Severance Season 1 Episode 2: Half Loop Recap

In episode 2, we follow Helly as she goes through the severance procedure in a flashback, then jump back to the present and watch her first full day in the Microdata Refinement department. Mark calls in sick in order to visit the address on Petey’s card.

Recap

The episode opens with Helly (Britt Lower) filming her video testimony consenting to the severance procedure. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) records the video then walks her to the procedure while going over some of the details of the day. They walk through an upper floor of the vast, open lobby that we watched Mark walk through in episode 1. Milchick stops in front of the monolithic bust of corporate founder Kier Eagan (Marc Geller) to comment that he loves the smell of napalm in the morning the look of the sunrise over Kier’s face. The window frame shadows create a series of bars across Kier’s face, enhancing the prison quality of the building’s architecture. Shadow bars are a staple of Film Noir cinematography, so they instill a subliminal sense of peril all by themselves, without Big Brother watching behind them or the reference to the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Severance S1Ep2 Milchick & Helly Before Severance ProcedureSeverance S1Ep2 Lumon Above Ground Levels

Milchick tells Helly that her work persona will wake up in a few hours on the severed floor but the persona he’s talking to now won’t resurface until the end of the day. Helly is still somewhat nervous about the whole whole thing- who wouldn’t be? The bars split Kier’s brain into several sections. Helly’s brain is about to be split into two- that she knows of.

Milchick mentions that Kier’s favorite breakfast was 3 raw eggs in milk. Kier’s favorite breakfast will be on the input survey later in the day. The most famous movie depiction of raw eggs for breakfast that I can recall was in Rocky, as part of the boxer’s training regimen.

Helly is awake for the severance procedure, but there are vials of ketamine on a tray, so she’s probably technically semiconscious and all of her personas will forget what happened. Milchick stays where she can see and talk to him, while the person performing the procedure is behind her. She seems unaware of when the procedure starts, which shows that her head is so numb she doesn’t even feel pressure when a several inch incision is sliced into her scalp.

When the practitioner drills through her skull, she looks intrigued by the vibrations. Milchick says some reassuring words and reminds her that he’ll be continuing the process with her. She’s given an injection just as a probe places the chip, which is actually a capsule, deep into her brain. Once the chip is in place, it deploys two little wings that make it look like a satellite floating in Helly’s brain. The implant also has an open contact point at one end. With contact points at each end the chip can run electrical and/or chemical currents through it like a battery or a tiny transistor radio. Or like Milchick’s two-way radio.

Helly looks at Milchick until she passes out from the ketamine injection. Does that imprint him on her implant?

Severance S1Ep2 Microchip LabelSeverance S1Ep2 Microchip with Contact ExposedSeverance S1Ep2 MicrochipSeverance S1Ep2 Helly's KetamineSeverance S1Ep2 Probe Implants Helly's ChipSeverance S1Ep2 Helly's Deployed Implant

The next time she comes back to herself is in the stairwell after Work Helly’s first time trying leave. Milchick is there waiting for her. He tells her that some new hires need to experience the transition viscerally, so they use the stairwell. Then he lies and says Work Helly isn’t trying to leave. He sends her back in, but of course she comes right back out.

And there’s that word “visceral” again that Danise from Devon’s non dinner party used to describe the transition. This makes me even more sure that the three non family guests were plants of some sort.

Milchick sends Helly back onto the severed ward, this time “with a little oomph,” but she’s right back in the stairwell for a third time, with so much oomph that she falls on the floor. During the moment that Helly is in the hall Milchick radios someone and tells them her orientation is “going fair,” but when she flies back in he has to tell them he’ll call them back later.

Milchick: “Wow. You’re an inquisitive one.”

Helly: “I don’t want to be in there, do I?”

Milchick: “You’re learning that you do. Hey, when we heard you were coming here, it was like a miracle. It’s amazing what you’re doing.”

Helly steels herself and walks back through the door. This time, she walks to the end of the hall and talks to Mark, who takes her to see Ms Cobel (Patricia Arquette), which we saw in episode 1. In this episode, we stay with her outie persona and wake up in the elevator at the end of the workday, where Milchick greets her with the flowers she was carrying when Mark almost hit her with his car in the parking lot.

Opening credits sequence, a surreal short film. Outie Mark, clad in red pajamas, is overwhelmed by an increasing number of innies, lubricated by the nightmare black sludge, like a play on the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Mark (Adam Scott) arrives in the office first. The clock on the wall says 9:00. The Macrodata Refinement Senior Refiner Morning Checklist waits for him in his in box, printed out on blue paper. Today’s important activities include dusting, sweeping and reviewing employee lunches. When his building and employee maintenance tasks are done, he should tend to his own mental health by acknowledging the portrait of Kier and searching inside himself to decide whether he’s capable of leading others today.

He dutifully, even joyfully, checks off the tasks on his list. This version of Mark doesn’t have to do chores at home, so variations to his routine are welcome. Everything he uses, from the coffeemaker to the liquid soap, is Lumon’s house brand. The Compliance Handbook is 4 large volumes long (the handbook and 3 volumes of appendices) stored in a dedicated wall shelf. The innies must have gotten awfully creative over the years to fill up that many pages of additional rules.

Mark dusts the group photos last. When he reaches Petey’s face, it triggers something inside him. His facial expression changes from happy to sad to determined. He collects all four photos from the team’s desks and hides them behind a box on the top shelf of the supply closet.

He’s just climbing down from the step stool when Helly arrives. She joins him in the closet to confirm that this is the next day. He corrects her- it’s Monday. She shocked that she missed the whole weekend when she doesn’t even feel like she left. He agrees that it feels like nights and weekends don’t exist on the severed floor. Helly summarizes- their time outside the severed floor feels “like nothing.”

Mark: “You get used to it. I mean, I find it helps to focus on the effects of sleep since we don’t actually get to experience it. You may feel rejuvenated or happy. Less tense in the shoulders. Spry.”

I’m willing to bet that’s almost directly quoted from the handbook. Mark gets drunk every night and frequently sleeps in a chair or on the couch, then cries before he walks into the building. He doesn’t feel rejuvenated or happy because of what happened when he was away from the office, but Lumon could be drugging him into those feelings. (Remember the ketamine.)

Helly notes that it’s 9:05 and Mark responds that they stagger the employees entries as well as their exits so they don’t run into each other on the outside. It’s important to Lumon that they don’t see each other in their natural state. Helly figures out that they must not know each other on the outside, since they’ve been assigned to work together.

It apparently only took Mark 5 minutes to clean the office.

Severance S1Ep2 Mark's AM Instructions1Severance S1Ep2 Mark's AM Instructions2Severance S1Ep2 Mark's Desk AcessoriesSeverance S1Ep2 Helly & Mark in the Supply ClosetSeverance S1Ep2 Handbook P1- Meet Sevy

My personal favorite handbook page. The message is: You don’t need to understand the work you’re doing, because you’re so pure, intelligent and have such great intuition that learned knowledge would spoil your natural abilities. It sounds like they’re angels. Everyone else benefits from some education.

