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Severance S1E3: “In Perpetuity” Lampoons Corporate Culture

Courtesy of Apple TV+

The following contains spoilers for Severance S1E3, “In Perpetuity” (written by Andrew Colville and directed by Ben Stiller)

In my first two articles on Severance, I referred to Mark’s boss at work as Peggy Cobel, and I’m inclined to leave that be even though a reader pointed out it should be Harmony, and Harmony is what she is called in S1E3 during her scene with Natalie (Sydney Cole Alexander) and the board. IMDb had listed Patricia Arquette as Peggy, and though they’ve now updated the page to list her as Harmony, given the mystery around this woman’s identity, I can’t help but wonder if that’s a clue. Probably it is just a mistake, as IMDb does make mistakes and there are even a couple of others on the page for this show at the moment, but I guess I’m a little hung up on this along with the fact that the page makes no mention of the name Selvig.

Regardless, “In Perpetuity” adds some further wrinkles to the Cobel/Selvig question, even as it also seems to resolve it. As she snoops around his house and takes the book Ricken (Michael Chernus) left for him, which she proceeds to make Milchick (Tramall Tillman) read, it becomes clear that this isn’t a case of severed identities as I had speculated—or even hoped—it might be. Rather, Mark’s boss is keeping tabs on him outside of work, in a sustained way, going so far as to pose as his kindly neighbor.

It also seems clear that she must have messed up his trashcans on purpose, unless perhaps there really is a personality split between Cobel and Selvig and her severance just works differently from the others, not limited by the workplace but rather a matter of some kind of activation by actors hidden from view, like the Board. But this would still imply that they want to spy on Mark (Adam Scott) and it’s hard to fathom why the powers that be at Lumon would find this to be called for.

Harmony Cobel stares forward, with a computer to her side
Courtesy of Apple TV+

The search for Petey (Yul Vazquez) doesn’t really explain it, insofar as that is a recent development, though it’s worth noting that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense itself in terms of the motivations behind it. If Lumon’s board believes that reintegration isn’t possible, why do they care what Petey is doing now? And given what we’ve seen of the innies at work, they don’t seem to know anything damaging about the company. Petey was digging and scrawling on the back of a photo, but did he find something? He says something to Mark about a wing where the employees can truly never leave, but that just seems like slavery when the severance procedure provides a much more insidious means of procuring forced labor, so I’m not sure I even buy that Lumon would be doing that.

I’m torn between wishing that Severance would take us behind the curtain and wishing that things were all the more opaque. At least in S1E3 it feels like we’re in a weird middle space, and the impact of the severance procedure itself lands with less weight than it did in the first two episodes.

I don’t think it’s just because we’re used to the idea now—this is a premise it’s hard to get used to—but fear that, like so many stories with intriguing premises, Severance risks falling prey to making the plot about something else instead of following that premise where it leads and working through its logic.

For now, I’m trusting that this is not the case and that the existence of the Perpetuity Wing, along with the weird replica of Kier Eagan’s house, will tie into the central mysteries of Severance in ways I can’t foresee yet, as opposed to being quirky ornaments serving merely to indicate the company’s narcissism.

Mark and Helly talk, with a coffee maker on a counter in between where they are each standing
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Equally, as Helly (Britt Lower) gets sent to the break room in S1E3 and is forced to read the same statement we heard a recording of Mark reading previously, I couldn’t help but feel the effect of the scenario somewhat undermined. I hoped that the scene would carry it forward in some way that was terrifying, but instead this seems like a teacher at school making you write a contrite statement on the blackboard over and over again. That’s not terribly interesting.

I suppose I am intrigued by the spots where Milchick asks her to put her hands and the machine he’s using. What does this do and how nefarious is the biotech involved? Is there some way he can make Helly repeat the lines until he does believe that she means it, as though the device can gauge her authenticity? That would be terrifying, but I am reading into things quite a bit to get to this thought, and even before that remain unsure about the way Helly gives in and starts repeating the lines at all. It seems too easy, seeing how resistant she was at first, unless perhaps the technology does something along these lines as well.

Milchick looks up from reading Ricken's book, entitled The You You Are
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Helly’s resignation request was quickly denied, which does have me wondering if these are even delivered to the outies, but I’m inclined to think they are. We got a glimpse of Helly as she came to work at Lumon, and some indication that she’d been working on an important project those who hired her were excited about, so I wonder if actually there may be a large disjunction between the two Hellys that will come out later in the series. Perhaps the innie we’ve come to know and love is woefully naïve about the nature of the person she’s become in the outside world. Perhaps this person is gung-ho for Lumon and knows more about what’s going on than the innies do.

