Severance Season 1 Episode 5: The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design Recap

In episode 5, Helly continues to work through her issues with the help of Mark and Ms Casey. Irving and Dylan find a disturbing painting which shows O&D attacking MDR. When they confront Burt about the painting and his lie about the size of his department, he tells them that the rest of the O&D department believes false rumors about MDR. Ms Cobel asks Milchick to have Petey’s implant analyzed. In the outside world, Devon goes into labor and Outie Mark joins her support team at the nature retreat birthing center.

Trigger warning for self-harm. And more about goats than anyone wants to know. There are some things you can’t unsee. Metamaiden was traumatized by flying goats, so I promised her that I will finally analyze Petey’s map in episode 6. Somehow this one got long, even for me. I didn’t even talk about the kelp. 💦


The episode begins moments after the end of episode 4, continuing Helly’s (Britt Lower) suicide attempt. The elevator reaches its destination and the doors open, revealing Outie Helly hanging from the ceiling and struggling to breathe. Judd (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) is missing from his desk once again. We’re briefly shown the view from one of the surveillance cameras, which is recording the scene. The elevator doors close again and Helly rides back down to the severed floor, still struggling.

After leaving his Wellness session with Ms Casey (Dichen Lachman), Mark (Adam Scott) strolls back to MDR. Dylan (Zach Cherry) sits at his desk, reading The You You Are, which is hidden in his lap. He tells Mark that he stayed late because he “loves the work.” It’s 5:15, Mark’s staggered exit time, so he leaves Dylan to his own devices and heads for the elevator.

As Mark calls the elevator back to the severed floor, Graner (Michael Cumpsty) runs to meet it. He must have checked the surveillance cameras and seen Helly. The doors open before he gets there, so Innie Mark is alone when he finds Helly, who’s now unconscious. He rushes to lift her up and take the pressure off her neck while calling for help. We get another quick surveillance camera shot as Graner arrives at the elevator, swearing. He unties the cord where it’s looped around Helly’s neck, then helps Mark lie her down on the floor outside the elevator.

Helly gasps and starts breathing while Mark asks Graner if she’ll be okay. Since Lumon wants the severed workers to pretend bad things don’t exist, they probably don’t give them basic first aid or CPR training, leaving Mark particularly helpless in this situation. Meanwhile, Graner removes the cord and wastebasket from the elevator, so there’s no visible evidence of what happened. Then he gruffly forces Mark to get inside and ride up.

It’s heartbreaking to watch Mark forget about Helly within seconds of leaving her, when we know how deeply he experiences pain and loss. It’s hard to imagine that he’d be okay with this sequence of events if his outie knew what happened, following on so quickly after Petey’s collapse and death. But Outie Mark doesn’t know that this day ended differently from any other work day. Judd returns to his desk just as Mark gets out of the elevator and they say a pleasant goodbye to each other.

Those surveillance camera shots make me wonder who’s watching Helly, but not intervening. Did someone send Judd away from his desk to increase Helly’s odds of dying or to decrease the odds of the Board finding out about her suicide attempt? Milchick (Tramell Tillman) implied that Helly is important. Important enough for someone to want her dead?

I don’t think Cobel (Patricia Arquette) was the one watching the elevator. Even though she’s usually the one we’re shown watching MDR, Graner and Milchick also surveil the severed employees on a regular basis. Cobel doesn’t like Helly because she hates how much time and attention Helly pulls away from the projects she wants to focus on. Cobel wouldn’t let a situation continue that would direct more attention to Helly, unless Cobel hoped Helly would die, but that’s very extreme. As management, if Helly dies on the job, her death would count against Cobel. If Cobel is a murderer, she’d be smart enough to make sure it didn’t show up on her work record.

Petey (yul Vasquez) died after he left Lumon and Judd was called away from his desk to collect him from the convenience store. We still don’t know what circumstances Petey left under, not even whether he quit or was fired.

I’m going to need to ask Judd a few questions.

After the title sequence, we jump to the next morning. Mark shows Florence the receptionist (Anthoula Katsimatides) his Lumon ID, she calls ahead and he goes downstairs. When his innie emerges he panics, searching for Helly on the floor as the elevator doors open. Milchick and Cobel are waiting for him.

Cobel tells him that Helly is alive, in the hospital with severe bruising, but otherwise okay. He almost faints with relief and assumes they’ll let her resign now. Her outie still refuses. Helly is expected back on the severed floor in a few days. Mark is confused that Helly is still being forced to work there and worries that she won’t have enough recovery time. Cobel gets tired of arguing and pulls some gaslighting to shut him up, telling him that it’s his fault Helly almost died and he’s lucky things didn’t turn out worse. “Have a productive day.”

Cobel and Milchick scapegoated Mark, when he was the first one to get to Helly and he’s spent every moment he can with her trying to help her adjust.

Severance S1Ep5 LumonSeverance S1Ep5 Elevator CameraSeverance S1Ep5 Graner Reaches ElevatorSeverance S1Ep5 Milchick, Cobel, Mark

Mark is the first one to arrive in the MDR office. Rather than cleaning the office, he gets The You You Are out of its hiding place in the file drawer and takes it to his favorite reading spot in the bathroom. The subject of today’s chapter is the illusion of failure and you vs the system. Ricken (Michael Chernus) says that it’s the system that’s wrong, not you, and the system needs to be broken further before it can be fixed. That’s what Ricken did with the world of literature.

It must have worked, since this is his fifth published book.

Mark goes home and returns again in the morning. Days pass as he continues to focus on the book and ignore his MDR work. Ricken’s wisdom:

“A society with festering workers cannot flourish, just as a man with rotting toes cannot skip.”

“What separates man from machines is that machines cannot think for themselves. Also, they are made of metal, whereas man is made of skin.”

“If you are a soldier, do not fight for my freedom. Fight for the freedom of the soldier fighting next to you. This will make the war more inspiring for you both.”

“A good person will follow the rules. A great person will follow himself.”

“Bullies are nothing but Bull and Lies.”

“At the center of “Industry” is “Dust”.

“They cannot crucify you, if your hand is in a fist.”

“Should you find yourself contorting to fit a system, dear reader, stop and ask if it’s truly you that must change or the system.”

These all speak to Ricken’s philosophy of anti-materialism, compassion and empathy combined with critical thinking. He values individualism, human connection, culture and a fighting spirit over an exploitative, profit-based system that turns people into numbers.

It sounds like this book was written with Mark in mind. Ricken will be thrilled when he finds out his book made it to the innies.

Even though Cobel gave Milchick Petey’s implant to take to Diagnostics, it’s Graner who returns it to her when the test results are in. “Full synaptic coupling. Petey Kilmer’s memory was reintegrated.”

Graner assumes she’ll want to celebrate being right that reintegration is possible, despite the board’s position that severance is irreversible.. Then she’ll tell the Board, once the crisis with Helly dies down some. Graner looks happy for Cobel. Cobel looks overwhelmed.

He realizes she hasn’t told the board yet. She hands Petey’s chip back to him and tells him to look for source signatures. He says they kept Petey’s data on file, so she can keep the chip. “A gift.” Cobel tells him she’ll bring all of the information to the Board at the same time, once they know who’s responsible for what happened to Petey.

When Mark leaves work at the end of the day, he discovers a series of increasingly frantic messages from Ricken informing him that Devon (Jen Tullock) has gone into labor and he should meet them at the nature retreat birthing center. Ricken is worried that Innie Mark won’t give Outie Mark the message or that Mark is lost, but Mark finds his way to Cabin 6 without any issues.

However, he sort of forgot that Alexa (Nikki M James), his recent bad date (due to his drinking and belligerence-she was lovely), is also Devon’s midwife, so he has an awkward encounter with her at door. He apologizes for how the date went, then she tells him that Devon is still early in her labor and doing well. Ricken is crying over Devon, so Alexa is giving them some privacy. Mark thanks her for taking good care of his sister.

