Severance Season 1 Episode 1: Good News About Hell Recap

This is a recap of the AppleTV+ series Severance, season 1 episode 1. My review of the season is HERE.

Severance is ostensibly a series about work-life balance, but while it’s a complex, layered show, there’s very little balance involved. A little juggling, maybe, by some of the characters who haven’t been through the severance procedure, which splits memories into a work life and a home life, with no meeting of the two minds. But there is no way for two halves who can’t communicate with one another to negotiate anything like balance between them. Instead, this is a show about choices, connection and self awareness, in a controlled environment that tests the characters as if they are lab animals.

This distinction between the work self and home self as two halves of the same whole who don’t and never will know or understand each other is introduced and explored in episode 1 when Adam Scott’s Mark finds that his best work friend Petey has left his job at Lumon Industries. Mark is promoted to Petey’s former position on the spot and told to acclimate his own replacement, Helly R (Britt Lower), who has just undergone the severance procedure. The corporate philosophy that humans are replaceable, programmable plug and play resources is illustrated within the show’s first few minutes. The flaws in this sort of thinking are also exposed.

Recap

The series begins with an overhead shot looking down on an unconscious woman dressed in a skirt, blouse and heels. She’s lying on her stomach on a conference room table in a windowless room, arms and legs bent at awkward angles. She’s alone in the room, but a male voice coming out of a small speaker on the table asks, “Who are you?” When she doesn’t answer, he repeats the question. The woman begins to stir at the sound of his voice.

This introduction to the series tells us a lot about what’s to come. Helly, as we’ll come to know her, has been left in a precarious position on a tabletop in her office attire, as if she flopped there at the end of last night’s office party. She could easily roll off or be sexually assaulted. She’s not even covered with a blanket to keep her warm while she’s unconscious, standard procedure for patients who can’t speak for or cover themselves. And she’s left to wake up alone, except for an unknown man who demands to know her identity.

This is not a friendly, caring place. It is a place that cares very much about appearances, especially the appearance of having rules and order. At work you wear work clothing, including shoes, even when unconscious. And you turn away from embarrassing sights rather than helping coworkers in distress. There is a sinister undertone that shows the initial appearance of order is a lie. Helly is dropped on a hard, unsafe surface that’s both a threat and an accusation, her body twisted into uncomfortable angles. Did she do something wrong to end up there, was something done to her or both?

Then there’s the setting, a conference table on top of a carpet that looks like a putting green. Once the implication of sport is included, it begins to feel like Helly has been served up as the latest meal for whoever is watching from above. The male voice wakes her up with a question to signal that it’s time for the games to begin. The question is both specific and vague so the subject can never be sure if they gave a satisfactory answer, since most of the cues people use to judge others’ reactions are missing from a disembodied, electronic voice.

As Helly awakens, she asks who’s speaking to her. The voice ignores her questions, but realizes he’s made an error with the script he’s reading and turns back to the beginning. Order restored, he invites her to take a 5 question survey and assures her it will make her “feel right as rain.”

Helly and the voice continue to ignore each other while she repeatedly asks who he is and what’s going on. When she gets off the table we can see that the walls are covered in sound proofing tiles.

On the severed floor, no one can hear you scream.

Helly tries the door, but it’s locked. She demands to be set free, but the voice is stuck on his survey. As Helly circles the room, grid and bar patterns are revealed, emphasizing that she might as well be a lab animal in a cage. She has one physical path available to her and, as she bangs on the door again and tells the voice to let her go, it soon becomes clear that she has only one behavioral path available- unless she wants to take drastic measures that don’t jibe with her outfit or the orderly office environment.

But as a kidnapping victim, Helly doesn’t mind making a scene. She struggles with the door until she falls down. By my count, she yells, “Open the door!” and “Let me out!” twice each, just for future reference.

After she falls, she gives up and decides to try taking the survey, even though the voice won’t reveal what will happen afterward. The first question is, as previously stated, “Who are you?” The voice will accept a first name, but Helly doesn’t know. The voice rapidly moves on to the second question: “In which US state or territory were you born?” Helly can’t answer. The third question: “Name any US state or territory.” Helly names Delaware, almost as an afterthought. Question 4: “What is Mr Eagan’s favorite breakfast?” Answer unknown. Question 5: “What is or was the color of your mother’s eyes?” Heartbreak spreads across Helly’s face as she realizes she’s forgotten the answer.

While Helly is asking what they did to her, the owner of the voice opens the door. He’s backlit so that she can only see him in darkened silhouette as he looms over her and tells her she’s achieved a perfect score on the survey. She’s terrified.

Title card and reset.

Severance S1Ep1 Helly Wakes UpSeverance S1Ep1 A perfect score.