Dylan (Zach Cherry) flips through the orientation handbook as he describes the file he’s currently working on to Helly. It’s called the Tumwater file and he’s been working on it for 11 weeks, almost an entire quarter. He’s 96% done with it, which means he’s earned four out of the five incentives, including erasers (10% completion incentive) and finger traps (25% completion incentive). He tells her that 100% completion earns a caricature portrait and shows her the drawerful he’s already accrued.

He’s assuming that he’s a lock to earn the portrait and doesn’t mention the music/dance experience refiners earn for 75% completion. The refiner of the month also earns a waffle party. Dylan warns Helly away from that prize for this quarter, telling her that it’s already his. She asks about Mark’s crystal head cube. Dylan tells her it’s not a prize, it’s just something Lumon gave to him.

Or maybe it’s a discontinued incentive that Mark received for completing the Allentown file before Dylan was hired and Dylan wishes he could earn one. They must switch out the incentives periodically, or else the room would be overflowing with finger traps and caricatures.

Mark has been working underneath Helly’s desk, connecting her equipment. Now he asks her to turn on her monitor and they sit together in front of her computer as it boots up. He types in the word Siena and yhey watch as the program flips through file names starting with the letters K-P, such as Kingsport, Labrador, LeMars, Longbranch, Moonbeam, Nanning, Narva, Ocula and Pacoima. My guess is the files are city and town names, but they could be last names mixed with city or street names. Or random words picked out of the dictionary. Who knows?

Irving (John Turturro) lowers his divider to mention that he’s noticed that their group photos are missing. Mark tells him that he put them away since they’ll take a new photo at Helly’s party later. Irving returns to his tasks. Mark opens the Siena file, which is 0% complete, and explains to Helly that she needs to pay attention to the numbers in the main field.

Mark: “Now all the data you see falls into one of four essential categories. And we group each line of code and then sort it evenly between five digital buckets.”

How and why do they sort four categories into five buckets? It’s a mystery that’s probably not any weirder than digital code being created from an endless series of 1s and 0s.

Irving, the company man and stickler for the rules, isn’t done thinking about those missing group photos. He pointedly lowers his wall, tells Mark that the old photos are supposed to stay on the desks until the new ones come in, then pointedly raises his wall again.

If a severed worker can’t count on his incentives and his desk layout to follow the expected order, what can he count on?

No, seriously. What other continuity do the severed personas have in their lives besides the rules and the physical structure that surrounds them? They have little to no history to fall back on, no future plans of their own and no control over most of their environment. Flimsy though the construct is on the severed floor, the institution is all that’s available to provide support. And that’s on purpose. Lumon doesn’t want to share their loyalty or attention and it doesn’t want them to get comfortable.

And people come and go so quickly around here.

Helly is confused about how they sort lines of seemingly random digits into bins. Mark explains that “all of the data arrives from upstairs fully encoded.. Each category of numbers presents in such an order as to elicit an emotional response in the refiner. So, Cat 1 numbers, for example, feel a way on sight. They’ll be sort of disconcerting. Scary.”

Helly is incredulous. Dylan chimes in that when you say it out loud, it sounds dumb and Mark didn’t explain it very well. Helly asks if the numbers will be bloody or chant, suggesting they might be Satanic and evil. She’s making the point that when we perceive numbers as scary, it’s generally because of their context, not because of something about the digits themselves. It’s our brains that assign meaning to the symbols we respond to, no matter how deeply ingrained and automatic the response. But Severance apparently turns that truism on its head. Unless you remember how much potential there is for these individuals to be manipulated without remembering it.

During the 1950s MKUltra experiments, the CIA would lace their own agents’ morning coffee with LSD without their prior knowledge or consent. And that was one of the least problematic things done during the MKUltra experiments. Imagine what a corporation who answers to no one could do on a secret floor with employees who can’t complain because they don’t know how they’re being violated.

Did I mention the vials of ketamine, an odorless, tasteless date rape drug? And the potential for sending messages to their brains via the implant? Maybe even tiny electric shocks?

Mark patiently explains that his instructions won’t make sense until she sees a set of scary numbers for herself. It takes a while to develop the ability to see them. Irving interrupts them with a copy of the handbook page on replacing group photos that he’s passive-aggressively printed out for Mark to look over when he gets a chance. No rush.

Just how attached was Irving to Petey? Everyone focuses on Mark and Petey’s relationship, but Petey is the coworker Irving knew longest. This is a major loss for him, after he’s seen so much turnover in his short severed life. For the Macrodata Refiners, those group photos are the last existing evidence of Petey’s existence.

Just as in his outside life, Mark wants to bury the evidence and the feelings that cause pain while trying to distract himself with a new project- a new job or a new employee to train. Irving is a company man, loyal to people and traditions. The frequent changes and memory loss, even on an institutional level, are hard for him, though he’s endured longer than anyone else on the team.

Helly watches Irving and decides she doesn’t want to go down that path. She asks Mark, “Am I trapped here?” He pretends to be confused. She asks if she can quit if she hates working there. Dylan gives Mark an intense stare, daring him to tell her the truth. Mark moves to sit above Helly to explain her that she can tell her outside half that she wants to resign, but it’s ultimately her outie’s decision. Dylan and Mark agree that resignation requests are almost always rejected. And Mark points out that her innie will effectively die if she quits, since she only exists at Lumon. Helly looks at him like he’s insane.

Why would she want to continue this life if she hates it?

Milchick doesn’t want this line of conversation to continue any further, so it’s time for a celebratory melon bar and some false words of praise for Helly’s social progress. Or maybe Helly’s progress is better than average, who knows?

Milchick tells Helly that she makes the office feel whole. I bet he says that to all the girls. Then they start her Welcome to Lumon party with a preschoolers’ circle game, rolling a ball to each other and playing show and tell. Irving has worked at Lumon for 3 years and loves the Nine Lumon Principles. Today his favorite is Cheer.

He stands in the center of the circle and does a trust fall, even though there’s no one there to catch him. Milchick jumps up to save him and says they aren’t doing trust falls today. Irv rolls the ball to Helly, despite her protests. She says she doesn’t know anything about herself. Milchick disagrees and they start to argue. Dylan tells her he imagines his outie lives on a riverboat. She’s thrown by the new term, so they explain that outies are the personas that live outside the severed floor. She saw hers yesterday in the video where she read a prepared hostage message to herself.

Helly gets sidetracked and asks to record a response to her outie. Irving bursts out laughing. Milchick politely tells her no, innies and outies aren’t allowed to communicate. She asks if she can write a note. Milchick and Mark explain that the elevators have code detectors for written symbols, a Lumon invention.

Milchick redirects Helly back to the game by telling them a few of her weaknesses. She 30, is allergic to almonds and has weak enamel on her teeth. She’s 5’6″, the shortest person in the office, and has shoulder length hair. He can see that her officemates are already her family.

When it’s Mark’s turn, he tries to deflect by giving his name, rank and serial number how long he’s been at Lumon (about 2 years) and saying he loves this game. Milchick says that’s a repeat of what he said last time. Mark changes direction and confesses to hiding the group photos. He says he felt sad when he saw Petey and was worried that he might not be capable of running the department. Dylan says that tracks, because he has similar worries. Irving recalls that this happened and he objected to Mark’s action.

Interesting that their reactions are to confirm that what Mark is saying actually happened. Because lies are an issue or because hallucinations are frequently mistaken for reality? Or both?

