The following contains spoilers for Severance S1E4, “The You You Are” (written by Kari Drake and directed by Aoife McArdle)
Severance S1E4 picks up with Helly (Britt Lower) in the break room, and indeed I would argue that “The You You Are” is really her story more than Mark’s. I have thought of Helly as a kind of co-protagonist to Mark (Adam Scott) since the beginning—after all, Severance began from her point of view—but the difference is that while we follow Mark outside of work as well as inside, it is only the innie version of Helly that we’ve gotten to know.
I may have been too dismissive of the process Milchick (Tramell Tillman) employs in the break room last week, comparing it to a teacher making you write a sentence over and over again, or perhaps I am too dismissive of the power of teachers doing that. With Helly we see what it would be like if detention lasted indefinitely. She leaves at the appointed time on the first day, only to have the elevator door open right back up to begin the second. So it goes when you’re a severed consciousness.
The last iteration we see of her with Milchick seems to be right after he’s noted that she’d (only) read the atonement passage 259 times so far, but when she returns to the main office space she tells the others her total was 1072. So, quite literally, we haven’t seen the half of it when it comes to her experience, but we did see her already breaking down psychologically.
We don’t know what the machine she is hooked up to is. Perhaps it is merely a lie detector, but those are notoriously unreliable. Maybe it’s a fictional version that actually works. Or maybe it’s just a matter of Milchick deciding that he’s broken the person’s spirit enough.
If that’s the case, when it comes to Helly he was incorrect, as she proceeds to threaten to cut off her fingers unless they let her record a video for her outie. Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) acquiesces to her demand, but this just leads to the most disturbing scene in Severance S1E4—it turns out the you that Helly is, is pretty evil.
After noting in her video reply that we all have to accept reality eventually, she says to Helly (herself):
I am a person, you are not. I make the decisions, you do not. And if you ever do anything to my fingers, know that I will keep you alive long enough to horribly regret that.
The extent of dehumanization in this statement is remarkable. It would be one thing to think that innies in general are not persons because they lack a history and so on, but to extend this thought to oneself is deeply cold and somewhat bizarre. Yet, it tracks with a certain view of the question of personal identity that Severance has been playing with all along, and with what might seem appealing about the severance procedure to those on the outside—the one who is working is not me, so who cares if the job is terrible.
I’m tempted to mention Karl Marx’s notion of alienation, but the alienation of self is pushed so far in Severance that the concept kind of breaks. We see this in Helly—she literally does not identify with the innie version of herself, and threatens to make her existence a living hell (or a worse one) if she continues to fight back.
I’m not surprised that Severance played this card, as the difference between Marks is rather subtle, and of course we have to think about cases where things are starker than that. Helly is exploiting a version of herself that she doesn’t have to deal with, and I continue to think that this outie version may have a better idea of what Lumon is up to overall than any of the innies we’ve come to know do.
Burt (Christopher Walken) comes to visit the Macrodata team and brings them the tote bags Irv (John Turturro) expressed excitement about, before extending an invite for them to come to visit Optics & Design. He’s drawn a map, which seems to go against the rules if we put this scene in conversation with the one where the team discusses the map Petey (Yul Vazquez) drew, but Irv doesn’t bat an eye at this. Perhaps he thinks Burt has the right to draw a little map because he is Burt, or perhaps he is just so taken with his new friend he doesn’t think to cite the manual regulation as would be his usual wont.
I remain curious about the animosity Dylan (Zach Cherry) has towards O&D, as it seems a bit unwarranted and I feel like there must be some reason behind it we’ll learn about eventually, but the main purpose of the Burt and Irving scenes in S1E4 seems to be to deepen our sense of the corporate culture of Lumon.
Aspects of this culture are rather odd if you think about them. If the company was founded in the 19th century, for example, what purpose could it possibly have had at the beginning that would extend to whatever it is doing now in refining macrodata (whatever that means)? Irv and Burt speak of Kier Eagan with a reverence bordering on religiosity—or maybe it’s across that line, honestly, and well into religiosity—but what would inspire such awe in them?