When we return, the disembodied voice, also known as Mark Scout, is ugly crying in his car before work. He’s free with his emotions, sobbing out loud, tears streaming down his face, choking and coughing on his despair. When it’s time to go inside, he pulls himself together, stuffs his used tissue into his pocket and heads inside. The parking lot is full of cars, but there are no other people in sight.

Based on the shadow bisecting the shot of the car and the camera angle, someone in a nearby car was watching Mark cry. Welcome to Creepytown, Incorporated.

Mark strolls into a cavernous lobby and presents his corporate ID to the receptionist (Anthoula Katsimatides), who calls ahead to ask if they’re ready for Mr Scout. After a pause, she tells Mark he can go ahead. Mark is silent during the entire exchange, but he plays through to the next round. In a shot from above, the receptionist’s zone looks like a playing field, or maybe the 1st hole on a mini-golf course.

He passes by a monolithic bas relief portrait of the 19th century founder of Lumon Industries, Kier Eagon. Kier, as he’s known to one and all, looks like the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Mark inserts his ID card into a card reader, goes down a flight of stairs, takes an elevator, and then finally reaches a locker room next to another elevator.

I’m tempted to start counting how many circles of Hell he crosses to get to his floor.

He removes his identifying accessories, such as his wallet and personal ID, intricate watch and LL Bean duck boots, and replaces them with the generic office versions waiting in his locker. The duck boots are a fantastic touch, since there are millions of workers in the North who go through the same ritual every morning. Then Mark enters the elevator’s waiting room, where Judd the security guard (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) greets him by name before waving a detector wand over him. Mark passes the inspection and enters the elevator that will take him to the “severed” floor.

We watch the elevator ride in close up on his blank face. A bell rings, Mark’s eyelids flutter, and his work persona takes over. Work Mark looks a little younger, the corners of his mouth are turned slightly up and his eyes open a little wider. He stands a little straighter and moves with more purpose. He also has a cool late 50s-early 60s jazz soundtrack, though it begins with chimes that sound suspiciously like the beginning of Mr Sandman.

Work Mark leaves the elevator and walks to the Macrodata Refinement office. We’re shown all 90ish seconds of the transitional walk through bright white halls that feel like we’re now inside an Apple device rather than watching their streaming service. Work Mark tosses out Home Mark’s used tissue, because he’s not grieving a lost loved one. His demeanor grows in optimism and confidence as he approaches his office, which looks like the combination of a space pod and a putting green, with a lone 4 person cube dropped in the middle.

Only one of his colleagues, Dylan (Zach Cherry), is present when Mark arrives and turns on his computer. As he pulls out the file he’s currently working on, Dylan notices that he’s sniffling and worries that he’s sick. Mark notes that one of their other colleagues, Petey (Yul Vazquez), was sniffling yesterday. Dylan threatens bodily harm if Mark gets him sick. Mark isn’t impressed with how quickly Dylan became aggressive. Dylan says that he’ll be mad if Petey is out sick because he’s almost finished with the Tumwater file and he wants Petey to process it before the weekend. Mark thinks Petey is indeed out sick, since he hasn’t arrived yet.

Mark flips through several file names on his screen, including Cairns, Coleman and Culpepper (and one that starts with B that I can’t quite catch) before clicking on the Dranesville file. Dylan verges on criticizing the company in his frustration over the Tumwater file and Petey’s potential absence. Mark gently warns him to rein it in just as a third team member, Irving (John Turturro), arrives, joking, “Hi kids. What’s for dinner?” Dylan reminds Irving that they’ve told him not to greet them that way. He says he thought they were kidding. They explain that they’ve come up with 8 reasons why they hate this greeting, including that it’s condescending and confusing to them, plus it makes Irving sound like a lousy dad whose kids have to make dinner for him.

Irving notices Petey is out and they once again go over Dylan’s disappointment that Petey won’t be able to process the Tumwater file before the weekend. Dylan was looking forward to the prizes he’ll get from the incentive plan for finishing the file. If he’s the top refiner for the quarter he gets a waffle party. Irving grumbles about these kids today and their high expectations. In the old days they worked for handshakes and coffee creamer and were grateful for what they got.

By now all three have their files open and are busy “refining”. Their screens show a number grid, with icons for 5 bins at the bottom. When several digits grow larger than the others, the refiner isolates them and drops them into the appropriate bin.

They’re interrupted by Mr Milchick (Tramell Tillman), their handler and immediate supervisor, who’s come to take Mark to see their boss, Ms Cobel (Patricia Arquette), in the administration section. On the walk through the halls, Milchick tells Mark that Ms Cobel has just moved into a new office and she’d like it if he complemented her on it.