Milchick thanks Mark for his candor and says it’s sweet of him to care about Petey this way, but he’s surprised that Mark didn’t have a similar reaction when Carol D left. Mark says they had warning that Carol D was leaving and got to say goodbye. Petey just disappeared. They have no idea what happened to him. He could be dead. Milchick cuts Mark off before he can share any more honest feelings. He reminds them that death doesn’t exist on the severed floor and they should be grateful that Lumon protects them from the harsh realities of the outside world.

By holding them hostage.

Then Milchick dismisses them to the melon bar. Dylan picks over the melon at the bar, but doesn’t take any. Irving looks at the melon on his plate, but doesn’t eat it. He’s distracted by the black under his fingernails. Mark and Helly don’t get a chance to eat before Milchick calls them all over to take the new group photo “before the melon bloat sets in!”

While they’re standing at the melon bar, Helly asks Mark how he’s going to find out what happened to Petey. Mark has no intention of searching out more information. Helly is shocked that he’d let Milchick scare him off so easily. Mark tells her that Milchick can’t always be as nice as he was today, so it’s best not to push things with him.

Milchick takes several photos, then Helly leaves the group, saying she’s decided not to work there any more. She doesn’t want to sort numbers or go without seeing the sun. She writes a quick note on a post-it while Mark reminds her that the code detectors will sense it. Helly thinks the code detector story is made up and wonders whether anyone has ever tested it. She runs for the elevator, with Mark frantically chasing her, yelling, “Please, you don’t know!”

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As soon as the elevator doors close behind her, red lights flash and alarms go off. Helly is locked in the elevator, which doesn’t move. Mark is locked in the hall, separated from her by the elevator lobby. Mr Graner (Michael Cumpsty), the security chief, arrives to deal with Helly. He unlocks the elevator and orders her out, then takes her “I quit” note and tells her to come with him. Mark calls out to Mr Graner, who lets him into the elevator lobby.

Mark takes the fall for Helly, explaining that it’s his first time training someone and he forgot to tell her about the data smuggling rules. Graner allows Mark to take Helly’s place and walks him to the Break Room. Mark looks nauseous and the ominous background music tells us that the Break Room won’t be as much fun as Mark’s trip to Ms Cobel’s office in episode 1. Indeed, once Graner unlocks the Break Room door, Mark steps into a dimly lit hall that’s barely as wide as his shoulders. Cobel opens the door at the other end, and says his name twice with a sad look.

Cobel only says his first name. Graner was more aggressive and used his full severed name, Mark S.

Oops, time jump to later that evening, or some evening. According to the clock near the elevator, it was about 10:45 when he went to the Break Room. Now Mark is out on a date with Alexa (Nikki M James), Devon’s midwife, who’s from Montana and has delivered at least 300 babies. She tells him that back there they’d get about 2 deliveries a day, but there aren’t as many in Kier (wherever that is).

Mark looks more relaxed and has better color than he has in the last episode and a half. Either Alexa or the Break Room agree with him. He’s also drinking like a fish.

When Lumon comes up, Mark explains that he works in corporate archives, ostensibly his cover story, though he could be sorting archival files. Alexa marvels that severed employees develop entire lives underground that their other selves know nothing about and wonders if he has a severed work girlfriend. She notes that if he were married or had kids he’d forget about them all day, everyday. He shuts down and tells her that, “For some people, it’s the point.”

There’s no food on the table, just their beverages. Only Mark drinks.

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By the time they leave the restaurant, Mark’s speech is slurred. Alexa asks him if the outdoor temperature feels reasonable to him. He says he’s actually from Ganz, which doesn’t really answer the question. Her question suggests they’re somewhere colder than Montana, but she could mean it’s warmer, since Montana is a cold place and they’re walking around looking comfortable at night with snow on the ground and their coats unzipped. He forgets that she’s from Montana instead of Minnesota and loses more points with her.

She asks if he lives in corporate housing. He thinks she makes it sound like he lives in a dorm, but he tells her that yes, he lives in Baird Creek, which is subsidized by Lumon. Then he’s distracted by activists asking if passersby have a minute for children’s brain health. Mark already knows what this is about and is spoiling for a fight. What happened at work today is inside him somewhere and it’s fighting for release, no matter how many ways he tries to repress it.

They cross the street to talk to the Whole Mind Collective, who are standing in front of the Hall of Records and next to a statue, probably of Kier. A male activist (Hudson Flynn) gives them a flyer and explains that the collective is trying to get a law passed that will ban severance, though he words it as stopping from Lumon forcing legalized severance on the state. Mark feigns ignorance for a moment and asks about “forcing” people. A female activist (Ruby Stevens) says, “Jame Eagan is trying to sever people…” but then Mark cuts her off.

He asks about “the self-mutilating types” who choose severance and don’t even know they’re victims, possibly sentencing themselves to two separate Hells.

Male activist: “Hey, man, if you want to benefit off forced labor, that’s up to you.”

Mark: “Forced labor, really? So people can just like self-imprison. Are you captive right now? No, seriously, because your past self chose to walk you down here to be an infantilizing jerk to people.”

Male activist: “Severance is subjugation, **shole.”

And that’s the end of the date. Mark goes home alone and drinks another beer and thinks about what he’s done, consciously and subconsciously. Helly’s party was much more infantilizing than anything the activist said to Mark. How much of what he said to the activist was meant for Kier’s statue and how much was he saying to himself, the man who self-imprisoned his innie?

Mrs Selvig comes to his door with home made cookies as a peace offering for whatever happened in that ominous Break Room her confusion with the garbage bins. He’s sweet and polite, asking her in to share the cookies with some milk. She tells him she’s experimenting with chamomile in the recipe (a calming herb), so they might not be her best. She notes that he needs to change a lightbulb in his hallway and asks if he was on a date, since he smells nice (or did he need a shower after the Break Room?). He tells her that Devon set him up with her midwife, but he doesn’t think it will amount to anything.

Once he’s poured them each a glass of milk, he tries a cookie and tells her it’s magical.

Mrs Selvig: “My late husband was a carpenter and before he passed, he said he would start building us a house in the hereafter. And there would be a small guest apartment in the back, in case I found a new man before I got there.”

Mark, as the cookie turns to dust in his mouth: “That’s so sweet.”

Mrs Selvig: “Yes, he even drew blueprints, which I keep in my purse.”

Mark looks like he realizes he’s in the company of a potential serial killer who’s propositioning him with marriage in the afterlife. Mrs Selvig’s late husband wanted her to be able to woo potential boyfriends with the idea of that choice heavenly real estate. What’s so strange about that? Is it any stranger than there being two Marks (or maybe more) for his significant other to meet up with in Heaven and on Earth and maybe in their separate Hells? Life is complicated in Kier and its afterlife.

This reminds of the Latter Days Saints’ belief in Celestial Marriage, where partners are sealed to each other for eternity and may also be sealed to subsequent partners after the first dies. And look, there’s Tony winner Nikki James, from Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. OMG, maybe Kier is the Salt Lake City of the future! 😉

On her way out, Mrs Selvig tells Mark to stop by her shop and promises him a mugwort bath bomb that will make him sleep like a rag doll. He dutifully says he’ll try.