Last week’s episode saw Irving suggest taking Helly to the Perpetuity Wing, which he thought might provide her with the sense of meaningfulness she so clearly needs, and while I was distracted at the time by how ridiculous the whole thing was, perhaps we should think more about how it does indeed serve that function for Irv. He believes he is part of something larger and something good, even though he doesn’t know what it is. It makes millions of people smile. I believe because it is absurd.
The You You Are
The line between Ms. Cobel and Mrs. Selvig continues to erode in S1E4, or be simply absent, depending on how you look at it. I suppose I hesitate due to the way in which this woman’s whole demeanor seems to be different when she talks to Mark as Mrs. Selvig. Either Harmony is very, very good at pretending to be someone she is not (which is probably the case), or there is a more devious split between these personalities than we have seen with others, like a remote activation that allows Cobel to take over the consciousness of Selvig at just the right moment, such that it is the latter who arrives at Petey’s funeral but the former who drills into his skull to steal his chip. But this possibility is probably so outlandish I should drop the idea unless and until it is confirmed, and I don’t really think it will be.
There is another question here as to why Harmony wants Petey’s chip so desperately. Graner (Michael Cumpsty) informs her that Petey’s body is set to be cremated immediately after his funeral service, which means that the chip in his brain would have been destroyed (I presume), so what information does Ms. Cobel want to retrieve from it? She mentions reintegration during this conversation in her office, which the Board denies is possible, so I can’t help but wonder if this has something to do with it.
The end of Severance S1E4 features a montage of various characters, as Dylan reads from the book Ricken (Michael Chernus) wrote, which shares its title with this episode—The You You Are. The scene is effective in the way it brings together the audio and visual elements that compose it, but I can’t say I have any particular thoughts at the moment about the lines flowing from each letter in the word ‘destiny’ that Ricken put together. Mostly they struck me as cheesy, but maybe there is something there I’m missing.
It is worth noting that the book itself—any book other than the Lumon manual—is contraband, and we should remember Dylan’s theory about how the scary numbers represent eels they’re killing so that humanity can inhabit the sea as we consider his curiosity to read this text. Our innie friends are truly insulated from the outside world.
To one degree or another, each is trying to buck against the reality they find themselves in. Irv stumbles upon a mysterious room full of people doing something, and while I am not sure what they were doing, I am pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to see them doing it. It would seem that perhaps Optics & Design is more than two people, and that their real purpose is something other than creating new tote bags. Let’s speculate about what it could be!
Mark sculpts his clay into a tree during his wellness session with Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), which indicates a certain continuity with the outie version of Mark, who we saw in S1E4 pulling off the road to cry at a tree, presumably in relation to his deceased wife. We should perhaps remember how Petey said Mark carries the weight of his loss at work, he just doesn’t know what it is.
And then there’s Helly, who after being rejected and threatened by herself decides to go a step further. She gets an electrical cord and a trashcan, and, as “The You You Are” comes to a close, hangs herself in the elevator.
I find it unlikely that Helly will die from this, as Severance presents the scene as a cliffhanger and it would be poor form to not make us sit in the reality of the suicide if that’s what’s happened. Picking up next week with her dangling corpse wouldn’t work very well, and so we can predict instead something “saving” her at the 11th hour.
I’m glad for that, because I truly like and care for (innie) Helly with all of her willfulness. Indeed, that same trait is evident in her outie, whose decision to sever and enlist her alienated self at Lumon seems to rest on unshakable ground. The sadness is that innie Helly was just as certain that her outie would free her—she believed in herself, and now that faith has been shaken. The you that she is turns out to be a cold-hearted bitch.
Of course, she’s just as spiteful, or at least that’s how I read this final act—it’s not that Helly wants to end her own existence because working at Lumon is so terrible, it’s that she wants to kill that version of herself who said on the video she wasn’t a person. Such an act of will clearly proves that she is, and I wonder what the fallout will be.
See you next week.