Mark does what Milchick suggested and tells Ms Cobel that her new office is nice. She replies that it’s horrid, so he backtracks and says that the old one was better, while side eyeing Milchick, who clearly set him up. Ms Cobel is still unpacking boxes and settling in.

Milchick plugs in a speaker like the one in the opening scene while Ms Cobel tells Mark that the board will be joining the meeting remotely. She also tells Mark that he looks hungover. He looks down at his body, as if he expects the hangover to be stuck to his suit.

Once the equipment is set up, Ms Cobel informs the board that Mark S is there with her. No one speaks, so Mark decides to pick up the ball. He says he assumes he’s meant to sub as department manager while Petey’s out sick, which shouldn’t be an issue, because he’s done it before. Ms Cobel interrupts to inform him that Petey is no longer an employee of the company. Milchick adds, “I’m sorry, Mark. You guys were one of my favorite office friendships.” Mark is at a loss, since Petey left with no warning. He asks what happened. Milchick can’t tell him, since sharing that information with Mark would be an assault on Petey’s privacy.

Mark still has questions, but Ms Cobel moves on. She has him place his current key card on her desk. She stands and tells him, “Mark S, at this time I confer upon you the freedom to serve Kier in the advanced role of Macrodata Refinement Department Chief. A handshake is available upon request.”

She places a new key card on the desk. He takes the new card and she removes the old one. Mark thinks for a moment, then says, “Thank you, may I have a handshake?” Ms Cobel also hesitates for a moment, then shakes his hand.

These people take consent very seriously.

They give Mark a training handbook and ask if he needs time to prepare, since it’s the first time he’s run an orientation session. He declines the offer. Ms Cobel notes that Irving will shadow him and all he needs to do is follow the steps in the manual. On his way out the door, Mark thanks the board. Ms Cobel informs him that they aren’t “contributing to the meeting… vocally.”

Severance S1Ep1 Kier in LobbySeverance S1Ep1 Dranesville FileSeverance S1Ep1 Mark, Irving & Dylan at CubeSeverance S1Ep1 Cobel & Milchick

Milchick sets up a monitor in the observation room next to the conference room where we met Helly. Mark looks over the handbook and confirms that he should start with the input survey and stick to the script instead of following his instinct to just talk to the trainee. Milchick tells him to start at prompt 1A and go line by line, choosing his next response according to her answers. “She deserves to have the information presented to her in the proper order, just as you had.” Irving tries to console Mark about the loss of Petey, but Mark brushes him off. They recall that the last woman they had on the team was named Carol. Dylan replaced her.

This is the other side of the opening scene and the explanation for why the input survey was presented to Helly in a less than orderly manner. Mark was told his closest friend had essentially died to him, then promoted and sent to perform his first training, all in the space of a few minutes, while anonymous observers judged his reactions. Since he wants a good job performance review, he refused help or time to process the loss before going on to the next task.

Mark notices that the instructions say the trainee can leave the room if they ask three times. Detailed instructions for this procedure are on page 19. Milchick finishes setting up and tells them he loves “seeing you all comes in like this.” He leaves the room, saying they can start when they’re ready. Mark asks “Who are you?” twice before Irving reminds him to read the preamble and Mark starts the procedure over at the beginning. Irving looks up at the camera that’s watching them. It takes Mark a few seconds to find the correct response to each of Helly’s replies. She struggles with the door and demands they let her go. The door to the conference room is right next to them, so it’s loud and scary for them, too. Irving comments that Helly isn’t supposed to test the door and worries that she’ll break into the observation room. Mark is sure she won’t.

Milchick steps into Ms Cobel’s office and asks if she’s aware of how the input survey is going. She calmly tells him she’s watching it. He asks if he should intervene. She tells him no.

Skipping ahead to when Mark opens the door, he tells Helly she got a perfect score and that he thinks they’re having a disconnect because he initially skipped the preamble. Helly asks if she’s livestock that was grown in a lab to full adulthood and that’s why she has no memory. Mark tells her no, she’s not food, pointing out that it would be unlikely for someone to bother dressing and accessorizing food the way she is.

Not really, but we can talk about the habits of cannibals another day.

Helly asks what her name is, so he tells her it’s Helly R. I like to think the R stands for Raiser, as in Hellraiser. 😉 Mark gestures for her to join him at the table and he returns to his prepared script. As soon as he mentions the severed floor, she’s on edge again. But the instructions say they need to put that term aside and talk about work-life balance instead. Helly doesn’t agree with the change of subject. She jumps up, grabs the speaker and throws it at Mark’s head before trying to escape through the door again. Since Mark has had his memories erased of people throwing things, flying objects and dodging objects that are flying at his head, he sits still and lets the speaker hit him in the forehead.

