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Severance S1E5: Wordplay and “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design”

Courtesy of Apple TV+

The following contains spoilers for Severance S1E5, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design” (written by Anna Ouyang Moench and directed by Aoife McArdle)


Severance S1E5 ends with Burt (Christopher Walken) introducing Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irv (John Turturro) to the rest of the Optics & Design team, as friends. It turns out that just as rumors have swirled in MDR about O&D having staged a coup in the past, in O&D they talk about how the Macrodata Refinement folks are not to be trusted because they are infested with malicious larval parasites.

The painting that Irv found in the copier earlier in S1E5 (which would seem to share its name with this episode’s title, “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design”) was planted by Milchick (Tramell Tillman) on purpose to drive a wedge between Burt and Irving. That he didn’t run the plan by Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette) first might be worth noting, but when we put this information together with the discovery our friends make towards the end of the episode, of a nearly identical painting claiming to depict the barbarity of MDR, it becomes clear that all of this is a ruse intended to keep these two departments apart. Which raises the question: why in the world would Lumon care about that?

A man eats someone's organs in a painting entitled The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design in Severance
Courtesy of Apple TV+

We don’t really know what either group does, if we take O&D’s painting hanging function to be simply optics designed to distract from their true purpose (which I do). Their real job seems to have to do with those machines and clipboards.

On the other end, MDR searches for numbers that evoke emotions. Perhaps these two things go together, but if so there must be a third that would reveal their true meaning (and I don’t think it is the baby goats, though also: what is up with the baby goats!?).

A man wearing a suit feeds a baby goat milk from a bottle in a white room with some hay on the floor
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Harmony also says in Severance S1E5 that she is trying something new with Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), which suggests that having Casey observe Helly (Britt Lower) has less to do with Helly and more to do with Casey. Indeed, everything about Ms. Casey seems somewhat stilted and robotic, which becomes more striking outside of the wellness sessions where this seemed like it was perhaps more of an act for the purpose of therapy. That does not seem to be the case in “The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design,” as she appears to be genuinely befuddled by how Mark (Adam Scott) and Helly behave and genuinely relieved to find them when she does.

Perhaps the whole purpose of Lumon centers on the manipulation of emotion itself, with O&D not just putting up paintings but tracking the responses to them and doing some kind of data entry that then gets kicked over to MDR for refinement. But the overall vision and Ms. Casey’s role in it remains something I don’t even have a good speculative guess about. I do find myself thinking now, though, that Ms. Casey is one of the subjects in an experiment, as opposed to a member of of the group performing the experiment.

People holding clipboards stand in rows with a lot of space in between them in a long white room with metallic machines on the sides, in the Optics and Design department at Lumon
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Also, Irving’s daymares of black goo recur in Severance S1E5, which led me to wonder in the moment if the innies might all be in some kind of simulation at risk of breaking down. I’ve decided that wouldn’t really track with everything else, but something about this scene does strike me as a clue. Maybe it’s an experience of the line between the two Irvs, but that feels a little too straightforward.

As for Helly, S1E4 left us with her hanging herself in the elevator, and this week’s episode confirms my interpretation that she wanted to murder her outie by having her say as much directly. She wanted her to come back to consciousness dying, and she did, though she survived the incident and still refuses to quit Lumon. I continue to think that outie Helly knows more about what’s going on at Lumon than we do so far and that she’s committed to it. I just hope that this purpose ultimately feels weighty enough for it to make sense of her actions, if not excuse them. (Nothing could, in my mind, excuse the grim barbarity of what she’s doing to innie Helly/herself.)

Ricken makes a downtrodden face as he stands in front of a wood paneled wall
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Outside of work, Mark goes to visit Devon (Jen Tullock) and Ricken (Michael Chernus) in their birthing cabin and helps Ricken hang some kelp for reasons unknown. He learns about the book Ricken left him, which we’ve seen innie Mark reading on the toilet, and which was indeed stolen by Ms. Cobel and then left on a chair by Milchick. Did they forget about this book? I would have thought the plan would have been to ultimately place it back on Mark’s stoop. Of course Ricken is narcissistic enough to find a way to mention it, under the auspice of telling secrets to help his baby (somehow), but he’s also so stuck in his own world as to be unable to see that he is. Ricken is a whole type, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Chernus in his limited scenes.

Regardless, it is striking to see the effect that passages of The You You Are can have on the innies we’ve come to know (as Dylan has also been sneakily reading when he gets a chance). Ricken’s text is just about the most facile diatribe against the system imaginable, but even this wisdom in the form of wordplay is making thought happen in these readers (even as it would be laughed at by those in the outside world).

“The center of industry is dust.”

Harmony Cobel gives a stern look from behind her desk, a three panel painting of a stormy sky behind her
Courtesy of Apple TV+

It would seem that Ms. Cobel’s interest in Petey’s chip boiled down to being able to provide evidence of reintegration to the Board, which Graner (Michael Cumpsty) has now gathered for her. But she’s not telling the Board about this just yet. She says it’s because she wants to be able to present them everything at once, but I find myself somewhat unsure about that. Maybe Harmony will turn out to be duplicitous in another way from what we’ve seen so far in Severance, or maybe I’m just suspicious of everything at this point.

The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design

The visual effect that Severance uses to mark the transition between consciousnesses in the elevator at Lumon is never more striking than it is in S1E5—with Helly, of course, but perhaps even more so with Mark. He finds Helly strangling in the elevator and is distraught about her well-being, but after Milchick pushes him to get in the elevator and leave, the calm of ignorance washes over his face as he becomes the outie version of himself.

Mark looks distraught as he stands in an elevator in Severance S1E5
Courtesy of Apple TV+

But then, of course, as he returns to work the next day the visceral concern returns as well. It’s all quite striking and brings home the premise of Severance immediately, if somehow the more cerebral consideration of the same didn’t do the trick. These are different persons, and it is only optics that covers over the pernicious implications of Lumon’s design—the creation of an oppressed workforce that maintains a veneer of consent.

Helly agrees to help Mark try to reconstruct Petey’s map after they discover the baby goats that aren’t ready yet (?!), and there are strong indications that somehow if they can discover the various departments at Lumon they’ll be able to figure out the company’s designs in the sense of their schemes and machinations.

My best guess is something about psychological manipulation that they want to expand to humanity at large, in a kind of perverse gloss on the idea that their aim is to make the world a better place, full of smiling people.

The word 'dust' appears in parentheses across the top of the screen, above Mark standing in an open elevator door at the Lumon office in Severance S1E5
Courtesy of Apple TV+

What baby goats have to do with this, though, is anyone’s guess.

Written by Caemeron Crain

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

Caesar non est supra grammaticos

One Comment

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  1. I know this is a deep dive, but I’m a writer myself. The suicidal rage Helly feels against her “outie” is one we can all identify with. My editor believes we exist on an astral level and actively choose to return to this world in human form. Yet, we know nothing of our astral selves and can often feel existential pain at being separated from the Divine Oneness of the Universe. This world is one of rules and obligations to which we must conform, even though they often don’t make sense. Our real purpose is often a mystery. Does our astral “outie” see our physical manifestation as not real? Hmm…maybe Dr. Ricken Hale could explore this in a sixth book.

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