(many MANY spoilers ahead)
What if you, for all intents and purposes, were an entirely separate person at work? Free from any of the distractions from your personal life, yet able to go home with no lingering thoughts of the workday as you do laundry, make plans with loved ones, or prepare meals. This sounds wonderful in theory, but seeing it in practice in the workplace thriller, Severance, forces me to reconsider my stance. Because in this not-too-distant future, being able to have two distinctly separate existences means undergoing the rather permanent process of “severance,” resulting in a total lack of awareness of half of your life, and, with it, a ton of horrible implications and too many mysteries to count.
Mark (Adam Scott) is the epitome of a ‘company man.’ He’s happy to chug along at his cubicle in the disconcertingly large and mostly empty office on the basement floor of Lumon Industries performing tasks of which he has little understanding (“The work is mysterious and important”) with unquestioning cheer. A wrench is soon thrown into the works, in the form of a new trainee, Helly (Britt Lower), who is decidedly not okay with the position she’s now in, which is not so much that of an employee being onboarded into a new position but rather a captive who’s found themselves conscripted into service. Because when you undergo severance, you will forever live life with two different temporal experiences (via brain surgery). Still one person, but the working version of you has absolutely no knowledge of the you off the clock and vice versa. This doesn’t sound awful at first glance, but the series smartly depicts how disorienting it can be: no perception of sleep or time off (Helly: “A weekend just happened? I don’t even feel like I left”), you technically never dress yourself, nor see to your own hygiene, the list goes on. But many humans are able to become accustomed to some pretty strange circumstances. For Mark and his longtime office mates, Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irving (John Turturro), it’s a seemingly peaceful enough arrangement on the surface; in fact, the company culture is so encouraging of treating the external version as an inconsequential afterthought that their alternate personas are granted the dismissively cutesy name, “Outies” (work versions are, naturally, “Innies”). But for others, such as in Helly’s case, this ‘convenient’ arrangement is fully capable of turning hostile, to the point of suicide/sorta kinda murder.
More than halfway through the nine-episode season, we still know little about the larger situation at hand, even basic information such as what the severance floor does at Lumon, or even what industry the company takes part in (tech is a major aspect, though surely there’s something significant about their start as a topical salve company in the 19th century). What are the refiners actually doing with all of the floating numbers on the screens and why are they so heavy with meaning? From the orientation handbook:
A refiner is someone who makes something pure, more usable, and more accessible, whether it is the oil industry, the sugar industry or our industry. As a Lumon refiner, you’ll be removing impurities from data and reorganizing that data into its purest form. You have been selected for this position because we recognize in you both the intuition and emotional intelligence to perform those tasks quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, reliably. Essentially a Macrodata Refiner sorts data sets from different categories into digital bins, a task which requires immense skill and focus.
It’s safe to assume they have little to do with the goats, as Mark points out when he and Helly stumble upon them. I would hazard a guess that they’re used for experiments, perhaps the recipients of trial chips, which Lumon will probably work diligently on redesigning once they discover that Mark’s former coworker and best friend, Petey (Yul Vazquez), had his chip hacked and was subsequently reunified (severance reversed), a possibility that was, until now, declared impossible. My best theory at the moment is that the hack was an inside job, someone on one of the other levels at Lumon, which would account for how Petey got his hands on Mark’s tape from the Break Room. But this then invites a whole host of other questions, including what the hell the severance floor does that requires such an extreme procedure (considering the work itself is so mysterious), especially since other floors, such as whatever one is responsible for the development/implantation of the chip, presumably don’t have to undergo it—we know for certain that upper management doesn’t undergo severance, as Harmony (Patricia Arquette) spends the other half of her day acting as Mark’s neighbor, Mrs. Selvig, and Milchick (Tramell Tillman), who taped Helly’s disclaimer and oversaw her severance prior to her “orientation.” Going by this logic, then, that would mean that Optics and Design are also in full possession of their memories, which puts a whole other spin on the series’ emerging romance between Irving and Burt (Christopher Walken). This show has surprised me on several occasions now, but nothing put me in quiet amazement quite like this spectacular moment:
My heart leapt at this touching moment of intimacy until it crash-landed back down at the realization that if Burt’s memory is intact, that means that only he would remember their relationship. Also, what in the world happened in the massacre depicted in The Macrodata Refinement Calamity and does it account for why the Macrodata Refinement department is so small in such an enormous space? It is easier to keep four people from bloodthirsty rampages than, say, twenty. What of Irving’s unsettling hallucinations? Is it the matter of a faulty chip or does Irving have some sort of mental illness? It’s impossible to know how any of the severed employees’ Outies, besides Mark, live. As nice as the list of pleasing qualities that Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) reads aloud to Irving, it’s just as likely they’re nothing more than pacifying bits of make believe.
The questions are nearly endless. Hopefully, many of them will be answered over the next three weeks (most importantly, is there any chance of Burt and Irving having any sort of happy ending?) Things will probably only get weirder from here as Harmony continues her secret investigation—if her quasi-religious company-related fervor is intense enough for her to repeat former and first woman CEO Myrtle Egan’s lifelong chant (“Vision. Verve. Wit. Cheer. Humility. Benevolence. Nimbleness. Probity. Wiles”) in stressful times, odds are her higher ups, The Board, are absolutely terrifying—and Mark (the Innie version) slowly begins to rebel against Lumon. Series creator Dan Erickson has expressed hopes for a season two, which means that it’s likely there will be some answers withheld even after this season comes to a close. Before that happens, I hope we get more insight into the incredibly odd pseudo-religion/cult/corporation that Lumon founder Kier Eagan has established (and maintained control via his descendants), especially in regards to the departments being “sorted by virtue”—according to Petey, one of which is a secret that holds employees who never leave, which leads me to my biggest swing of a theory, which is that it’s possible to have a dual severance procedure so someone inside the company can work on the most secretive project yet be unaware of they do so—and the tie-in to Egan’s many eyebrow-raising notions such as the four tempers (Woe, Frolic, Dread, Malice). As tooth-grindingly painful as it would be to not uncover every facet of this unsettling mystery over the coming weeks, I’m invested enough in this dark satire to have patience to see out Erickson’s long-term vision, even if it means more work for us.
New episodes of Severance are available on Apple TV+ on Fridays.
Kaleena Rivera is the TV Editor for Pajiba. When she isn’t burning her eyes going through this show frame by frame, she can be found on Twitter here.