Ouch. I literally scream every time it happens. It pains me to see people lose their hard won survival skills, especially the ones we all earned by getting bumps and bruises as little kids. This is why everyone needs to play hard in the real world as a child- so you understand the laws of physics and how they interact with your body on an instinctual level. Otherwise you’re forever a toddler who doesn’t understand what will hurt you or others and what that hurt feels like.

Mark pleads with Helly to take a beat and sit down again. Once they’re both sitting, he opens the training manual, then gives up and pushes it aside. It’s just not his style. Instead, he tells her his own input survey story. A few years ago, a disembodied voice asked him “Who are you?” 19 times. He was scared, too, and threatened to kill the voice. That voice was Petey, who eventually became his best friend. “There is a life to be had here, Helly.”

It sounds like something a kidnapping victim who realizes they’ll never escape would say and Helly calls him on his Stockholm Syndrome. Mark figures out why he’s supposed to follow the script and turns back to it, repeating a line about life being like a seesaw. Apparently finding seesaw metaphors particularly unhelpful, Helly attacks the book, then yells at Mark to let her out.

Mark tells her to ask him one more time, since she’s asked twice and according to the manual he can let her leave after the third time. She asks again, calmly and clearly. Ms Cobel and Irving are still watching in their respective rooms, but don’t intervene. Mark reads the appropriate response from the manual, then knocks on the door to tell Irving to unlock it.

He’s been locked in with Helly, unable able to escape her attacks. This was a trust exercise meant to develop a bond between them while also discouraging them from sharing any personal information.

Mark leads Helly through the maze of identical white hallways. As they walk by an unused office with a red/purple color scheme, he explains that the company plans to expand into the empty spaces someday, but she’s replacing someone rather than filling a new position. Helly asks who she’s replacing and why he says it like he hates it, but he doesn’t answer.

Mark stops at a corner and tells Helly that her stairwell is just around the bend. He’s not allowed to watch her exit. No doubt it would be an assault on her privacy. While she heads for the stairs, he leans against the wall to wait for her escape attempt to play itself out. A sign above the stairwell door says “SVRD THRESHOLD RESTRICTED”, indicating that Helly’s home persona will take over when she walks through the doorway.

Helly looks through the window on the door and can see the stairs to freedom on the other side. She pushes the door open and walks through, twice in a row. Each time, she walks back into the hallway she’s just left. The third time, she runs through the door and falls down on the floor on the other side. Mark checks his watch and fidgets until she strides back through a few seconds later, giving up on exiting and returning to his side.

She asks him if she’s dead or if this is “like Hell or something?” Though he tells her no, I’m not sure Work Mark is in a position to know the truth. Also, he has a job to complete and needs to get her through all of the steps. She asks why she can’t leave. He tells her she did leave, but each time, she came back.

He takes her to meet Ms Cobel, who says that while she sympathizes with Helly’s urge to pummel Mark, they both have to be strong and resist it. Milchick puts a Lumon brand bandage on Mark’s forehead. Ms Cobel says Helly only has one part left in her orientation and the good news is that there’s no way Mark can mess it up, since it’s a video. Then she cheerfully welcomes Helly to the company.

Milchick escorts Helly out and Mark sits down with Ms Cobel. He asks if she’s mad at him.

Ms Cobel: “For the incompetence or the disobedience? Yes! You know my mother was an atheist. She used to say that there was good news and bad news about Hell. The good news is, Hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is, whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.”

Mark: “I don’t know what that means.”

Ms Cobel: “A department like yours can go so good or so bad. You know what makes the difference? The people.”

Or, as the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said in his play No Exit, “Hell is other people.” No Exit takes place in Hell, by the way. What Sartre meant is that Hell is perpetually viewing yourself through the lens of others’ opinions about you.

Ms Cobel sends Mark back to the Macrodata Refinement office, where Milchick has set Helly up with a disc player and monitor in the corner so she can watch her video. He starts the video just as Mark arrives. On screen, Past Helly reads a prepared statement: “My name is Helly R. I’m making this video roughly 2 hours before it will be shown to me. I have, of my own free accord, elected to undergo the procedure colloquially known as severance. I give consent for my perceptual chronologies to be surgically split, separating my memories between my work life and my personal life. I acknowledge that, henceforth, my access to my memories will be spatially dictated. I will be unable to access outside recollections whilst on Lumon’s severed basement floor, nor retain work memories upon my ascent. I am aware that this alteration is comprehensive and irreversible. I make these statements freely.”

