the room by cutting Dylan’s tie, which was holding the door closed, and pushing Dylan back, turning the override off as a result and pulling the innies back inside again.
Harmony Cobel, played by Patricia Arquette, is one of the most loyal workers for the Lumon corporation, to the extent that there is a shrine dedicated to Kier Eagan at her house, and she follows the doctrines in the compliance books like a bible, quoting Kier’s thoughts liberally when any problem comes her way. Harmony is also not severed, and her allegiance is to Kier Eagan’s ethos rather than the board of directors.
By choosing to not inform the board that she had been living a double life as Mark’s neighbor and then as nanny to his sister’s baby, that Helly had tried to hang herself at the elevator shaft, and that she had the reintegration chip she was running diagnostics on, Harmony Cobel’s allegiances are dubious. On the one hand she wants the company to survive, evident by her being angry at Helly for “ruining everything”, on the other hand her happiness towards Mark leaving the company lends added weight to her loyalty to Egan more than Lumon, and she might be not happy about where Lumon is currently moving towards. Hopefully her true motives will be made clearer in “Severance” Season 2.
Needless to say, “Severance” is one of those shows with a high concept executed to near perfection. A few quibbles aside, it is one of the best shows of the year.