As Mark enters, Ricken is telling Devon’s belly that he doesn’t want to be like his father. Devon says that it’s good he’s getting it out now. They all say hello and discuss whether Lumon woke Mark up from severance to answer the urgent messages from his family. Of course not. They move on to the cozy size of their birthing cabin compared to the castle next door and assume the other couple must be rich.

Devon has a contraction. Ricken urges Mark to reveal a secret to help her through it. He believes that, “The fetus is drawn to clear air. Purging secrets can create a soul void that speeds the labor.” Mark has to double check that a soul void is something they want to create in the presence of their baby. They do, though Devon is fine with letting it slide for the moment and just concentrating on her contraction.

Ricken takes charge, revealing that though he loves Mark, he’s hurt that his brother-in-law hasn’t thanked him for the book yet. Mark doesn’t know what he means, since Cobel stole the book they left for him before his outie ever saw it. They explain that they left an advance copy outside his door and he tells them he didn’t get it. Ricken panics a little about losing a pre-publication copy.

His moment of panic ends at about the same time as Devon’s contraction. She decides to take a break from the guys and go out in search of some coffee. I have issues with the guys letting the woman in labor wander around a strange facility alone at night during the winter, instead of one of them getting coffee for her or a coffee pot already being provided in the cabin. But the writers have a plot point to contrive, so Devon has to risk falling or getting lost.

As soon as Devon’s gone, Ricken asks Mark to help him hang the kelp. They both agree it’s better if Ricken doesn’t try to explain why they’re hanging kelp in the birthing suite.

Devon wanders near the fancy birthing castle and sees a man in white (as in an orderly, not a doctor or nurse) leaving. She calls out to him, but he rushes away without responding. Then Devon sees the other pregnant woman through the window and asks if she’d be willing to share her coffee. The woman agrees to let her in.

Once again, this is a weird way for the writers to accomplish their goal. What kind of fancy birthing center won’t provide coffee on demand? Maybe this scene is a callback to another show and I’m not recognizing it?

After Devon pours herself a cup, the two women chat. Her host’s name is Gabby (Nora Dale) and she’s having her third child, who she’s planning to name William. She manages her busy household with a lot of help. Devon compliments her birthing castle and asks if she’s rich. Gabby laughs uncomfortably.

Ricken now hopes the thief reads the book and that it convinces him to turn himself in. Then he brings up that the last time Mark was in a medical facility was when Gemma died. Mark sarcastically asks if they’re in a medical facility. Ricken wanted to honor Gemma as part of the baby’s name, but Mark thinks his niece should have her own name that isn’t sad. Ricken looks like the whole situation is painful for him, but he can’t figure out how to help.

By the time Devon gets back to their cabin, Ricken is asleep and Mark is sitting on the bed. She sits next to him and shares her coffee as she tells him she met Gabby. For a second she considers trying to hook him up with her pregnant new friend, but he reminds her that Gabby is most likely already attached. Then Devon decides that Alexa would probably go out with him again. He doesn’t think so.

Another contraction starts before they can discuss it. He holds her hand and tells her a secret, saying that he thinks Lumon is up to something. He starts to tell her about Petey, but then her contraction gets worse and Ricken wakes up. Mark goes to get Alexa. He sits outside next to the water while Devon gives birth, but he can hear what’s going on. He has flashbacks to Petey’s collapse and the blocked number calls the phone in his basement.

Petey gave him a card that was meant to be given to a niece. Now Mark has a niece.

Milchick prepares Innie Mark for Helly’s return, telling him that she’s been in outie form during her recovery, so when she wakes up in the elevator it will be as if it just happened. Mark will need to be gentle with her. Does he know how to make his eyes kind? Mark tries make kind eyes, but fails.

He hasn’t figured out how to act by following Dylan’s advice to Helly for gaming the Break Room- imagine a scenario that makes you feel the feeling, rather than just trying to appear that way on the outside.

Milchick leaves Mark alone to meet Helly at the elevator. When the doors open, she’s on the floor having a panic attack. He tells her she’s okay and looks at her kindly. His expression is fitting until he grows self conscious and tries too hard. He manages to calm her down and they look into each other’s eyes for a minute. That connection is likely to be a profound experience for both of them, given how little human contact and affection they’ve each had.

They move to the kitchenette, where he tells her that the office has been Helly-proofed, with all of the dangerous items removed, so she should be safe from herself. Well, from this version of herself. And she can focus on sorting only happy numbers for now if she wants. That makes her laugh. He asks if she wants to talk about what happened. The abrasions are still visible on her neck. She walks out of the room without a word.

For Helly, the bad thing is being back at the office, not that her attempt to end this part of her life didn’t work. Pretending otherwise makes it worse. Unlike the others, Innie Helly sees herself as part of a whole, so she’s able to see the end of her severed life as escape rather than death, knowing she’ll live on as her outie. It’s not that different from the viewpoint of religions that believe the soul continues on after the mortal life ends and the body dies. A transformation, rather than a true death.

By reintegrating, Petey combined the memories from his original life with his severed life. Then he physically died. We don’t know if the implant retains a record of the full personality after the brain dies or if it’s just a switching station that holds a shell of the persona.

Severance S1Ep5 Pinwheel Cubes
Severance S1Ep5 Gabby & Devon at Birthing Center
Severance S1Ep5 Mark & Helly in Kitchenette

Irving (John Turturro) suggests they cheer Helly up by hiding inspirational quotes from the handbook around the office for her to find. Dylan thinks one of them should loan her a finger trap until she earns some perks of her own. But not him. Coming up with the idea was his contribution. Mark checks The You You Are for advice.

Ms Casey silently appears behind Mark, startling him. She’s been sent by Ms Cobel to watch Helly for signs of sadness. She will verbally encourage Helly not to attempt suicide and if requested, she can perform a hug. Dylan informs her that’s he’s been sad lately and is in need of a hug, but he’s not on Ms Casey’s current Wellness list.

Ms Casey sits a few feet behind Helly, stares at her and takes notes as she works. Helly is depressed and bored, slumping down over her keyboard. Ms Casey makes a note of it when Helly picks something off her eyelid. Helly sarcastically asks if she noted all the details. Casey asks if she’s upset, but Helly denies it. Casey reminds her she can request a hug if she needs one. Helly isn’t interested.

It’s 11:10. Irving looks exhausted. The numbers on his screen blur and a dollop of black slime drops onto his hand. It looks like a slug. He watches as thick black liquid pours out of the ceiling. Mark rolls back where he can see Irving and says his name. Black liquid oozes out of his left eye socket. Irving jumps up out of his chair, snapping back to reality. Mark asks if they “lost him again.”

Irv looks up at the ceiling, bewildered, and says he needs to go to O&D to consult Burt about something. Mark tells him to make a copy of Alice K’s map so they can come get him if they need to. Instead of the map, the copier spits out two copies of a grisly painting.

The painting shows one department attacking and cannibalizing another. Milchick arrives and apologizes about the copier mix up, saying the painting copies were meant as a joke for Cobel and MDR wasn’t supposed to seem them. Irving asks if they show the O&D coup that Dylan told them about. Milchick tells him that nothing like the painting or the coup could happen at Lumon.

He’s not very convincing.

After Milchick leaves, Irving still has one of the copies. He shows it to Dylan and they argue about what it means. Irving thinks Milchick told the truth, but Dylan thinks it means O&D are even worse than he thought. Irv wants to talk to Burt (Christopher Walken) about it, but Dylan thinks Burt might just lie some more.

Milchick finds Cobel waiting for him and watching MDR. She confronts him about running a 266 on Irving B. He explains that he hopes it will slow down Irv’s visits to Burt G. He asks if he should have talked to her about it first. She thinks for a moment, then praises his initiative. He looks at her screen and asks why Ms Casey is watching Helly so closely.

Cobel: “The light of discovery shines truer on a virgin meadow than a beaten path.’ I’m trying something new with Ms Casey. Keep it between us.”

She looks fanatical when she says the second part. He looks worried.

They’re both out of control- Milchick is the guy who just sent images of violent cannibalism between coworkers to people who have never left the building. What kind of pseudo-tribal nightmare is he trying to set loose? Hasn’t the man ever seen a folk horror film?