Once she’s gone, he looks up at the blown light bulb, then goes to the basement to find a replacement. He opens a bin labeled Gemma’s Crafts, where he finds a green and red candle and a string of twinkle lights. He holds the candle and looks it over, then puts it away and gives up the search. In the next shot, he’s fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV again.

Maybe Selvig/Cobel’s chamomile helped him sleep. Maybe she was trying to tell him that Gemma wouldn’t mind if he moves on. The short sequence after she left was a perfect little depiction of loss, loneliness and depression. Mark is too hopeless to change the lightbulbs or sleep in the bed. Getting himself to Lumon everyday is just about all he can manage and forgetting for 8 hours is keeping him from drinking himself to death.

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The next morning, when Mark gets into the car to drive to work, he finds the Whole Mind Collective’s flyer in his coat pocket. He makes a spur of the moment decision to visit the address on the back of Petey’s card instead of going to the office, calling in sick to work on the drive there. Seth Milchick answers the phone at Lumon Industries. Mark introduces himself as “a severed worker, Employee number 4502.” He tells Milchick that he woke up with a very minor stomach event that should be over by tomorrow. Milchick wishes him well and says his innie will be sad to have missed a day. He uses the same tone of voice that he uses on the severed floor.

Over on the severed floor, Dylan (Zach Cherry) watches the coffee drip in the lunch room, since Mark wasn’t there to make it. Irving rushes in, worried that Mark has been fired since he’s not there yet, but Dylan thinks that Mark is probably just out sick. He points out that it wouldn’t make sense for Lumon to get rid of two team members in the same week. Irving fusses that the quarterly deadline is approaching and he doesn’t want to be promoted to department chief. Dylan teases him that department chief might be too much to hope for, since he’s been disciplined for falling asleep on the job. Irving gives him a dirty look and Dylan apologizes for stepping out of line. As Dylan walks away, Irving snaps, “I can’t help that I was hired older than you.”

Helly arrives and she and Dylan greet each other by complaining that the work never ends. He tells her that Mark is out sick or fired, but probably sick. She worries that she got him fired with her note from the day before. Dylan reassures her that Mark’s time in the Break Room covered that infraction. She gives him a funny look. This might be the first time she’s heard of the Break Room.

Cobel, Graner and Milchick also worry about what’s going on with Mark. Cobel asks if he sounded sick on the phone. Milchick isn’t sure. He mentions that Mark said he had abdominal issues. Graner thinks the timing is suspect.

They must not have surveillance cameras in the outies’ houses and around town, or at least these three don’t have quick, easy access to the footage. They also must not have trackers on the severed employees or their cars, at least not that these three can easily check.

Dylan takes over Helly’s training for the day. He’s much more comfortable in the role and better at explaining things than Mark. He’s honest about the incentives mainly being symbolic of achievement rather than having intrinsic value. They represent how far the refiner got in the file, since each file only keeps for so long. Dylan says they “only finish, on average, one in five files before they expire. Which is better than it used to be before Mark’s freshman fluke.” Helly asks him about the freshman fluke, but Irving gets drowsy and we follow him instead of listening to Dylan.

Irv sees black sludge pouring over the cube dividers into his section, eventually spilling onto his desk and keyboard. As the sludge runs across his keyboard and toward his hands, he yells, “NO!” and snaps out of it. It’s 10:45, the same time as it was when Helly ran for the elevator with a note yesterday. Dylan jumps up in surprise. Milchick is already there to reprimand Irving for his lapse.

I call the substance sludge, but it’s really more like a thick, glossy syrup. Much like definitions of sin and purity, it all depends on your point of view. This substance could be seen as appealing, if you were in the right frame of mind. It probably represents something Irving is repressing. He and Mark are rule-oriented, haunted and repressed, while Dylan and Helly are honest and rebellious. Dylan has had to accept that there’s no way out, so he uses the incentives to make the best of things. Helly is still working her way through potential methods for escape.

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Mark arrives at 499 Half Loop Rd, a derelict farm that includes a group of abandoned greenhouses. Is this a former Lumon site? He parks and explores inside the greenhouses until he finds Petey and his campsite in one.

Milchick walks Irving through the halls, explaining that they plan to deduct the time he spent dozing from his outie’s pay. Irving apologizes. Milchick tells him that they don’t want to send him to the Break Room this time. Instead he’s been assigned a Wellness Check with Ms Casey. Milchick closes him in a room with inspirational sayings from Kier Eagan on the walls such as “Tame thy tempers” and “Let not weakness live in your veins.”

Helly attempts to refine her macrodata, but she’s not able to”see” what needs to be cleaned yet, so she’s bored out of her mind. Dylan tells her to be patient until she’s able to understand what she sees. Helly asks if they know what the numbers even represent. Dylan thinks they’re cleaning the sea because the outside is an uninhabitable post-apocalyptic world, so their desperate outies plan to move under the sea to live and are currently sending probes down to collect data on deadly eels and such that need to be removed before humans can move to live on the ocean floor. Helly is incredulous and asks if that’s what they all think. He says that Irving thinks they’re clipping curse words from films.

Dylan’s theory sounds like the plot of a movie, but I can’t figure out which one. Avatar crossed with Jaws? Anyway, this is how Dylan keeps himself amused while he works. Irving doesn’t believe in fun, but he does believe in trust falls.

Mark asks Petey for some answers, but Petey has only been reintegrated for two weeks and hasn’t figured out much. He tells Mark that they keep the departments separated on the severed floors so they don’t even know how many there are. He points to the wall of the greenhouse to show Mark the map he’s working on recreating and says he hid the original at Lumon before he left.

Then Petey holds his head and whimpers in pain. After a minute he tells Mark that it’s reintegration sickness. He’s the first person to ever suffer from it. Camping out in a cold, wet greenhouse isn’t helping.

Mark asks what’s so bad about being a severed employee for Lumon. Petey tells him there’s a room they’re sent to when they don’t act right, then he pulls out a small recorder and plays an audio recording of Milchick and another man (I think it’s Petey, but it could be Mark).

Milchick: “I’m afraid you’re not sorry.”

Petey: “Please. I truly am. I’m sorry.”

Milchick: “Please read the statement again.”

Petey: “Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me, and only in me shall their stain live on. I am thankful to have been caught, my fall cut short by those with wizened hands. All I can be is sorry and that is all that I am.”

Milchick: “I’m afraid you don’t mean it. Again, please.”

Petey: “Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me.”

Mark is appalled and asks what he just heard.

Present day Petey: “That’s the Break Room.”

Severance S1Ep2 Mark & Petey at GreenhouseSeverance S1Ep2 Petey's Greenhouse MapSeverance S1Ep2 Petey Shares RecordingSeverance S1Ep2 Irving Excited for His Wellness CheckSeverance S1Ep2 Irv & Burt Meet

Irving sits in the Wellness waiting room as he marks time until his treatment, eventually standing to look at the painting that hangs over the pew-like benches. It depicts Kier Eagan as a Roman soldier from biblical times, surrounded by a saintly glow. He’s standing at the entrance to a cave, preparing to whip four figures who cower in front of him inside the cave: an old woman, a young woman, a jester and a creature who’s half sheep or goat (on top) and, half man (on the bottom).