Helly watches attentively. When the video ends, Milchick sends her to her desk without asking if she has any questions. She stops at Mark’s desk to confirm that she’ll never leave the severed floor. Mark explains that she’ll leave at 5:15. Their exits are staggered so their outside personas don’t run into each other, but they all leave around 5:00 PM. “But it won’t feel like it. Not to this version of you, anyway.” She asks if she has a family. He tells her she’ll never know. She confirms one more time that she has no choice but to stay there until quitting time each day. He says that each morning, when she finds herself back at work, it’s because she chose to return. And he turns back to his work.

Helly sits down at her computer. Dylan looks at her with suspicion. Irving says hello. Milchick wheels the video monitor out. No one introduces her to her coworkers or orientates her to her job responsibilities. Today is about instilling the understanding that there’s no way out, so she might as well make the best of it.

At 5:25, Mark goes through the reverse of his morning routine. Judd doesn’t use a wand on him, but he does check something off a list. Mark finds a card stuck under his dashboard explaining that he slipped while carrying boxes and hit his head, sustaining a minor head injury. To make up for it, the company has enclosed a VIP gift card to Pip’s Bar and Grille. They congratulate him on earning the gift card, subtly implying he did something right by getting injured and/or he did it on purpose, but either way, his injury isn’t their fault.

Since he has no idea what really happened, he can’t do anything about it other than accept the gift card. And maybe have a doctor look at his head, if there are any in town who aren’t on the Lumon payroll. As he drives away, he fusses with his lanyard and almost runs into Helly, who walks in front of his car. She tells him to watch where he’s driving. He says, “Sorry.” They don’t recognize each other.

Severance S1Ep1 Instructions
Severance S1Ep1 Milchick Looms in Observation Room Door
Severance S1Ep1 Mark & Irv Watch Milchick Leave
Severance S1Ep1 Dylan
Severance S1Ep1 Bard Creek

It’s snowing by the time Mark crosses the bridge that takes him back to his townhouse in Baird Creek, a development with several rows of identical pale blue townhouses. It’s a cross between a Christmas card and the silent conformist horror of the oppressive alien planet Camazotz from A Wrinkle in Time. Home Mark’s transitional music is piano based and much more ponderous than Work Mark’s breezy jazz.

He returns to a dark, empty house and only turns on the over the counter light in the kitchen while he gets a beer from the fridge. Then he drinks the beer and watches television by the light of a single reading lamp over his chair in the living room, with just his two pet fish for company. He watches a nature program about gnats with a 3-7 day life cycle, emphasizing the seeming insignificance of his own life.

The next day, he takes his recycling bin out to the curb but discovers his neighbor, Mrs Selvig, has brought out both her trash and recycling, filling up both his and her own designated spots. He moves her bins back to where they belong then speaks to her on the phone, trying to help her understand that the recycling bin goes out tonight and trash goes out tomorrow night. Once that’s settled, he pulls out a bottle of whiskey and settles into his chair for the evening.

Some time later, his sister Devon (Jen Tullock) knocks on the door. He’s forgotten that he was supposed to spend the evening at her house for a non eating dinner party. She suggests he change out of his sweats and into real pants so they can go. He reluctantly agrees, though he has no interest in being around people. She thought he might want some company, since a difficult anniversary is coming up soon, but that’s not the case. She teases that he owes her this anyway, because she’s always been a much better sibling than him. Then she asks about the cut on his forehead. He brushes it off as a work injury that’s no big deal, but it’s clear that she doesn’t approve of his work arrangement.

Devon’s husband, Rick/Ricken (Michael Chernus), greets them at the door, referring to Mark as their “captive”, but also noting that he seems at peace. Devon and Ricken live out in the woods in an isolated single family house decorated in dark woods, dark greens, reds and blues. Their house is also dimly lit.

The guests, who all know each other except for Mark, make small talk, attempting to draw Mark into the conversation. When they find out he used to be a history professor, they ask what he thinks about their current topic, food as fuel vs food as life. Mark begs off, since his specialty was World War 1. Then Patton (Donald Webber Jr), the dominant voice in the group, says he was just reading a “think piece about the comparative levels of violence and warfare throughout history.” He was surprised to find that people called World War 1 “The Great War” at the time. Mark reminds the group that World War 2 hadn’t been fought yet, so it wouldn’t have made sense to give the earlier war a number. They react like he’s a genius.

Ricken tells the group that Mark’s late wife taught Russian literature and Mark has worked for Lumon for the last couple of years in the corporate archives division. They discuss what Lumon does, since most have only a vague idea of what this giant corporation creates- everything from pharmaceuticals to tech, starting in the 1800s with topical salves.