Helly tries to wash the cord abrasions off her neck in the restroom. Her outie chose a shirt that leaves them visible rather than a turtleneck that would cover them, so Helly loses the bit of privacy that wardrobe choice might have given her. There’s no doubt she and her outie want each other to suffer.

Severance S1Ep5 The Grim Barbarity of O&D
The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design

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Ms Casey is waiting for Helly outside the restroom door and asks for a full accounting of her actions while they were apart. Ms Casey is very conscientious. Mark accidentally on purpose spills his coffee all over Ms Casey’s note pad. Dylan assumes it’s because he’s drunk and asks what his mouth tasted like this morning.

This begs the question of how often Mark comes to work drunk- and if Dylan comes to work drunk, too.

But this was an act of mercy. Mark was eyeing his mug before Helly came out of the bathroom, considering ways he could give Helly a break from Ms Casey’s scrutiny.

Casey tells Helly they both need to go to Distribution Supply to get more notepads. Mark offers to watch Helly for her, since it’ll only be a few minutes. Casey is scandalized. The round trip takes 8 minutes! But she goes alone, despite Dylan’s generous offer to accompany her.

Helly is relieved to have 8 minutes to relax. Mark “remembers” that he should show her where they keep the extra pen caps. She probably hasn’t replaced the one she planned to swallow that time she wanted to send a message to her outie by way of her digestive system. Helly isn’t interested in pen caps until Mark comments that they’d be able to escape Ms Casey for a few extra minutes. As they’re leaving, Dylan tells Mark to be careful, because there’s “weird energy about.”

As Ms Casey hurries back to MDR with her stack of note pads, she walks by Burt talking to himself in the conference room.

Once Mark and Helly are alone, he asks how she’s doing. She says she’s really bad and thanks him for noticing. He pulls her into an unused office and shows her that he’s trying to recreate Petey’s map. He hasn’t gotten very far and what he’s drawn looks like a picture of a ghost attacking a church rather than a map. He hopes they can work on it together during lunch breaks.

Helly tells him she’s not his new Petey and walks out. He follows her down an unlit corridor. Each section lights up as she passes through it. Helly literally brings enlightenment. But it’s only for her. The lights turn off behind her and don’t turn back on for Mark.

Helly has a little something extra in her chip. She and Mark are busy with other things and don’t question why she can control the lights and he can’t. Topside, she must have been at least at the level of Cobel before she decided to be a miracle and inspire the severed floor.

That seems to have backfired.

No wonder Cobel can’t stand her. Helly was probably supposed to work in MDR for a few weeks to learn the basics of the severed floor, then become Cobel’s new boss and move into her old office. Instead, Helly is the office problem child that they can’t fire and who refuses to quit. And Milchick follows her around like a puppy, but she also makes him regret his life choices.

Ms Casey is disturbed to learn that Mark took Helly to the storage wing, which will keep them all apart for even longer. Before she goes in search of them, she tells Irving that she saw Burt in the conference room. Irving rushes straight there, with Dylan following right behind. Burt says he was looking for Irv because he hadn’t heard from him in a while, but got turned around.

Despite their differences, the lovebirds start to have a sweet tête-à-tête in the conference room doorway. Then Dylan catches up to Irving and slams the conference door shut, expertly tying it closed with his belt, locking Burt inside. He yells that he had to protect Irving because Burt was coming right at him and might disembowel him (not true), then asks Burt where the other SIX people in his department are.

Irving is outraged and calls for a manager, walking up to the nearest camera and waving his arms in front of it. We’re shown a quick shot of multiple surveillance screens on a wall- a control room or security office? Burt is stunned and taken aback by this series of events, but after a moment he gets ahold of himself and calls for Irving to come back and for Dylan to open the door.

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Helly keeps walking into the light, with Mark following her in the dark, until she’s lost and stops, allowing Mark to catch up. He tries to get her to think about the map, but she’s stuck on her outie, reminding Mark that when she asked to quit, Outie Helly told her she isn’t a person. Mark says to forget about the outside and think about what she wants that’s available to her inside.

Settling for what’s possible isn’t Helly’s style. She’s used to dreaming big and holding a grudge. “What I want is for her to wake up while the life drains out of her and to know it was me who did it.” Then they hear a baby cry.

I bet you all thought Dylan was making that up.

Now that Mark and Helly are missing, things are even more tense at the conference room. Irving takes over the interrogation of Burt, who maintains that he just came to see Irving. He doesn’t know where the missing MDR staff are and he has no plans to eviscerate anyone. He stopped in the conference room to work out a joke as an icebreaker since he hadn’t seen Irv in a while. He was worried he’d scared off or embarrassed Irv with the hand thing and didn’t want to make it worse. Irving says he wasn’t scared or embarrassed.

Dylan (Zach Cherry) is SHOCKED!

Dylan orders Burt to tell the joke to prove he’s telling the truth. Burt can’t, because he still hadn’t worked it out. Irving asks why he lied about how many people there are in O&D. Burt says he trusts MDR, but the rest of O&D doesn’t. They believe all of the old stories, rumors and even stupid jokes. “Like they say you all have pouches… According to some, you each have a larval offspring that will jump out and attack if we get too close.”

Dylan’s shocked face is priceless. He can’t believe anyone would believe such nonsense about MDR. “That’s psycho!”

Burt: “Of course. It’s a joke. The sentiment somehow holds. People are weird. Though, I’d be remiss not to say, that, in this theory, the larva eventually eats and replaces you. Which, Irving, would solve the mystery of your youthful energy.”

Dylan is horrified.

Burt and Irving laugh together. Dylan is beyond shocked. He’s horrified that Irving is flirting with the enemy, OMG. He pulls Irv aside to confirm that they are indeed attracted to each other. Irving assumes Dylan is against their dalliance because the handbook forbids it. I was afraid Dylan would be ageist. But Dylan is a true friend- he’s simply worried that those O&D snakes will literally and figuratively rip his buddy’s heart out.

Helly and Mark follow the sound of babies crying to a room full of tiny, white baby goats. A man (Brian Rock) sits on a toy barn in the center and bottle feeds one of the goats. There are nipple feeders attached to a pipe that goes up to the ceiling and bales of hay for the goats to eat. Otherwise the white room is empty. The man yells at them to get out, because the goats aren’t ready. When they don’t move, he becomes adamant, telling them to go, because they can’t take them yet. Helly and Mark back out of the room.

The miniature size of the goats and the toy barn and silo make the room seem like a petting zoo. But the caretaker’s attitude suggests the goats have another purpose, which potentially won’t be pleasant for them.

Dylan follows at a distance as Irving walks Burt back to O&D. As a precautionary measure, Burt’s hands are tied behind his back with Dylan’s belt. Irving tells Burt more about the painting Milchick planted, The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design. Burt doesn’t know of any paintings by that name and asks what they were doing in it. Irving says it doesn’t matter, the painting probably wasn’t real. But he’ll have to check with his larva to be sure. They chuckle together. Dylan rolls his eyes.

Burt apologizes for how crazy this has gotten. Irving reminds him that “relationships beyond the platonic are frowned upon anyway.” Burt asks if that’s what they are. Dylan clears his throat to remind them he’s right there. They’ve reached O&D’s front door, so Irving formally releases Burt from MDR’s custody and unties his wrists. Burt asks them in. Irving and Dylan have a silent conversation about it, but Irving’s going in, no matter what Dylan says.

Burt shows Irving another painting from the life of Kier, The Courtship of Kier and Imogene. He explains that Kier and his wife met while he was a stewman in an ether factory and she was a swab girl. According to Irving, the handbook says they were bonded by the spirit of industry.

Also by the spirit of ether addiction, a common alternative to alcohol consumption in Ireland and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century.

But more importantly for Burt and Irving, they met and fell in love while working together. The prohibition on employee fraternization may be another one of the changes made to recent editions of the handbook, rather than from the original writings of Kier. Irving wonders if non platonic relationships are wrong after all. His and Burt’s hands drift toward each other.