A man in a lab coat enters the room through the Wellness exit door. He and Irving share a flustered moment, since each feels these sessions should be private. The man explains that he’s finishing up and Irving says he’s about to start a session, which should be obvious, but these are severed workers. Irving further explains that he was enjoying the painting. The other man tells him that it hung in the Perpetuity Wing for a long time, but he thinks it makes more sense in this room, since it’s calming.

Let’s just let that odd sentiment go right past us, shall we?

Irv is so moved by this that he tells the man his name. He was heartbroken when the painting was moved from the Perpetuity Wing. The other man, Burt, is a department head- Optics and Design, which he says is a two person department. They hang the art but they don’t create it. Irving complements Optics and Design’s recent curation of the Ambrose cycle in the team building space. It was his first time seeing it.

Burt says, “It’s rare to meet a sophisticate.” Most Lumon employees only care about Optics and Design when the new handbook totes arrive. Irving mentions that he loves a good handbook tote as well. Burt shares that, in his opinion, the new handbook tote designs scheduled to arrive next month are the best yet. Irving will dream about Burt the new design until then.

Ms Casey opens the entrance door to the Wellness therapy room and invites Irving in. The two men nod to each other in farewell. Once Ms Casey and Irving have settled into their chairs, she dims the lights, which are meant to look like skylights, and turns the sound from birds chirping to new age music with crickets. The room has a natural spa atmosphere, with a humidifier and a large piece of drift wood on a small table in the center. There is a tree as a houseplant and wood-toned paneling.

Ms Casey takes a deep breath to calm and center herself, then tells Irving that she’s going to share some pleasing facts about his outie, who is an exemplary person. She invites him to relax his body and be open to absorbing these facts. He should enjoy each fact equally so as not to commit microaggressions against the facts and should respect their privacy by not speaking of them outside of the Wellness room. By concentrating on this radical now, the facts are his to enjoy. As long as he doesn’t play favorites.

Irving’s outie is generous, enjoy’s music and is a friend to children, the elderly and the insane.

Irving’s outie helped someone lift something heavy, attended a dance and was popular with the other dancers. He likes films and owns a machine to play them. He is a graceful swimmer and is splendid.

Irving puffs up with happiness and pride as she reads the facts, then chuckles softly at the swimming fact. Ms Casey pauses to remind him that he must enjoy each fact equally. She must deduct points if he shows preference for any of the facts. “That’s 10 points off. You have 90 points remaining.”

Also, he’s not allowed to speak, only to receive the facts equally and privately.

She continues, telling him that his outie recently won a game and that he values water. His outie once had his picture in the newspaper with a trophy and he “has no fears of muggers or knaves.”

There’s a camera in the driftwood. Someone is watching.

Irving’s outie likes the sound of radar (which is silent- those pings are a sound effect). “Your outie is skilled at kissing and lovemaking.” Irving sighs audibly at the thought of making love and being good at it. He loses another ten points. When he tries to protest, Ms Casey threatens to take away all of his points and stop the session. She says everything in the exact same tone of voice and with the same pleasant but blank expression on her face.

She has mastered her temperament and now barely seems human.

Dylan gets a packet of raisins from the vending machine for a snack. Just like preschoolers, the severed employees get two snacks a day. They choose theirs out of the vending machine, “spending” the tokens provided for them by the company. I didn’t mention it earlier, but we caught a glimpse of bagged lunches in the fridge when Irving opened it up this morning.

Helly asks Dylan if there are code detecters in the stairwells just like in the elevators. She wonders if anyone even reads the resignation requests. Dylan tells her to let it go. Helly asks if the scanners could read it if she writes the letters sort of crooked.

Irving returns from his session, rejuvenated after hearing complements and meeting Burt. Dylan is immediately paranoid about Burt, worried that Irving showed him how to find their department. While they argue about Burt’s character, Helly sees her first scary numbers. She calls the guys over and they help her fence off and bin the bad data. Dylan and Irving are sweetly supportive, but Helly is legitimately frightened when she’s done. For the record, it’s about 3:12 in their afternoon.

Mrs Selvig watches from next door as Mark brings Petey back to his house. He sets up a sleeping bag on a couch in his basement for Petey to sleep on.. He says Petey can also use the basement shower. Petey makes a joke, then thanks Mark for taking him in. Mark says he figured his innie would want him to do it. Petey heads to the bathroom.

Once he’s in the bathroom, Petey has another episode of his reintegration sickness. Mark asks if he’s okay, so there’s probably a short dissociative time jump. Then Petey’s phone rings but he doesn’t answer it. He gets a nose bleed and doubles over with searing head pain. Another jump and he’s undressed, in the shower. But wait, he’s still in his business suit and by the sink. Which is the corporeal Petey? Both have another spasm of pain and the Petey in the shower collapses, eyes open but very still. Did one of his personas just die?

Mark asks again if he’s okay. The episode ends before either Petey can answer.

Severance S1Ep2 Irving & Burt Talk ShopSeverance S1Ep2 First Shot of Ms CaseySeverance S1Ep2 Wellness RoomSeverance S1Ep2 Helly Bins Scary NumbersSeverance S1Ep2 Helly's Scary NumbersSeverance S1Ep2 Peteys in the Bathroom


Commentary

The Macrodata Refiners have some feelings at the end of the episode. Irving gets a boost from hearing good things about his outie and meeting a new friend. Dylan successfully mentors Helly, a step up from being the whiz kid of the office. Helly sees just how scary numbers can be, a preview of how scary Lumon can be. Petey tells Mark about the reality of their work lives, not the sugarcoated version that Lumon gaslights everyone with. Then Petey literally faces himself and how much brain damage he’s sustained.

For some reason, today the phrase Macrodata Refiners is reminding me of Bitcoin miners. Maybe the creators intended that?

The first time I saw Dichen Lachman (Ms Casey) was as Sierra in the 2009-10 series Dollhouse, where she played a character who was also a blank slate, unless told to be otherwise. She’s played so many vibrant, memorable characters since then that it’s strange to see her return to being a blank slate.

Mark spends his work days in a brightly lit setting with the lights reflecting off those bright white walls while staring at a monochrome computer screen for hours at a time without even a window to look out to give his eyes a break. Imagine the headaches. It’s not surprising that he likes to let his eyes rest in dim lighting in the evenings. But his outie doesn’t know why he has migraines and eyestrain.

With reintegration, Petey’s migraines have progressed to the point of causing severe symptoms, including whatever happened at the end. That looked like such disruptive dissociation that it may have essentially killed one of his identities. Going from scenes of the disintegration of Petey and Mark’s personalities and friendship to watching Irving and Burt discover a connection over art, you can’t help but wonder if Mark and Petey’s relationship began in a similar way.

Helly’s feelings of being trapped and wanting to escape are understandable, but her outie is probably dependent on the job financially and for health insurance. Maybe Outside Helly signed a contract she can’t break or made a deal to stay out of prison or pay off her loans in exchange for a certain period of work on the severed ward. Whatever’s going on with her, whether she has something to prove or a debt to pay, it seems like someone made her an offer she couldn’t refuse and can’t renege on.

