The following contains spoilers for the Season 1 finale of Severance, S1E9, “The We We Are” (written by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller)
In terms of plot, the season finale of Severance is basically a protracted cliffhanger. We don’t really learn much of anything more about what Lumon does, besides getting confirmation that Gabby (Nora Dale) underwent severance to give birth, from which we can infer that the procedure is offered as a consumer product, though probably at this point on a limited (and perhaps not fully legal) basis. What data the MDR team has been refining and what makes it macro remains an open question, along with the purpose of virtually everything we have seen happen in the Lumon office.
It is true that Severance S1E9 provides confirmation that Helly (Britt Lower) is an Eagan, which will surely delight those who’ve guessed as much and pleasantly stun those who hadn’t, but that information in and of itself doesn’t go much of anywhere. I suppose it answers the question as to why Helena has been so obstinate in remaining a severed employee, even in the wake of her innie attempting suicide, but insofar as I’ve wondered about her underlying motivation the brute appeal to lineage doesn’t feel very satisfying.
Yet, there is enough to formulate a working theory. It may require taking the Eagan philosophy seriously—which, if I’m honest, I am not quite sure I have done over the course of Season 1—but if we take Helena’s taped line about the workers being family as a sincere belief on the part of the Eagans, then we might view the treatment of the innies as itself the point.
This would be in line with suggestions I have made previously on the thought that the employees at Lumon aren’t so much performing a meaningful task as they are subjects of an experiment, but given the supposed stakes of Helena’s speech (which I am surmising relate to the more widespread use of severance, in line with Gabby’s usage of it in order to not experience the pain of labor), along with the existence of the overtime protocol (and the other options presented to Dylan before he activated it last week), I’m now thinking that Lumon’s purpose is to inculcate those who have been severed with the pseudo-religion of Kier and then “make the world a better place” by flipping a switch such that it is overrun by those who have been so indoctrinated.
They would still be in the relatively early stages of this experiment, and I can’t quite formulate a hypothesis as to how the baby goats would fit into the plan, but it would fit if the macrodata being refined relates to the severed themselves and if somehow the MDR team really are sorting what’s occurring in people’s minds in line with the idea of the tempers.
I don’t know if I can buy into that as plausible or not, but it might be interesting to gather together all of the elements of the Lumon/Eagan philosophy that we can and to critically assess just how terrifying it would be if they are trying to spread it across the world through the use of the severance procedure.
I’m still wondering what else the company does, though, and what they did for all of those decades before severance existed. It’s this very quotidian mystery that I’m finding myself most frustrated at not getting more of an answer to as Season 1 comes to a close.
But it is probably better to approach Severance in terms of its character drama anyway—the point of watching a TV show isn’t to puzzle out where it is going, even if it can be fun to engage in theories and speculation.
On this front, “The We We Are” is perhaps most poignant with regard to Irv (John Turturro), who tracks down Burt (Christopher Walken) out in the world, only to find him in the arms of another man. We do have to wonder, though, about that map he found, along with a list of severed employees. Outie Irv has been trying to figure something out, maybe because he’s haunted by the dark hallway he keeps painting. (Also, are those addresses in Prince Edward Island? That’s on the opposite side of Canada from Leonora Lake!)
Mark (Adam Scott) is appropriately in awe of meeting Ricken (Michael Chernus) and learns that Gemma is alive as Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), even if he doesn’t get time to explain what he means before Milchick (Tramell Tillman) tackles Dylan (Zach Cherry) away from the switches, ending his time out in the world. Innie Mark knows now, though, which is an intriguing wrinkle in itself. I can’t imagine the Board being happy about that.
Equally, Dylan’s extreme insubordination seems to me to go beyond what the break room can be deployed to resolve. And Helly’s knowledge of herself as an Eagan is problematic. If it hasn’t already been the case that Lumon has been severing employees multiple times, as I’ve suggested previously, I would certainly think all of this might motivate them to give it a go now. Season 2 might begin with the innies we’ve come to know and love apparently gone to the void.
The We We Are
The extent to which there is a connection between innies and outies has been a question in Severance since the beginning. Naïve common sense suggests one, but metaphysically speaking this would require the existence of a soul or some kind of perduring essence to the self—or perhaps the Freudian Unconscious would do the trick.
I prefer this latter option, and it would fit with the ways in which Severance (the show) has suggested that severance (the procedure) is less than perfect. Irv paints the dark hallway over and over again, Mark molds a tree from clay during his wellness session with Ms. Casey, and so on. There are little moments that indicate some unconscious continuity between the halves of the severed selves, and to some degree this is true even of Helly, who is clearly quite headstrong in both versions of herself.
Yet, the difference between selves is also starkest with Helly, as Helena Eagan is on board with using herself as an example to promote the idea of severance, whereas Helly R. tells Cobel she’s going to kill the company (and means it). And, of course, she tried to kill herself, not in the sense of suicide conceived as an escape from a reality of suffering but as an act of vengeful murder against outie-Helena. It’s quite striking how Severance has managed to give us such a protagonist and antagonist who hang together in one flesh.
But then how could we reconcile these two personas as aspects of one self, if not through an appeal to something beneath the surface they share, some kind of underlying personality? It’s tempting to do so more with Dylan, Irv, and Mark. What Helly’s case makes clear is the extent to which, in all of these cases, we’re positing something that isn’t readily apparent.
The idea that the outie version of Helena could attest to the ethicality of the severance procedure is, of course, in direct contradiction to the very idea of severance, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t function. A façade of consent can work just as well as the real thing when the true goal is to console oneself that one’s hands are clean of exploitation.
We, on the other hand, have seen the suffering of the innies firsthand, such that the polished PR presentation of them at the gala evokes visceral disgust and anger. We should do well to bear in mind the extent to which it’s the same structure at play when we see some polished ad from a mega-corporation that uses sweatshop labor pretending that they care about human rights.
Note that when Helly gets behind the podium and begins to tell the audience of her suffering, they laugh. The appearance is the reality in political terms, or economic terms. Though what she says is the truth, it’s completely unable to puncture the agreed-upon delusion. The scandal will be that there was a snafu in the presentation.
And then there is Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who lost faith in Kier in S1E8 but scrambles to correct things in S1E9 as soon as she learns that it’s innie Mark she’s talking to at the party. I still wonder about her persona as Mrs. Selvig and the infiltration of Mark’s private life (which the Board did not know about), but perhaps this is best read as her simply going above and beyond to serve Lumon.
But her devotion to Lumon is not ultimately in question. She takes the first opportunity to attempt to get back in the company’s graces, but she also clearly cares directly about the violation of protocol she sets out to correct. She calls Milchick frantically and speeds off to the gala. Even if her attempt to persuade Helly before she takes the stage fails, her belief in Lumon is evident.
Indications are that Harmony is not severed, though this could be complicated down the line. The significance of the name Charlotte Cobel remains a question. Why does this woman have three names? And which, if any of them, is the real one?
Milchick has equally been presented as an unsevered Lumon employee, but my suspicions are that this is not the case. Perhaps he’s just been so thoroughly sucked into things that his outie no longer really exists. Doesn’t it kind of seem like he’s at work around the clock?
Severance Season 2 is reportedly in production, so hopefully we won’t have to wait too terribly long for this story to continue. In the meantime, I suggest contemplating Lumon’s nine core values and studying the Eagan family line.
Maybe you’ll win a Waffle Party.