While they been muse over The Courtship of Kier and Imogene, Dylan pokes through the cabinets. He finds the original canvas of the gruesome painting Milchick sent to them earlier and rushes to show it to Irving and Burt. Once again he warns Burt away from Irving when he sees that they’ve drifted close to each other.

Burt says that the painting isn’t The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design- it’s the Macrodata Refinement Calamity and it’s never been in the hall rotation. Irving realizes he’s right when he notices that the attackers are wearing MDR badges. It’s the same painting, but the badges have been switched to make MDR look like vicious cannibals who murdered O&D.

Or maybe MDR’s larvae took over their bodies and went on a killing spree. After the little guys eat their host bodies, their next meal has to come from somewhere.

Dylan wonders why there are two versions of the same painting, especially since MDR hasn’t ever attacked another department like this.

Except, Dylan’s institutional memory isn’t very long or accurate. He could be wrong about Lumon history. Early chip, behavioral or drug experiments could have gone very badly. Second, there is a reverse copy of the painting because Milchick needs to be able to run a 266 on Burt in Optics and Design. There is probably a version for each department attacking every other department. These paintings aren’t just art. They all serve a purpose, whether it’s teaching a lesson or sending a warning.

As Helly and Mark begin their walk back to MDR, she worries that the numbers represent the goats and they’re sending baby goats to their deaths. He doubts that they’re doing anything that simple. Then he stops her. “I know you don’t want to be here. But I’m glad you are and I’m sorry that this is the best I can do right now.” Helly tells him to give her the new map and she’ll work on it.

A very relieved Ms Casey finds them at last, having worried that they were hurt, but they assure her that they’re fine. She admits that she was scared for them and Mark apologizes. She forgives him. She leads them back to MDR as if they’re her two wayward ducklings. Cobel watches them on her monitor.

Graner drops by her office and asks if she’s keeping up with MDR’s latest shenanigans. She tells him she thought that was his job.

Graner: “You’re not stopping it?”

Cobel: “The surest way to tame a prisoner is to let him believe he’s free.”

I’m worried someone upstairs is using that method on Cobel/Selvig.

Graner replies that there’s a Kier quote for every occasion. But he’s concerned that she’s letting MDR wander the halls too much and upstairs won’t be happy about all the departments they’re stumbling into.

Cobel: “Yes, Daddy. [Graner gets a twinkle in his eye.] You can talk to me when you figure out who hacked Kilmer’s chip.”

Graner leaves without another word.

Burt leads Irving and Dylan into the O&D backroom and introduces them to the rest of his team. We can see seven more people. The room is vast, so there could be dozens of other in the back. Burt tells the team that MDR are friends, but they look just as suspicious as Dylan.

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The characters were exposed to two new paintings in this episode, depicting love and war, both of which are forbidden to them. Helly and Mark saw live animals, also a new experience for the severed personas. Outie Mark became an uncle. The episode was a roller coaster ride of emotions, swinging, like the paintings, between fear, anxiety, menace, love, affection and protectiveness.

We saw two women with scars on their necks. Helly has abrasions from the cord. It felt to me like it took a long time for Mark to find her, long enough that she should have sustained permanent damage or died, but within a few days of her attempted suicide, her scar is the only reminder. Alexa has a scar that looks like she had a tracheotomy so a breathing tube could be inserted. How close to death did she come when she got that scar?

We learned that Dylan can tie super tight, intricate knots and do it super fast. His outie may not do muscle shows, but he’s a boy scout or a sailor or has an obsession with knots. Or makes a habit of tying people up. We saw Mark with a black sludgie eye, suggesting Irving equates the black ooze from his hallucinations with injury and death.

We learned that O&D thinks MDR carries larvae inside them that will eventually eat and replace them. The larva are a metaphor for the implant and the fear that one persona will eventually kill and supplant the other. O&D are projecting their own fears of death onto MDR. MDR, in the form of Dylan, the creative side of the department, projects the fear of loss and death onto O&D by accusing them of past betrayals and violence.

All four refiners, plus Burt and Ms Casey, wandered the halls in search of each other and a break from routine. The endlessness of the underground hallways was emphasized, and for the first time, so was the darkness. Normally, we’re shown white, brightly lit hallways, unless a character is sent to the Break Room. But in this episode, we saw Helly, Mark and Ms Casey wander through hallways that are kept dark unless someone is directly under a light. Ms Casey led Helly and Mark out of the dark, forbidden hallways and back to the light/their assigned area as if she were a shepherd leading stray sheep back to the flock. Or as if she were Ariadne leading Theseus out of the labyrinth. Could Helly’s red hair be a sign that she’s the red thread tying them together? Or is she Theseus? And who is the minotaur?

Or maybe we were watching the characters experience the futility of life, as they wandered empty halls that went nowhere. Even when they occasionally found something, they rarely found answers. The vast O&D backroom is another dead end that likely circles back on itself, with nothing new to discover at the other end, just endless rows of identical 3D printers waiting to make copies of the reality the innies will never see. If the severed floor is Hell, the O&D backroom is purgatory.

Severance S1Ep5 Helly with Neck ScarSeverance S1Ep5 Alexa with Scar on NeckSeverance S1Ep5 Mark with Sludge Eye

Irving and the Toxic Black Mayonaise

Lumon Industries has a Linked In page. One new fact that it reveals is that Irving has actually been a Lumon employee for nine years and has “transformed” into a model employee. Has he been severed the whole nine years or was that part of his transformation into a model worker? Did he discover something Lumon didn’t want him to see, so they had him wiped?

Irving’s nightmare sludge reminds me of the Gowanus Canal toxic horror show in Brooklyn, described in this article as “black mayonaise”. Maybe, like most old manufacturing corporations, Lumon has some superfund sites to clean up and Macrodata Refinement has something to do with that, in some ways mirroring Dylan’s guess that they’re helping clean up the oceans.

There’s an image near the end of the opening credits of mini Marks getting sucked up into a needle and turning into black sludge. We create the sludge. Sewage waste is part of the toxic black sludge in the Gowanus Canal. Yet microbes have evolved to slowly digest the sludge. There’s a circle of life/live by the sword, die by the sword aspect to the way we heedlessly pollute that the black sludge encompasses. The Earth will deal with it over the long-term, but the human body can’t. It’s ourselves that we’re killing, just as severance ultimately destroys the worker, but the corporation lives on. They only stop when they are forced to stop using harmful practices- or they stop making money.

Toxic black mayonaise tends to be carcinogenic, so Irving may be having flashes from his outie’s emotions and knowledge of Lumon history or he may have gleaned something from the handbook that’s tickling at his subconscious. All of the exaggerated stories of employee violence and death may have their origin in earlier times, when safety standards were lax and employees died in accidents and from exposure to toxins. That could still be happening in a closed environment like the severed floor.

Where Are the Blocked Calls Coming From?

The blocked number repeatedly calls Petey’s phone at certain precise moments, looking for Mark. When he found out Petey had died and when his niece was born are two times when it’s unlikely someone was physically watching him. Could the implants be linked to each other, through quantum entanglement or a wireless channel that can be opened and closed by a member of the group?

I can believe that it’s possible for Lumon to look out of the severed workers eyes as if they’re a camera and to hear through their ears, but I don’t think the blocked caller is using official Lumon channels. Or maybe they are. Maybe it’s someone who’s trying to get Mark to confess to his interactions with Petey, rather than someone from the group who helped Petey reintegrate.

Cobel’s Secrets

Mark and Helly weren’t supposed to see the goats and Graner is afraid Cobel will get in trouble for allowing them to stray so far from their normal route. Now that Devon’s baby has been born, Cobel probably wanted Innie Mark to hear the sound of babies crying and smell milk to see if it would trigger flashes of his outie’s memory.