Page 6 from the Lumon Severed Employee Orientation Handbook, which describes the 4 types of numbers. They probably correspond to the four temperaments.

It seems like none of the severed workers ever truly escape the company once they’ve had the procedure- I suspect they either die or become mind-wiped slaves 24/7, unless Lumon has perfected its system to the point where it trusts some of the amnesiacs out in the world. But there’s something different about Helly. We don’t know for sure if Milchick treats her differently from other newly severed employees, but if we believe even a little of what he told her before she was severed then she’s special. And she does get flowers delivered personally at the end of her first day instead of a gift card on her windshield.

In this episode Mark tells Helly that all of the data arrives on their screens fully encoded. Earlier I mentioned that Lumon’s numeric encryption probably isn’t any weirder than binary code. The number system that is the basis for modern binary code was created in 1689 by Gottfried Leibniz as a form of sacred math which symbolized the Christian idea of creation out of nothing. He was searching for “a system that converts logic verbal statements into a pure mathematical one” and eventually came across the 9th century BC Chinese divination text I Ching” or “Book of Changes”, which also uses a binary code and is based on the duality of the yin and the yang.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Lumon’s encrypted numbers are based on Kier’s philosophies and we’ll eventually learn he wrote a religious text that involves divination, sacred math and/or astronomy and coded or pictographic symbols. The handbook is probably reworked from Kier’s original writings as an introduction to his teachings. Turning people into sacred dualities who must then seek to reintegrate or find balance within themselves might be part of his prophecy or one of the steps toward enlightenment.

Snack break. Let’s get some dried plant material from the company vending machine. Dylan used up his tokens for the day, but he didn’t eat his raisins and Helly never even sipped from her mug. In case it’s ever important- Dylan used the code C-2.

Severance S1Ep2 Sending Machine Row CSeverance S1Ep2 Vending Machine Row D


The Wellness Room Painting

The painting is an illustration from the life of Kier Eagan. We’ll see other paintings from the legendary tales of Kier’s life as the season continues. Stylistically, the clothing and props are from a mishmash of historical eras. Since we aren’t told the story behind the painting at this time, I can only guess at what’s going on.

I believe that it illustrates the two quotes that are on the walls on either side of the door to the hall, “Tame thy tempers” and “Let not weakness live in your veins.” To reiterate my earlier description, the painting shows Kier dressed as a biblical era Roman soldier, standing in the mouth of a cave, facing inward and surrounded by a saintly glow. He’s holding a cat o’ nine tails whip over his shoulder, ready to flagellate the four figures who cower in front of him in the dark interior of the cave: an old woman, a younger woman, a jester and a creature who’s half sheep or goat (on top) and, half man (on the bottom). Correction: After getting a better look at the painting in a later episode, I realized the prone figure is a goat the size of and dressed as a man. I’ve edited my comments to reflect this.

There are many possible interpretations of the painting, starting with the four traditional humors from antiquity- the four bodily fluids which, for thousands of years, right up until the modern era, were seen as determining temperament and health. These are:

[Humour- temperament type- season- traditional element- typical personality traits]

Blood- sanguine- spring- air- easy-going, optimistic, impulsive, lacking in direction.

Yellow Bile- choleric- summer- fire- ambitious, energetic, passionate, aggressive.

Black Bile- melancholic- autumn- earth- thoughtful, creative, obsessive, depressed.

Phlegm- phlegmatic- winter- water- rational, dependable, kind, resistant to change.

It looks to me like Kier is taming the tempers by threatening the other four figures in the painting and they’re afraid of him, but there is a small chance that he’s self-flagellating by hitting his own back with the cat o’ nine tails and the rest are upset about it. This is pure speculation, but I think Kier is a choleric who also represents the Old Testament Saul from the book of 1 Samuel, the first king of Israel. The old woman is melancholic (old age). The younger woman is phlegmatic (maturity). The jester and the goat boy are both sanguine (adolescence), with the jester, who appears to be an older man, as a case of arrested development. Or the animal could be choleric (childhood).

The goat boy, who is all or part animal, may be enchanted or this may be a metaphorical representation of an early case of severance. In the Bible story, he would be the future King David, who is being persecuted by the jealous current King Saul, and the other three people are protecting him. I admit that’s a bit of a reach, but the book of Samuel tells the story of the creation of the ancient nation of Israel and her first kings. That seems pertinent to Severance, a family-run corporation that’s more than a century old, which must have had some rivalries and battles over who would inherit the throne. In this painting, Kier is given his due as the Demi-God who created the family dynasty, but he’s also shown as cruel and unyielding, an imperfect God whose methods could be improved on by later generations.

The painting could show how harshly Kier judged himself as well as others, with the four figures who are huddling in the darkness representing parts of himself that he needs to tame in order to achieve his goals. His cat o’ nine tails could signify that he’ll purge all impurities from his life by opening his veins and letting the weakness out, if necessary. When those characteristics are successfully tamed and hidden, he’ll be ready for greatness.

Severance S1Ep2 Saint Kier with Cat O' Nine Tails from Painting, BrightenedSeverance S1Ep2 Four Tempers from Painting, Brightened


What Is Lumon Up To?

Conspiracy theories ahead.

Ketamine, the medication used during Helly’s implant procedure, is used as a general anesthetic, pain reliever and antidepressant. It’s also used as a hallucinogen and date rape drug because it causes hallucinations and short term memory loss. Ketamine acts much more quickly than other hallucinogens, taking effect within minutes and wearing off within an hour, although the effects can last up to 24 hours. Other side effects include feeling happy and relaxed, feeling detached from your body or as if you’re floating, drowsiness, double or blurred vision, confusion, clumsiness or immobility, nausea and vomiting, dizziness, anxiety, panic or violence. Sound familiar?

There are 3 vials of ketamine on the tray for Helly’s implant procedure, which seems like a lot just for one person. Unless they’re doing severance procedures all day, but in that case, where are the other newly severed employees? Helly is awake for the procedure, but rendered unconscious by the end and still unconscious on the table when Mark starts the input survey. We watch the practitioner make an incision in her scalp that’s several inches long, but supposedly 2 hours later, there no sign of it. Her scalp is perfectly healed, without even a scar, redness or swelling.

Either Lumon has a method for healing her incision in 2 hours or they kept her on ketamine and potentially tested the implant someplace else for days or weeks while she healed. There are small and large time jumps in each episode. Those time jumps may be memory gaps for the characters when Lumon pulls them out of the office for a third persona to do whatever their real purpose is, possibly something to do with the black sludge Irving has nightmares/flashbacks about and some have around their fingernails.

The conversation between Mark and Helly about nights and weekends strongly emphasized that they have no idea how long they’ve been away from work or even if they’ve been away. It could have been 5 seconds, as when Helly tried to escape via the stairs, or it could have been five years. Maybe the “successful” severed employees eventually stop leaving at all, when Lumon fakes their deaths on the outside. Then they just move from shift to shift and persona to persona, while being drugged unconscious whenever they need rest. The similarities to the Hotel California are just too great to ignore forever- you can check out (resign) anytime you want, but you can never leave.

At the end of the opening credits, Mark’s work persona absorbs his Home persona, not the other way around.