I’m speculating, but I do hope such questions of personal identity get back in the foreground of Severance as it moves forward. The personalities of the others we’ve met at Lumon outside of work form a compelling set of mysteries in and of themselves, along with the nature of the work they’re doing.

In many ways, it feels like S1E3 is holding back and spending too much time setting a stage that had already been set last week. I do wonder if Petey is OK, or if he is perhaps dead. But that’s two episodes in a row that have ended by raising that question. And I wonder about the people who helped him reintegrate, but of course we’d already been wondering about that, too. That Mrs. Selvig really is Ms. Cobel in disguise isn’t exactly surprising, as that was the surface-level reading that offered itself at the end of S1E1 anyway, but “In Perpetuity” doesn’t really move that forward so much as provide explicit confirmation of it, unless you really try to resist the obvious conclusion.

Dylan sits with his hands crossed in front of a banner that says Hello, Helly!
Courtesy of Apple TV+

The corporate culture of Lumon does continue to be a source of humor, and perhaps the greatest strength of this episode lies in its jokes, from the Perpetuity Wing itself to Dylan’s (Zach Cherry) Eagan Bingo cards and Ms. Cobel explaining to Mark how much it pained her to throw her coffee mug at him, though she really hopes he can learn from this traumatic experience—traumatic to her, that is.

It’s not entirely clear whether she is genuine or dissembling, or whether Lumon is serious or pretending in the ethos it presents, which makes it a perfect parody of the kind of corporate culture in the real world that clearly inspires all of this. Do the Eagans really think they are saving the world through this company? Do they really think the wellness visits help? Worse, do they help?

From a certain point of view, there is almost nothing more terrifying than the idea of a corporation that cares about you. Meaningfulness itself is at risk of being sucked into determination by the bottom line.

Burt and his colleague stand in a hallway
Courtesy of Apple TV+

But on the other hand, there is the detachment of the Board, who won’t even talk to Harmony through the intercom and seem to use Natalie as their intermediary before cutting the call abruptly. Is this a sign that Ms. Cobel has fallen out of grace with them, or has it always been like this? We didn’t hear them talk in the previous scene where she told Mark they were on the other end of the intercom either. But again, as I have been wondering throughout: why?

It could be that Severance has no answer to offer us, and that the way in which Lumon’s policies and practices veer almost into absurdity is itself the point, with the Kafkaesque punchline that there is no identifiable reason in the sense of a rational purpose, but merely a bureaucratic logic that spirals out in various directions in a way that no one can control any longer.

What is it that the Marcodata Refinement team is doing, and why are the numbers scary? Mark assures Helly in S1E3 that they aren’t all scary—some of them provoke more pleasant emotions—but this is one big question that I do think Severance will have to provide some kind of answer to.

Equally, there is the question of Burt (Christopher Walken). Dylan has a seemingly irrational animosity towards him, while Irv (John Turturro) kind of seems to like him too much. I find myself wondering if there is more of a history here involving Optics and Design than even our characters are aware of. I’m 99% sure that there wasn’t a coup, but if there was some event in the past, we can’t rule out that these very same people were involved and don’t remember it.

The opening credits show a multiplicity of Marks and not just two, and while I don’t think we should hang too much on a title sequence, it is also the case that Mark’s innie does not seem to remember things that Petey has indicated he should remember. I wouldn’t be surprised if the break room isn’t just a timeout but a furtherance of the severance procedure in some way, creating literal breaks in the flow of consciousness of the one who undergoes the session.

On the outside, Mark seems to be getting concerned about what’s going on inside of Lumon, but he’s also really into the way that severance has helped him cope with the loss of his wife. He doesn’t want to reintegrate, and seeing what’s happening to Petey physically probably just bolsters that for him further.

Instead, I expect he’ll continue to investigate what’s going on as best he can, which will mean continuing to go to work and the perpetuation of the split between the two versions of himself. Presumably he could quit, and it would just have to be the outie version of himself who did so, with work memories (and innie Mark) being forever lost to the void. But that wouldn’t make a very good TV show.

I wonder who is on the other end of that ringing phone Petey left behind.

See you next week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of 25YL. He struggles with authority, including his own.

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