Cobel keeps a lot of secrets and her goals aren’t necessarily Lumon’s goals. There doesn’t seem to be anyone she shares everything with. She and Milchick have a close mentor/mentee relationship that I love. But as with all parent-child type relationships, Milchick is growing beyond the need for her supervision and there are things she can’t share with her surrogate child, especially as she moves from direct “mothering” to crone. We’re watching her take on the grandparent role, with Daddy Graner as Grandpa, as she trains Mark and Milchick to interact directly with employees while she generally keeps her distance, observing and giving advice/managing as needed.

Cobel moved to a new office at the beginning of the season- did she also move from a position that had more direct contact with severed employees? Maybe that’s why she spends so much time watching them on the monitors. Watching and managing their behavior is in the job description of all 3 members of the management team that we’ve met, but Milchick seems to be responsible for most day to day interactions.

I suspect that Cobel is responsible for more departments than we’ve seen and she’s currently giving too much of her focus to MDR because of her interest in reintegration. I have a theory that Cobel is a reintegrated severed worker whose memory was totally wiped and who has family that don’t remember her among the severed workers, with Mark at the top of the list. Adam Scott and Patricia Arquette are only a few years apart in age, so it’s likely that they’re siblings, despite how motherly she can be with him. Unless her silver hair means the character is many years older than the actor.

I have a feeling that Petey and Cobel grew close at work and part of his motivation for reintegrating was so they could continue their relationship/friendship outside of work. But, despite what diagnostics said, Petey’s reintegration went wrong and killed him. He may have fully reintegrated just before he died, but before that he was still struggling. It’s suspicious that Graner didn’t mention anything about Petey’s other reintegration symptoms to Cobel. Lumon may be testing her.

Looking back on the last few episodes, Cobel seemed off her game in the first episode. She’s erratic anyway, but in episode 1 she was as upset as Mark was about Petey. She was mixing up her garbage bins at home, upset about the changes in her work life and implying to Mark that Lumon is Hell. At home, she called the restaurant just before Petey arrived, as if to confirm Mark’s location for Petey.

The Severed Floor and the Need for Touch and Intimacy

The severed floor is a tragically sterile environment, made up of hard surfaces meant to keep people apart. Touching, showing softness or affection are frowned upon, if not outright forbidden. Sure, occasionally a hug or a handshake is offered upon request, but that’s far cry from touch that’s offered freely, simply because one person cares about someone else. Innie Mark happily accepted the handshake offered by Ms Cobel to congratulate him for his promotion, one of the few instances of Lumon-supported touch we’ve seen. We haven’t seen most of the severed workers’ home lives, but we know that although Outie Mark is lonely, he has the opportunity for hugs from Devon, Ricken and Mrs Selvig and he occasionally dates. Innie Mark is rarely alone, but his life is monitored, regulated and stressful. Cobel also lives alone and calls herself a widow. In her Selvig guise, she seeks out touch with Mark, while she appears uncomfortable with it as Cobel.

Given how closely Lumon monitors the severed workers’ other physical needs, it’s surprising that they aren’t also aware of whether their needs for touch and affection are being met. This highlights the difficulty of living ones’ entire existence in a work environment, in a society that’s decided personal needs are meant to be met outside the office lest power dynamics lead to abuse (a legitimate concern). But if the office is all you have, and the office forbids touch and fraternization, when do you meet those human personal needs for love, friendship and in particular for touch, which helps decrease levels of violence and depression and increase levels of empathy and cooperation?

Touch Starvation: What to Know

Psychology Today: Touching EmpathyLack of physical affection can actually kill babies.

NY Times: Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much

Severance has illustrated the emotional and physical deprivation felt by the severed workers clearly by showing how deeply Burt and Irving are affected by their mutual attraction when they act on it by touching hands. In comparison, Ms Casey is also clearly starved for affection and touch, but she can only offer a Lumon-sanctioned hug to Helly, who doesn’t want it.

Then she has to refuse Dylan. He may be offering to hug Ms Casey because he senses her loneliness, but he’s also desperate to connect with someone the way he sees Mark emotionally connecting with Helly and Irving romantically connecting with Burt. Ms Casey, as far as we know, doesn’t feel a connection to Dylan, so she might not want to hug him. They are both left unsatisfied, envious of their coworkers and with no way to satisfy their own needs. Viewed through this filter, the rumors of violent behavior on the severed floor become more understandable. Under the right conditions, the tensions we saw in this episode could build into interoffice war or lead to an office pregnancy, as we heard on the TV news.

One solution to help the severed workers with their touch and intimacy issues would be to have office pets. An office cat and/or dog would give the workers safe outlets for touch and affection without taking away from work time. Most of my typing time is spent with my cat on my lap and my dog is usually sleeping nearby or near another family member who’s working at home. Then someone takes the dog for a mental health walk. The corridors of the severed floor, all that artificial turf and open space would be great for a small dog, who Mark, Cobel or Milchick could then take home at night. It’s been documented that pet ownership or even just spending time with animals improves mental health and physical health.

Severance as Urban Folk Horror

But Lumon won’t improve working conditions because they don’t want their employees to bond with each other or pets and they don’t want improved mental health. They want employees to stay ignorant and deprived. Employees are meant to turn to the few sources of information and entertainment the company allows them, grateful for whatever scraps Lumon throws them and unaware there are other options available in the outside world.

Lumon’s corporate voice is meant to be the word of God. Everything about the environment of the severed floor is meant to leave the workers with no choice but to give their affection and loyalty to Lumon and no one else. The dull, sterile environment leads to sensory deprivation, which invites disorientation and even hallucinations. Lumon takes advantage of this state by shaping common hallucinations and anxieties into its cult/corporate mythology.

When people are kept in isolation (sensory deprivation), information input via the senses (such as hearing and sight) is reduced. A person who remains alert during a period of sensory deprivation is likely to experience vivid fantasies and, perhaps, hallucinations. A slight amount of stimulation directed toward the senses may further increase the likelihood of hallucination. If stimuli are markedly reduced and the level of arousal is high, the hallucinations can be especially vivid and emotionally charged

If some external object is present but inadequately recognized, an incorrect perceptual engram may be activated to be experienced as an illusion; in the absence of an external stimulus, such an engram is perceived as a hallucination. This may account for the specificity of collective visions (i.e., those shared by more than one person). Among lifeboat survivors at sea, for example, several people who share similar expectancies may see a nonexistent ship projected against the blank screen of empty sea and sky. Such an experience may persist in some of the people even after a logical belief in its impossibility has been communicated to all.” (X)

As with many recent stories, Severance is dancing on the edges of folk horror, though in a non traditional way. The show depicts an isolated community who are all part of an inescapable corporate cult. The Perpetuity Wing is the cult’s inner temple. On the severed floor, temple initiates go though training and rites of passage. The company town is akin to the traditional village that supports the temple and feeds the priesthood.

The inner circle on the severed floor is made up of a management/priest caste and severed workers who surrendered themselves to the cult, but who feel like imprisoned hostages. They seem like the outsiders in a folk horror story who either become unwilling sacrifices or initiates, but they are also insiders/converts who came by choice and went through a purification ritual which wiped their memories so they could be reborn into the cult.

The cult needs to re-convert as many as possible by bringing them into the inner circle, while periodically culling the unbelievers, just as the corporation needs to fire its under performers. Wiping their memories, then asking them to go through the conversion process again, acts as a form of testing their true commitment to the cause. Initiates who pass this phase are the most loyal of true believers, even if they didn’t think they were when they underwent the severance procedure.

The town is dark, empty, cold and snowy. There seems to be an issue with food, but that could be performative- there could be a starvation issue somewhere in the outside world and the people of Kier are showing solidarity by not eating occasionally, as with a hunger strike. Selvig presents as a typical folk horror witch and villain, keeper of the community’s folk and healing traditions, who’s willing to violate bodies and the rules of normal society when no one is looking, but in reality her intentions are ambiguous. As Cobel, we’ve seen Graner and Milchick worry about her actions, motives and lack of transparency with the board.