I also wonder about the topical salves that gave the company its start back in the 1800s. Is the black sludge connected to the salves? At first I assumed Kier discovered a rare plant or two with properties similar to ketamine and maybe something that also facilitated severance, memory erasure, healing and/or immortality. But now I wonder if they found oil deposits with specific rare properties in certain geographic areas.

Refining is sure to be another word that has multiple meanings in this universe. Refined oil, which is what a salve is made from; refined temperaments and tastes, which is what the behavioral training on the severed floor is about; and purification, which is what Kier’s lessons from the handbook point toward, along with sorting scary numbers into bins to rid the overall number field of impurities. That could be as innocent as sorting deliveries to find damaged items or as sinister as choosing who gets executed.

I can’t begin to guess what kind of data Mark is refining, but if there’s macrodata refining which requires workers who have been severed in order to sort it, there’s probably also microdata that requires severed workers. That data would probably already be so refined and detailed that it requires workers who are so pure/undistracted by the world/severed that they don’t recall their original personas any more and never leave the building.

There seems to be some kind of connection between the refiners and the data that takes a bit of time to develop fully. I’m tempted to say it’s spiritual, but it’s more likely that it involves developing neural connections in the brain and teaching the mind to the translate radio frequencies or some other kind of signal or quantum signature that the implant receives. Maybe the signal is so faint that the brain has to be empty of almost all other thoughts to catch it and that why macrodata refiners only last a few years. After that, they’ve built up enough experiences to distract them, so they have to be wiped again and sent to another department.

A transistor and a severed brain inside an hour glass.
Transistors, courtesy of Kiddle Encyclopedia.

The water tower outside the Lumon facility is meant to look like a transistor, a small electronic component invented in 1947 that switches and amplifies electronic currents. The hardware inside the implant looks to me like a transistor wrapped in wire, though it’s likely supposed to be more sophisticated than that, with a tiny computer chip in there somewhere. But decades before there were cell phones or even iPods, we all walked around with our palm-sized, battery-powered, transistor radios, providing us with music and a one way connection to the larger world wherever we went.

Retrofuturistic technology from the mid 20th century could easily provide the components necessary for brainwashing and mindwiping on demand when all aspects, including biochemicals, are taken into account. Especially given the accidents and deaths that seem to be involved with the severed employees. Nothing like a head trauma to facilitate gaslighting and other cult/espionage/torture techniques. The symptoms of a concussion are very similar to the side effects listed for ketamine, except the happy part. You might even be able to dose someone with ketamine and convince them they’d been in a car accident.

Or give them a concussion on purpose to induce amnesia. Referring back to those waves that go through Helly’s head when the implant is embedded and she’s apparently knocked out by the ketamine, the infamous CIA mind control research program Project MKUltra‘s Subproject 54 funded research on the “perfect concussion”. They experimented with concussions induced through either sound waves or a weapon that didn’t leave a mark, which was meant to cause amnesia in victims.

MKUltra was all about Cold War era manipulation, much of it spurred by the fear that Soviet or Chinese interrogators would break American prisoners (or spies) and learn our secrets along with the CIA’s desire to break captured Soviet and Chinese spies during interrogation in order to learn their secrets. The CIA didn’t consider anything out of bounds, including experimentation that amounted to torture of civilians without consent that led to permanent disability and death.

In Severance, Lumon may be acting as a government contractor, as Blackwater did during the Iraq War, or this universe may have evolved into a form of capitalist feudalism, with family-owned corporations standing in for countries or city-states with their own territories and governments.

If you look at the screen cap near the top of the page where Helly is mid severance procedure, you can see some kind of waves running across the top of the room and through her brain as the implant is being placed into her brain. We already know that the implant receives a signal to turn the implant on and off while the severed employees are in the elevator. The simplest way to do that would be with a radio or other wireless frequency beamed into an insulated elevator. Given the memory loss the characters sometimes exhibit, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a button or dial somewhere that tells the implant to wipe memories. Or maybe the gaps come from periods when they’re working overtime as other innie personas and don’t know it.

In the screen caps below, Helly is in the process of having the severance chip inserted into her brain. The first screencap, timestamped 4:12 minutes, is just before she’s given an injection of ketamine. The second screencap, timestamped 4:36 minutes, is a few seconds before the implant deploys and Helly passes out. The third screencap is from an observer’s point of view, probably where Cobel’s camera is situated, and takes place slightly earlier, at 4:06 minutes. There are no bands of color streaming through Helly’s head and no obvious place for them to originate.

The streaks, which go through her frontal and parietal lobes, are only visible when the camera sits at Helly’s shoulder, looking up toward the ceiling, during the 30 seconds that the chip is actually implanted and activated. Milchick stands in her view and talks to her during this period- maybe to form an imprint for her amnesiac severed personality or to keep her awake while the chip creates some other type of connection. Or maybe to keep her awake and talking long enough to make sure the brain injuries they’re inflicting on her aren’t causing too much damage.

The frontal lobe is associated with higher cognitive function, including language and motor skills, emotions and behavior, thought, decision-making and problem-solving. It’s believed to be the location of the personality. As with most of the brain, the frontal lobe is split into left and right hemispheres. The parietal lobe regulates sensations, perceptions and the integrations of these to create spatial awareness of the body and the surrounding world. It is also involved in manipulating stored perceptions/information (cognition) in order to read, process numbers and have a sense of self-awareness.

Keep these observations in mind while watching the characters move in and out of their different personalities and environments. What causes changes in the characters and are those changes permanent or temporary?

Severance S1Ep2 Helly's Procedure with Waves 4-12Severance S1Ep2 Helly's Procedure with Waves 4-36Severance S1Ep2 Helly's Severance Procedure- Observer Perspective

Lumon doesn’t want severed employees to run into each other outside of work, which Helly quickly figures out means none of them know each other in the real world. But they’re bound to run into each other around town eventually. What then?

The prohibition on fraternization outside of work also means that Lumon isn’t 100% confident in their severance technology. They are afraid that crossing the streams of work and home life will trigger either reintegration or breakdown. That makes it extra interesting that Cobel/Selvig is such a large part of Mark’s life in both places. Is she monitoring him or trying to trigger him? Does she secretly know him from before? Does Lumon know she lives next door to him? The board seems physically removed from day to day operations, but there are cameras everywhere within Lumon. What about on the outside?

Outie Milchick really seems to care about Helly, while Mrs Selvig really seems to care about Mark, but their innies are manipulative, gaslighting bosses from hell and it’s clear that neither is severed in the way that the Macrodata Refinement Department is. What does this mean?? Were they severed, but they’ve reintegrated, like Petey did, but more successfully? Or have they had their original personalities completely wiped and replaced with Lumon devotees?

Kudos to Patricia Arquette (Cobel) and Tramell Tillman (Milchick), plus the writers and director (Ben Stiller), because I truly believe in both pseudo personas for each character and that the outies both care about their charges while those innies are evil. The acting is seamless.

The old office photo appears to have been taken on Dylan’s first day, since he’s in Helly’s spot and looks the most confused. But it could have been Mark’s first day. Petey’s hand on Mark’s shoulder could be meant to reassure him and Mark’s smile could be automatic. I’m not clear who started first, Mark or Dylan.