Either the non dinner party guests have been coached to cheer Mark up, no matter what he says, or they all have some mental issues of their own. They are trying to impress each other, but they come off as childlike. Or maybe they’re testing Mark’s ability to function…

The questions they ask Mark assume he knows everything about the corporation, so Ricken stops them, explaining that Mark has had the severance procedure and is unable to answer questions about his work. The room is stunned into momentary silence. Devon chastises Ricken for sharing sensitive information about Mark without his consent and Ricken apologizes profusely. Mark assures his brother-in-law that he doesn’t mind sharing his memory status. But he stops looking at the other guests and holds himself rigidly, as if waiting for an attack.

Danise (Annie McNamara) says she thinks it’s fascinating. She’d consider having it done to herself, but she’d always be wondering about “the other one”. Mark tells her there isn’t another one- they’re both him. Danise presses him for a more specific answer, asking what it actually feels like- what is the “visceral element”?

Patton answers for Mark. He’s undoubtedly read a think piece on it. He explains that Mark’s memories are bifurcated so that he has no recollection of his time at the office. Danise asks if he walks into the office in the morning, then suddenly his day is over and he’s leaving. Patton adds that the work version can’t access other memories, so that persona is trapped at the office. He tries to change his wording, but stops himself. “Not trapped but…” Mark presses him to finish the sentence, but he refuses.

My words for the work personas are imprisoned, held hostage, kidnapped and enslaved. Lumon could do anything to the severed employees, as long as it doesn’t leave a mark. That’s a much wider range of torture and abuse than most people realize. Even if the workers are injured, the company explains it away with a gift card. And there’s no way to prove whatever happened wasn’t consensual. Actually, legally it’s probably all consensual, because of the waivers they sign before the procedure.

Danise: “So I suppose we know where you stand in the Congressional goings on.”

Ricken tells them they’re missing the point, which is that Mark made a decision that was controversial socially, ethically, morally and scientifically, but Ricken supports him unconditionally. The others all agree that they also support Mark, even Rebeck (Grace Rex), the quietest guest. He thanks them.

Ricken says that at this point he would usually tell them that it’s time to dig in, but “the lack of food has already allowed us to do so on a much deeper level.” The guests agree. Patton tells them that his “friend in Lima hasn’t had a food-based dinner event in…”

Later on, after the guests have left, Devon makes Mark a sandwich and offers him $3,000 in cash to forget how horrible the non dinner was. He says he won’t kill her until after the baby she’s pregnant with is born, because her child is innocent.

As he munches on the sandwich, she asks how his therapy is going. Based on the clues she and Ricken have dropped, his wife must have died at least 2 years ago. He took it so hard that he changed careers to get away from the workplace they shared and joined Lumon’s severed workforce to forget her memory for 8 hours a day. Devon realizes that he’s not going to therapy with the therapist with the Hitler mustache. Mark says that work has helped.

At least he also stops drinking for a few hours a day. The hereditary alcoholism is another bombshell that was quietly slipped into the non dinner conversation. And what was their dad misdiagnosed with instead of alcoholism? Since Mark and Dad shared the “whiskey is life” flask, it sounds like Mark has been a heavy drinker for many years, rather than developing a drinking problem after his wife died. He brought a flask to Devon’s house that he drank from while she made his sandwich.

Devon tells Mark that she’s proud of him for taking the job at Lumon and she knows his wife would have been too. She just isn’t sure that forgetting his grief for hours each day will help him heal. He doesn’t answer. Devon insists that he stay overnight with them and won’t take no for an answer.

They settle Mark into a race car bed in the baby’s room. Ricken is making the sheets for the baby’s three beds. They believe that every bed the baby will ever sleep in should be available at birth, so switching beds as the baby grows won’t be traumatic. Ricken and Devon both tuck Mark in before he goes to sleep.

Severance S1Ep1 Mark Watches TVSeverance S1Ep1 Non Eating Dinner PartySeverance S1Ep1 Devon & RebeckSeverance S1Ep1 Mark Eats a SandwichSeverance S1Ep1 Ricken & Devon Tuck Mark In

Mark has trouble sleeping, so he goes to the kitchen for a glass of water. He looks out the window as he’s drinking and spots a man staring back at him from the woods across the street. He steps outside for a better look, but after a few seconds a truck drives by and the man disappears.

Mark goes back inside, but he may or may not spend most of the night watching out the window. He’s still there when Devon gets up in the morning, so he tells her about the man he saw. They joke about the businessman in the woods, but Mark says that it seemed like the man knew him. Devon says there’s a bar down the hill. The man probably stumbled over from there. She tells Mark he smells like a distillery, suggesting he’s been up all night drinking.