Ricken is our actual guide to the strange customs and beliefs of the city of Kier. When Mark is at work, Ricken’s influence comes through in his book, which acts as a second sacred text, a version of the lost Gnostic Gospels if you will, which perhaps reflect Kier’s beliefs better than the now revised handbook. When Mark is with Ricken, we’re exposed to his practices, such as those that relate to the baby- preparing three beds to cover the baby’s entire childhood, hanging kelp in the birthing suite, telling secrets to create a soul void. That’s a lot of concern for the baby’s soul and sense of security, given the happy, financially secure home the baby’s apparently being born into. Ricken is superstitious, at the very least, but maybe the world outside Kier’s basin isn’t very safe or secure. Or maybe it’s the town of Kier that’s not very safe.

Or maybe that’s what Lumon wants its cult members to believe, so they won’t leave. Maybe it’s the town of Kier that’s not very safe.

Severance is one of a growing number of urban folk horror stories, as I like to think of them, such as Dark, that are heavily influenced by science fiction, modern history, urban legends and creepypastas such as The Backrooms, and have the folk horror staples of an isolated, inescapable community who are part of an ambiguous or evil cult. Their occult and religious influences remain in the background instead of becoming the main plot of the story.

The lines between genres are blurry, but I would put modern stories such as The Third Day and Midsommar, which rely on pagan traditions and reviving or continuing the old ways, in the folk horror category. While Dark and Severance have historical and religious influences, they both create unique belief systems, histories and settings for their isolated cults to exist in. Orphan Black, The Handmaid’s Tale and The OA also feature isolated, trapped populations who base their views on distorted science and a unique belief system. Although Gilead also uses a heavily rewritten version of the Bible in the The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a smokescreen for their misogynist, classist scientific and environmental views, which are meant to restore a plummeting birth rate.

The Paintings and the Legendary Life of Kier Eagan

By my count, MDR has now introduced us to 5 paintings (counting the two department attacks as one) depicting the legendary life of Kier Eagan or the history of Lumon. We don’t know who paints or commissions the paintings or who curates their rotation schedule, only that O&D stores, maintains, hangs and rotates them according to instructions they receive from above.

Or so Burt and Felicia say.

Kier and Eagan are both ancient Irish names. Kier is derived from the Gaelic name Ciar, which means small, dark one. Eagan is a Gaelic surname which means fire. It originates from the name of a pre-Christian god. As a last name, Kier is the name of Scottish clan and village. I think it’s safe to say that Lumon’s Kier is of Irish descent and may have some Scots Irish in him.

My guess is that his parents immigrated to the US from Ireland in the first half of the 19th century, but so far I haven’t noticed any clues as to whether they brought him with them or he was born in the US. All we know is that he was in the US (or wherever Severance takes place) by the time he started his company and if he ever had an Irish accent, he’d lost it by the time he was elderly and recorded the message that plays in the Perpetuity Wing.

Kier seems to have started out middle class. He became wealthy through a combination of hard work, luck and charisma, a self-made man who fits the image of many of the late 19th century robber baron industrialists. He has similarities to Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), an industrialist, intellectual, author, philanthropist and Scottish immigrant to America.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Kier, such as where he grew up, when he and Imogene met and married, how many children they had, where they lived, when Imogene died, if she was his only wife, if he had interests outside of Lumon and how he died. The show is rationing out tidbits of information about the company and Kier, often in ways that are easy to miss, such as in the details of a painting.

If y’all will indulge some wild speculation based on a connection between Kier and Andrew Carnegie, I have one more theory before we look at the paintings:

In 1889, Johnstown, Pennsylvania was a thriving town of 30,000 nestled in a drainage basin for the Allegheny plateau, a naturally flood prone area where three rivers meet. Railroads and the industries that support them built in the area, sometimes using slag, the toxic waste product that’s left over after metal has been smelted, or purified, as fill dirt. Meanwhile, above the town, an old dam with a reservoir that had been built in the first half of the 19th century as part of the canal system fell into disrepair as railroads replaced canals. A group of wealthy men, known as the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, purchased the reservoir in 1881 and made alterations to the dam that further weakened it. Andrew Carnegie belonged to the club.

The Johnstown Flood occurred in 1889, when the dam gave way. 2,209 people were killed. The South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club formed a relief committee to assist victims of the flood and the club members made a pact to never speak publicly of the flood or the club. Their solidarity and silence helped them escape all liability for the club’s part in causing the flood. Johnstown has experienced two more major floods since 1889- in 1936 and again in 1977.

The point of my story is that the town of Kier is also in a basin and we’re pointedly and frequently shown the river that runs through it, the snow pack and the surrounding mountains, conditions that are similar to those in Johnstown. Any town with those conditions is a candidate for excessive flooding from spring thaws, summer storms and hurricanes.

What if Kier, the town, has been wiped out multiple times by flooding that was caused or exacerbated by Lumon? As I pointed out way up the post, Lumon could have also left behind toxic waste dumps, which would leak in frequent floods and contaminate townspeople who weren’t already exposed by working in the factories. The few people who are left in town could be the last of the survivors after repeated disasters and illnesses due to contaminated water and soil.

Lumon may have found ways to escape public liability, while privately taking care of the injured workers and their families, just like the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club did. One of the Lumon talking points is that employees are family, too. The Mouths of Joy or whatever in the Perpetuity Wing may have needed help because of (prenatal) exposure to Lumon’s toxins. Helly has weak tooth enamel, according to Milchick. Maybe as part of their settlement, Lumon quietly fixes the victims’ birth defects and pays for their illnesses, in perpetuity, and they sign an NDA.

Maybe that statue of Kier in front of the Hall of Records is in gratitude for heroic philanthropy that saved people from damage done by Lumon.

Let’s take a closer look at each painting.

Kier Tames the Tempers

This painting was introduced in episode 2 and I analyzed it in detail in that recap. We now know that Kier is metaphorically fighting the four tempers, frolic, woe, dread and malice, in the cave of his own mind in order to master self control. Self control is highly valued on the severed floor. Employees are expected to speak and move in a calm, measured, even robotic, way unless they are given permission to express a stronger emotion, usually because they’ve won an incentive perk.

I don’t recall this painting being given an official title.

In Kier Tames the Tempers, the goat boy wears blue, which in Christian color symbolism is associated with Heaven, hope and good health. In the IBM color scheme, blue is a positive neutral. Kier wears gold, associated with the sun/daylight and purity, and red, associated with the blood of Christ, the Holy Spirit, fire and spiritual awakening. IBM codes red and gold as warning colors.

Kier is pictured as an old man, suggesting he didn’t master self control until late in life, after he’d finished with his bucket list. His commands are a case of do as I say, not as I do.

The Traditional Four Tempers and the Lumon Four Tempers:

The next two paintings were introduced in episode 4.

The Youthful Convalescence of Kier

The Youthful Convalescence of Kier

In this painting, Kier is a boy, somewhere between the age of 8 and 14. He lies in bed, in a dark room lit by a single candle held by a nurse. His parents, 2 nurses and a doctor sit by the bed. He has a bandage around the top of his head and a towel draped over one shoulder. The doctor is pulling the covers back from the lower part of the arm covered by the towel. My guess is they are about to do a bloodletting, which was still in practice into the second half of the 19th century. Kier’s mother is praying for him. We haven’t been told anything about his illness or injury.

When Kier recovered from this illness, he advised others: “Let not weakness live in your veins. Cherished workers, drown it inside you. Rise up from your deathbed and sally forth, more perfect for the struggle.” 

Was he on his deathbed or was he being dramatic? All we know is that he recovered fully and expected everyone he knew to do the same. Anyone who died or was left disabled was weak in his eyes, a common point of view. He may have even viewed himself as chosen by God to survive while others around him died, especially since he lived so long. It’s another common attitude shared by a certain type of person.

Speaking of God complexes…

Kier Invites You to Drink of His Water

Kier Invites You to Drink of His Water

An older Kier stands on a mountaintop looking northwestward over the Great Lakes on the US-Canada border. His view is from somewhere between Pittsburgh and western Kentucky. As I write this, Mr Metawitches is still arguing for Indiana, but that makes no sense to me storywise and due to Indiana’s flatness. Recalling my discussion of Vaseline, the inventor first saw the raw material in use at an oil well in western Pennsylvania. Kentucky and West Virginia are known for coal mines. No matter how Kier initially made money, chances are he invested in railroads and the resources they required- steel, oil and coal.