The corporate motto, as written on the severance implant label, is “don’t live to work, work to live” a send up of the corporate mottos (and official images) ) (that are really just advertising) of many real world giant corporations. Lumon’s public focus on work-life balance, fun incentives for achievements and attempt at a game/golf atmosphere in the office building correspond to that. In reality, Big Brother is always watching, the building and the treatment of the employees are more like a prison than a game and the work is so cloaked in secrecy that it’s dull and meaningless.

Maybe Lumon just wants to ensure that the employees are unable to organize a union. Or register Lumon’s human rights violations with the UN.

Lumon is a place of inherent contradictions. There is subliminal violence in the language (all of those double entendres, for example- the break room, severed employees, etc) and in the body language of the supervisors, but employees are expected to use soft, even voices and move at a moderate pace, which suggests a calm environment. Company procedures are meant to keep the workers from developing attachments to each other and make them feel slightly threatened at all times, while the workers are told they are a family who work for a company with old-fashioned values.

The architecture combines wide open, even empty, areas and tiny oppressive spaces barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Mark tells Helly that Lumon plans to expand the severed workforce by way of explaining all of the empty workspaces, but in the 2 years Mark’s worked in the office there’s been frequent turnover- Carol to Dylan, Petey to Helly, and whoever to Mark. Irving is the only employee who’s lasted more than 2 years (he’s been there 3 years) and he can’t stay awake, hallucinates, and gets passed over for promotions. Rather than encouraging happy, healthy long-term employees, severance seems to burn through employees quickly.

Lumon means light, but the severed workers are consigned to the basement. This suggests there’s a heaven-like upper floor somewhere, which may be where the board are, while the severed floor is Hell.

The Kier monolith and the basement remind me of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was originally a book written by Arthur C Clarke. In that book and Clarke’s book Childhood’s End, the end stage of evolution is to become noncorporeal and join an immortal collective consciousness. Members of the original alien species help direct the evolution of younger species to ensure they achieve the same fate. Lumon could be a death/suicide cult that’s teaching the severed workers how to leave their corporeal bodies behind and become noncorporeal beings. Or Ben Stiller could just like the look of Kubrick’s production designs, since his outer world uses some of the look from A Clockwork Orange.


IBM’s Use of Color and Design

Balancing mankind and machine, the colors are harmonious with nature, yet chosen for their luminous quality in the digital world.

I mentioned the use of IBM’s corporate color palette in my review of season 1. Let’s look at that in more detail. IBM has very specific design parameters for its corporate materials, with a defined point of view, a list of core principles, and an ever-evolving design language that includes pictograms and fonts. This is not unique to IBM. The design department is a corporate mainstay of the modern world. On Severance, Burt’s department, Optics and Design, is the severed floor’s version, though I suspect they follow orders rather than doing much original design.

Part of IBM’s design language is its elaborate color scheme, with blue at the center. All of the other colors have at least a hint of blue. Colors in the yellow/orange/brown families are only allowed as alerts. IBM describes this palette as “of the world and digital. Useful and judicious.”

There are rules for how the colors can be combined into groups of 4, 3, 2 or 1 color families. They are illustrated at the color page, along with the many other rules and combinations. In addition to the alert colors, there are colors that shouldn’t be combined, mainly the green and red families. Colors which are too far apart in tone or brightness should also be kept apart.

Given the color of Helly’s hair, suffice it to say she’s a walking code violation, but keep an eye on her outfits. The further she strays from IBM and Lumon norms, the more trouble everyone is in. Devon and Ricken’s dinner party in episode 1 was also full of clashing colors, sometimes on the same person, such as Ricken and Patton. Devon and Mark each wore beautiful sweaters, but the teal and red were at odds according to this system.

We see browns, golds and oranges used more normally outside of the severed floor. Downstairs, browns only show up occasionally as faux wooden furniture and there are glimpses of all three colors in the Kier paintings, which is probably a hint as to their true nature.

There is gold in the occasional carpet as well, though I think the only time we saw it downstairs was in the room Helly woke up in, so it was used as a sign of danger there. It was also in the receptionist’s carpet when Mark checked in, which can be taken as a warning. Both scenes showed a character’s entrance into the severed facility, and both showed gold and green carpet that surrounded a woman with faux wood office furniture. That could be taken as “I’d turn back if I were you.”

The Neutral Gray family is dominant in our UI, making use of subtle shifts in value to help organize content into distinct zones. The Core Blue family has been designated as the primary action color across all products and experiences, ensuring our color aesthetic is a part of every interaction. Additional colors are used sparingly and purposefully.

The IBM neutrals of gray and black, combined with the white and browns of natural winter, are used to give the outside world to a Nordic Noir feel (along with all of those cosy sweaters 😉). In contrast, neutral white and action blue predominate on the severed floor, giving it a plasticky, retrofuturistic feel. I haven’t paid attention to how the characters in gray suits interact in each episode vs the blue suits- that might be code for who takes a neutral stance vs who’s taking action at any given time.

It’s interesting that Milchick is always in the standard IBM short sleeved white shirt, when he seems to be in cahoots with Cobel rather than neutral. Maybe it’s Lumon’s corporate white rather than neutral white (and the same would apply to his black pants). He, more than anyone else, represents the organization in its many guises. We haven’t seen him play bad cop yet, but the black pants suggest that’s the other half of his role. He is whatever Lumon needs him to be, his black and white outfit perhaps representing the entire range of corporate gray, symbolizing the depth and certainty of his loyalty to Lumon.

Color Combinations to AvoidSeverance S1Ep1 Non Eating Dinner PartySeverance S1Ep1 Devon & Rebeck

Avoid these.Core and Alert Colors


Free Companion Book: The Lexington Letter

Apple and the show’s creators have published a free 43 page tie-in book that includes a letter by a formerly severed employee telling her story written to a journalist and a copy of the employee’s orientation handbook that the characters look through in this episode. While I don’t think the book has active spoilers, the severed employee’s story has elements that parallel this season, so consider whether you want to wait until you’ve seen more of the season to read the letter. The book was originally released in tandem with season 1 episode 6.

Severance: The Lexington Letter:

“When does the cost of staying silent become greater than the price of speaking up? A desperate woman risks everything to expose the sinister company at the heart of Severance, the thrilling Apple Original series from director and executive producer Ben Stiller and creator Dan Erickson, now streaming on Apple TV+, about a daring experiment in “work-life balance.”

“From the minds behind the series, this is the story of Lumon Industries employee Margaret “Peg” Kincaid. When Peg gets hired at Lumon, she undergoes Severance, a surgical procedure pitched by the company as an effortless way to separate her personal and work lives Everyone has their reasons for wanting the easy solution Severance promises, but when Peg realizes that not all is as it seems at the company, she uncovers a reality that’s far worse than the problems she wanted to escape.”


This may amount to nothing, but these characters tend to lead double or triple lives, so I’m going to drop a couple of images of the assistant to Helly’s procedure here, incase she turns up again later. I don’t think we’ve seen the dinner party guests anywhere else yet. I believe the man named Lawrence who Milchick said “Hi” to before Helly’s procedure was the practitioner (surgeon?) who implanted her chip.

Images courtesy of Apple and IBM.

One thought on “Severance Season 1 Episode 2: Half Loop Recap

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