Mark goes home and cleans out his gutters. From his ladder, he can see the Lumon facility in the distance. That night he uses his VIP gift card at Pip’s. He’s seated alone, but Mrs Selvig soon calls him for more help with her garbage and recycling bins. Tonight is garbage night. Mark tries to explain the routine to her quickly, telling her he can’t chat because he’s out to dinner at Pip’s by himself. She makes sure to get all of the details about his evening.

While Mark is finishing up on the phone, a man joins him in his booth without an invitation. When he says to hang up, Mark does. He gets rid of Mrs Selvig by telling her that the food has arrived, though of course it hasn’t and it never will. The newcomer says, “Hi kids. What’s for dinner?” It’s Irving’s signature line, something only the Macrodata Refining team would know.

The man, Mark’s former coworker, Petey, realizes that Mark doesn’t get the reference. But Mark doesn’t react to Petey like he’s a stranger either. He calmly waits for the other man to explain himself, just as he’s done everyday for 2 years. His sense and muscle memories know that Petey is a friend, even if his brain doesn’t yet.

Petey says Mark’s voice sounds different, worse than it does at work. Mark asks if Petey is following him and who he is. Petey tells Mark his name and that he’s from work. When Mark says that’s impossible, because his coworkers are all severed, Petey says that he bypassed the implant, with help. They establish that both Petey and Mark tried handing in their resignations, but that didn’t work. Petey found a way to unsever and now the Lumon enforcer, Mr Graner, is after him. Home Mark doesn’t know who Graner is, so Petey tells him that they both know him at work and neither of them like him. He slides a bright red envelope across the table to Mark.

Petey: “Nothing down there is what they say. If something happens to me, the things I know need to stay known. I’d prefer it be by a friend.”

He gets up to leave.

Mark: “So we’re friends?”

Petey: “I’m your best friend. You’re my very good friend.”

He says it with a little of the animation that must characterize the Petey that Work Mark knows, when he’s not beaten down and on the run. Then he walks out. For the first time, there’s a sliver of hope in Home Mark’s eyes.

We skip ahead to when Mark leaves the restaurant. He sits in his car and opens the envelope. Petey gave him a “Happy Birthday, Niece!” card with a long note inside. The first thing Petey does is apologize for the inappropriate card. But Mark is about to become an uncle- was Petey picking that up on a subconscious level? Can the severance implants transmit and receive radio waves and possibly brainwaves?

Petey goes on to say they used to wonder who they were in the outside world and what kind of monster would sentence someone to life at Lumon, especially themselves. He knows now that they aren’t monsters and he won’t push Mark to help investigate Lumon if his friend doesn’t want to get involved. “But if you do, there’s an address on the back of this card. Go alone and you’ll find the beginning of a very long answer.” The back of the card says “499 Half Loop rd.”

Mark reads the card in the restaurant parking lot, but gets spooked when another car pulls in. We hear most of the note as he drives home, ending as he arrives in his driveway and gets out of the car, looking thoughtful.

He wheels his garbage bin out to the curb. Mrs Selvig calls out to him as he puts it in place. She asks how he’s doing and expresses more regret for mixing up the bins. He mentions that he’s tired.

Mrs Selvig: “You know, my mother was a Catholic. She used to say it takes the saints eight hours to bless a sleeping child. I hope you aren’t rushing the saints.”

He promises to give the saints enough time to bless him tonight. As he turns to go inside, she calls him back one more time to say, “You’re good people.”

As they smile at each other before going inside, we get our first look at Mrs Selvig. It’s Ms Cobel, keeping tabs on Mark in the outside world. But in what capacity?

Severance S1Ep1 Petey in the WoodsSeverance S1Ep1 Mark & Devon in WindowSeverance S1Ep1 Mark at Pip'sSeverance S1Ep1 Petey at Pip'sSeverance S1Ep1 Petey's CardSeverance S1Ep1 Mrs Selvig


Commentary

In this episode, the Mrs Selvig side of Patricia Arquette’s character was the supportive good cop whose mother was a believer in traditional Catholicism. The Ms Cobel side was the critical bad cop whose mother was an atheist, but still believed in Sartre’s version of Hell on Earth. Is she severed, with Mrs Selvig as her true self, or is Cobel her true self and as Selvig she’s undercover, spying on Mark and watching for Petey to turn up? Or are both personas constructs?

Milchick speaks to Helly’s outside persona as if her work persona is on a mission. It’s hard to say if he just love bombs all of the new hires to make them feel important. She could be meant to gain the men’s trust, then figure out who was working with Petey. I suspect her work persona is more likely to join the resistance movement than to help with Lumon’s nefarious schemes, whatever they are.

The interaction between Petey and Mark makes me wish they’d had the chance to save each other as regular best friends. These two guys are practically ghosts already and they’re taking on a giant, evil corporation which has the keys to their brains. Petey’s talking about high level corporate espionage against an old, family run corporation that’s so paranoid it wipes it’s employees memories each night.