This painting is done in a very different style from the others. It looks like Kier and his rocky summit were added to a pre-existing landscape painting. The landscape is an idealized 19th century view, showing rolling hills, forests and farmlands at sunset. The mowed fields are the only sign of human habitation.

Depicting Kier, a wealthy industrialist, as if he was a steward of the land is likely some first class ironic image doctoring. While Gilded Age industrialists frequently pursued manly hobbies, such as hunting, that took them out into nature, they took no precautions to preserve it for the future or to protect it from their own greed. They typically had to be forced to protect their employees and the communities their industries were located in. Their toxic waste dumps still litter North America.

But, who knows, maybe Kier was more like William Keith Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, who tried to take care of his employees and tread lightly on the land. Kier did start out selling topical salves.

I can’t stop wondering exactly what the title means. Did Kier own the Great Lakes? How much of the US and Canada does Lumon now own? Mark’s license plate says PE, the abbreviation for Prince Edward Island, on the northeast coast of Canada. Under Eagan and Lumon guidance, did the US swallow the rest of the continent?

Or is this a water rights issue? Have corporations been allowed to buy up all of the fresh water sources, adding that to their monopolies?

There’s another possibility: Joe Kennedy was also an Irish-American robber baron, who was heavily involved in US politics in the 1930s. He was anti-semitic and sympathetic to the Nazis, so he was forced to retire from public political life, but three his sons went on to successful careers in politics- John F Kennedy became president, and all three were US senators.

Maybe Severance is using Joseph Kennedy as a model as well as Charles Lindbergh, another influential Nazi sympathizer. They could be suggesting an alternate history in which the progressive reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries never occurred, so that corporations and their owners continued to grow in power and influence rather than being subject to periodic reining in. Without trust-busting and a government social safety net, corporations would have continued to merge and create monopolies, giving themselves so much control over the government and society that they’d be free to run citizens lives as if they were enslaved.

Irving and Burt were worried that Kier would fall off the mountain, suggesting that he’d fallen and hit his head when he was a youth or maybe that’s how he died. Or they have vestigial memories of head injuries that cause them to worry about others getting hurt the same way.

Blood symbolizes life, but water symbolizes the unconscious mind. Since lakes sometimes symbolize the conscious mind, we could view the Great Lakes as a symbol of the both halves of the mind. Sort of like that oval Petey drew at the top of his map of the severed floor, which has squiggly lines coming out of it that make it look like Mark’s two goldfish have become one, but are probably wireless transmission waves. Or maybe symbols of quantum entanglement.

Episode 4 gave us Kier’s Convalescence, Kier’s Water, The Nine Virtues, and Ricken’s Destiny poem. Kier would have us believe he reached the top of the mountain because he consistently exercised the Nine Virtues. Lumon would have us believe that they only have the employees’ best interests at heart. Ricken seems to be attempting to get a desperate message through to Mark. His poem mentions eyes and newness raining down from above.

Mark’s black sludgie eye is sitting next to the word Mind on Petey’s map. Has his mind’s eye/3rd eye/6th chakra/soul been opened or destroyed by Lumon? Does Lumon intend to put something in the water that will allow them to sever and convert the world?

Severance S1Ep4 Destiny 2Severance S1EP3 Innie Map Detail 2Severance S1Ep1 Mark Watches TV

The Grim Barbarity of Severed Workers 28 Days Later in Macrodata Refinement

Severance S1Ep5 The MDR Calamity Up Close
The Macrodata Refinement Calamity
Severance S1Ep5 The Grim Barbarity of O&D
The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design

I’m so sorry. The show spent a significant amount of time on these paintings, so we have to look at them. Plus, they’re a 266. But not a 666. Still several floors away from the Devil, but on the way there. A warning of what’s to come, if employees don’t straighten out.

The images are rendered in a rougher style and the people take up almost the entire frame in this work. Unlike the first three, which also focus their settings, this piece takes place in a vague Hellscape with a fire and brimstone glow. The others have 1-6 people, who are clustered together, as their focal points. While none of them is happy, there is a sense of underlying hope in each.

This painting features all men. (One on the far right could be female.) While there’s a significant gender imbalance on the severed floor, as there often is among business executives, there is a 1: 3 or 4 male to female ratio. Outside of the severed floor, men tend to be in higher ranking positions than women and the roles are gender stereotyped. For example, a man inserted Helly’s chip while a woman acted as his assistant; and a woman serves as receptionist while a (Black) man serves as security guard. An older white man serves as head of security and “Daddy” while a dark skinned Black man in a junior management position, that also encompasses security duties, serves under him and an older white female manager. The lighter skinned Black man is the whiz kid of the refiners while the young, red-haired white woman is angry and temperamental.

O&D has more gender and racial parity, but there’s still an old, white man in charge. The gay romance is sweet, and I count it as diversity, but old white men are still old white men. A little flirting and handholding doesn’t change where the focus is and has been for these actors’ decades-long careers. I love Burt and Irving separately and together, but casting these two characters as a 70 year old cis lesbian couple played by 70 year old cis women would have been much more radical. How about we give Felicia (Claudia Robinson) some real dialogue and a love interest in season 2? She and Dylan have an enemies to lovers vibe going. Cobel is also available and bakes cookies.

Okay, back to the zombies.

While it’s tempting to say these 5 paintings were done by a few different artists, I don’t think we can guess that. Artists who have long careers, and who aren’t forced to repeat themselves by commercial interests, frequently use exciting, varied styles that change with their moods and the phases of their lives. This painting could be a forgery that was created to scare the kids or it could be that the artist went through a rough period and this was what came out. Who hasn’t considered drastic measures for dealing with coworkers? Hopefully not this drastic, but the thought is the same.

This painting features a bland setting, with the characters in four groups of four people. Perhaps this is another representation of the four tempers, this time showing how they react in a crisis? The left foursome are screaming in terror, holding their heads, tearing their hair out and turning away. One runs away. I’m going to call that woe/melancholic. A man in the group to the right has eviscerated his victim and appears to be using his knife to behead him. The men in this group are taking action. Some are in the hallway, running toward the crisis. That’s malice/choleric. Next, one guy is eating another’s entrails, while another tries to get someone to look directly into his eyes. They’re avoiding the immediate crisis in favor of dealing with its peripheral elements, such as the emotional reaction of others or how tasty they find a coworker. Let’s call that frolic/sanguine. Finally, the fourth group stands off to the right side, watching in horror, bearing witness, but not getting involved. They are dread/phlegmatic.

It’s hard to imagine the current Macrodata Refiners snapping and becoming the 28 Days Later zombies we think we see in these paintings at first glance, but closer inspection reveals a wide range of activity. These workers may have been pushed too far or dosed with an experimental drug. If this is the severed floor, they can’t escape and they have no training or life experience to help them cope with such an event.

This is a warning about what happens when the four tempers aren’t tamed and balanced. Mental illness, violence, chaos, Kier’s names for the four tempers. The strange thing is that on the severed floor, the tempers aren’t tamed, they’re repressed. Repression will ultimately lead to that painting, when somebody just can’t hold it all in anymore and explodes. Sitting at a desk for hours every day gives them no outlet for releasing their frustrations and after they leave work they don’t know what they need to release. Even Irving’s Wellness therapy session was as much repression as it was release.

The Courtship of Kier and Imogene

Are we absolutely certain Burt doesn’t paint these himself? I can’t help but notice that he conjured this painting up right after his sweetie had doubts about the permissibility of their feelings for each other. As a young man, Kier is a dead ringer for Irving, while Imogene could be Burt’s sister. This painting was used as a plot device to give the lovebirds Kier’s permission to date, if not Lumon’s, and it couldn’t be more on the nose without turning Imogene into a man.