This is a company that’s more than 120 years old, EVIL, and specializes in both designer pharmaceuticals and tech, according to what Danise and Patton said at the non dinner party. It’s a military or spy agency’s dream corporation. They have ready made mercenaries who can’t desert or say no, drugs to help keep their soldiers in line and tech to make warfare run more smoothly.

Patton and Danise also have me questioning what was really going on at the non dinner party. Was that a demonstration of a severed person for Lumon scientists, executives or potential investors? Or are Ricken and Devon part of the resistance and they were demonstrating the harm severance does to victims? Whatever it was, I don’t think Patton and Danise were normal dinner guests. Devon didn’t seem to know Danise at all. Patton was researching war and violence, perhaps as part of Lumon’s R&D. Danise was overly interested in the way Mark experiences the shift between his two personas. Maybe she’s a psychologist or behavioral scientist.

Patton’s speech from the beginning of the non dinner party: “You know, what a lot of people overlook, I think, is that life is not food. You’ve got life, this complex quality of sentience, and- and activity. And then you’ve got food, which is what? FUEL. Calories. It’s not the same thing.”

This was absolutely chilling. Patton described life as consciousness and movement, which means life can be whatever machine we create and call sentient or sentience that thinks and evolves without a flesh body. Meanwhile, he described flesh bodies as food, fuel, mere calories that keep other beings alive, and definitely inferior to sentience without a flesh body.

I don’t think Helly was wrong when she asked if she was livestock. She is meant to be a disposable unit of flesh that will feed some sort of physical or metaphorical machine that’s consuming human life. It seems like the world is getting emptier and that’s why the Lumon building is so empty. I have a feeling that everything Helly said and asked about in this episode will turn out to be important.

After Patton makes his “Sentience is life” speech, Devon tells them that Mark and their dad had “Whiskey is life” carved on a flask. Ricken confirms her memory, adding that her and Mark’s dad was a misdiagnosed alcoholic.

That explains a lot.

At least working at Lumon makes it impossible for Mark to drink for 8 hours a day. The hereditary alcoholism is another bombshell that was quietly slipped into the non dinner conversation. But what was their dad misdiagnosed with instead of alcoholism? Since Mark and Dad shared the “whiskey is life” flask, it sounds like Mark has been a heavy drinker for many years, rather than developing a drinking problem after his wife died. He brought his flask to Devon’s house and drank from it while she made his sandwich.

Mark was the only one who ate or drank anything in this episode, but even he is deprived of food most of the time and must eat in private. Even Devon, whose pregnancy is close to full term, fed Mark but not herself. We cut away from Mark’s meals a couple of times. His face is gaunt and his clothes are loose and baggy. Is that because he drinks instead of eating, as alcoholics often do, because he’s too depressed to eat, or because of something that’s happening to him at work?

Both Petey’s card and the Lumon manual have printing on the back of the pages that make them appear to have secret messages hidden inside, as if they’re written in invisible or faded ink.

A few more recommendations for shows that have similar themes/styles/philosophies, beyond what I listed in my season 1 review: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (Either the 1967 film or a bootleg of the Broadway show if you can find one on Youtube. There have been some excellent revivals. At the very least, find a video of the song Coffee Break, which was left out of the film.); Netflix’s Wormwood (A 2017 docudrama miniseries about the investigation into the the CIA cover-up around the mysterious death of biological warfare scientist Frank Olson in 1953. He fell to his death from a hotel room after the CIA experimented on him and others with hallucinogens.); The Hunger Games; A Wrinkle in Time; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Bride of Frankenstein (After all of this talk of monsters and the way Helly was splayed out on the table as if she were a science experiment…).

A few TV Tropes that apply here: Stockholm Syndrome, Blank Slate, More Than Mind Control.

There is severed imagery throughout the episode. The production design includes lines that bisect spaces whenever possible and the camera takes care to emphasize the divisions, from the part in Helly’s hair to roads cutting through a forest.

Severance S1Ep1 Severed Parking Lot
The Lumon parking lot, constructed like a circuit board.

Severance S1Ep1 Mark Waving Through a Window
The window in Devon’s house. Mark watches for Petey, only able to use one side of his brain.

Severance S1Ep1 Mark Accepts the Mission
The beer bottle serves as the boundary. When Petey’s card made it over the line and Mark accepted it, he accepted the mission Petey assigned him, the mission to save his work self so that he won’t need the bottle or severance anymore.

Lumon Recycles: What or Who? Also, the observation room doesn’t have any permanently fixed furniture. It can serve as a padded room if the input survey goes particularly badly.

Images courtesy of AppleTV+.

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