Burt is commenting on the difference between the word of God vs the laws of humans and which supersedes the other. He actually takes the argument further, as he notes ways that Kier/God might speak to them directly by sending them signs. He teaches Irving that they don’t need the handbook/Bible or the manager/priests to interpret Kier/God for them. They can experience Kier/God directly and interpret his messages for themselves, which is surely a heretical position in the eyes of the Eagan family members currently running the show. By showing Irving that Kier was once a working man, just like them, who fell in love with a coworker, just like them, he grounded Kier and made him someone Irving felt he could understand and interpret, rather than a distant figure standing on a hill that Irving could never touch.

This is the power of travel and higher education. Irving has read and memorized the handbook and is in many ways an educated man, by the standards of the severed floor. But wandering the halls, seeing more art and talking to Burt introduced him to other points of view, other ways of seeing and thinking about the stories he knows so well. It’s made him more tolerant of others, more understanding, taught him about himself, deepened his love for Kier and Lumon, and increased his bond with his coworkers.

Helly, Mark and Dylan are having similar experiences from reading Ricken’s book, meeting Burt and wandering. The only reason to keep the severed workers from this knowledge is fear. Lumon is afraid of the outcome of the severed workers learning too much. What if, without strict guidance in exactly how to think, they reject Lumon? What if they choose other options when they have the chance?

The severance implant, combined with the underground hostage situation office, is the perfect vehicle for the insecure and controlling to maintain permanent possession of the objects of their desire. Pretty sure there’s a word for permanent possession of a human being, who can’t leave, even if they want to. Who can be tortured for minor mistakes. What was it the Whole Mind Collective was talking about?

This painting is another witchy image in the spirit of Mrs Selvig. Kier stirs Imogene’s giant cauldron of witch’s brew- maybe a love potion, which is, in essence, a way to coerce someone into acting against their will. The two are shown as equals here, standing on the same level, with Imogene speaking and Kier looking at her and leaning toward her, showing he’s paying close attention. I wonder how equal they were in starting and running the business. It was common in the 19th century for men to take credit for women’s accomplishments, since women weren’t allowed to take part in many areas of public life.

We know nothing about Imogene. This is the first we’ve heard of her existence. The house and bedroom in the Perpetuity Wing were referred to as Kier’s, not Kier and Imogene’s, so I’m going to guess she either died young or she stayed out of the public eye, living in their country houses rather than the city and avoiding public appearances. She and/or Kier may have preferred it that way. She may have preferred a quiet life or she may have had chronic health issues. She may have been one of the 19th century’s madwomen in the attic: severely mentally ill, at least according to her family, but kept at home and out of sight rather than sent to one of the horrific mental asylums of the time.

Ether was used as a general anesthetic in the 19th century and also as a recreational drug. Recreational use was socially acceptable and was recommended as a substitute for alcohol. Its effects are similar to alcohol, but it can also cause euphoria and hallucinations. Ether was also known as the frolics- perhaps Kier is referencing a tendency toward drug use and addiction, rather than happiness, by his choice of the word frolic for one of the four tempers?

Heads in a Landscape (Cabezas en un paisaje, possibly the fifteenth Black Painting), Francisco de Goya, 1819-23

The tempers can be viewed as forms of escapism, or coping mechanisms. We each have all four in us, but we tend to favor some more than others. As escapism, the tendencies that define each can be overused to the point of harm. Woe’s analytical nature becomes stuck in victimhood and severe depression. Malice’s bravery and action turn to anger, foolhardiness and attention-seeking. Dread’s calm and neutrality becomes stuck in fear and inertia, with facts used as weapons. And frolic’s affection and lightheartedness turn to callousness, sensation-seeking and avoidance.

Moving on, in my research on goats I came across paintings that reminded me of the Severance paintings. The Black Paintings, a series of 14 or 15 paintings by Francisco de Goya, have similarities to these. Goya painted this series on the walls of his house from 1819-1823. The paintings were cut away from the walls and donated to Spain in 1881.

(El Gran Cabrón/Aquelarre), Witches’ Sabbath, Francisco de Goya 1821-23
Luther at Erfurt – Justification by Faith by Joseph Noel Paton

The Severance paintings also have similarities to the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Joseph Noel Paton declined to join the Brotherhood, but he painted in their style and focused on the same subjects- historical, fairy, allegorical and religious stories. He was a folklore expert whose interest in Celtic legends and Scottish folklore shows in his work, just as the Severance paintings show the artist’s knowledge of Kier and Lumon’s private history. And maybe some of Goya’s mental instability. Paton painted a series on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream because of the connection between goats and Pucks. Pucks are legendary Celtic/Irish shapeshifters who are typically depicted as domestic fairies or sprites and occasionally as demons. They can appear to be human, animal or a little of each. As with Shakespeare’s character, the weather, and many domestic animals, especially goats, they are helpful but mischievous. And sometimes knavish.

Joseph Noel Paton – Puck and Fairies, from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

What About the Baby Goats?

And Related to That, If the Innies Aren’t People, What Are They?

The goat sequence was odd. I could be convinced that it was a shared hallucination. I could be convinced that the entire series is a shared hallucination or dream. The severed workers might all be in a coma after a disaster or they may pass out in the elevator and Lumon uses the implant to create a shared world for experiments in hallucinations and the brain.

After the way Dark and Lost ended, I’m always aware that the “Cabinet of Dr Caligari” “it was all a dream” ending is now in play for TV series. I usually hate those endings. They’re a narrative Get Out of Jail Free card for writers who wrote their series without a plan and now can’t come up with a proper ending. They almost never give viewers satisfying closure, which we have a right to expect from a TV series we’ve put so much time into.

As established by Dr Caligari, they also allow productions to disavow controversial opinions expressed within the body of the work as the ravings of the characters, so as to appease the commercial interests behind the production.

Turning Dorothy’s trip to Oz into a dream, rather than a real trip to a real place where a little girl saved the day, as it was in the book, serves the same function. If you want to weaken the message of a story, frame it with the idea that the main character can’t be trusted because their mind isn’t all there. Come to think of it, that describes the severed characters in this story, doesn’t it? For the rest of their lives, the severance implant will give other people a valid reason to doubt their stability and reliability, just as society doubts the word of Irving’s friends- children, the elderly and the insane.

Which brings us back to the goats. If you use someone as your patsy (the person you cast blame onto distract from the rest of the group), they’re a scapegoat. The group sacrifices the scapegoat by turning them into a vessel for the community’s sins. In biblical times, the literal scapegoat was then cast out of the community, into the wilderness. Frequently, someone would shove the goat off a cliff to make sure it wouldn’t return to the community, bringing its cursed nature with it. A second goat was offered directly to God as a blood sacrifice without the intermediate step of exile and removal of sin.

The way that the goat minder yells at Mark and Helly that the goats aren’t ready yet, so they can’t take them, suggests that the goats’ fate isn’t a happy one. If this is a dream, the goats could represent losses that the characters have experienced and their fear that they’ll lose even more. Helly and Mark are developing feelings for each other and the bond between the refiners is growing, which ups the stakes for Mark, who came to the severed floor to avoid his emotional pain. Maybe the goat minder is echoing Mark’s feelings that he’s both not ready for another relationship and not ready to lose Helly, leaving him in a frozen state of ambiguity, mirroring the uncertainty his Outie feels about Alexa. Mark seems to like her, but he’s also not at the point where he can move on without feeling like he’s betraying his wife.

Helly is also having conflicting feelings. Since she wants out of the severed floor, she doesn’t want to develop attachments there. She’s not ready to face who she might be on the outside and choosing death over continued attempts to escape allows her to avoid that potential let down. But Mark complicates her choice- is getting to know him better, maybe even as outies, worth more devastating power struggles with her own outie? She’s not yet ready for those confrontations.

The reticence they both feel could have created a shared vision that externalized and scapegoated their feelings. If they have a mystery to solve at work, they can ignore what’s happening between them for a while.

The sequence with the goats started with the sound of a baby crying, then they saw the shadow of a goat, which led them into the goat room. Dylan mentioned hearing a baby cry in the Break Room, so they both already had that in their subconscious, but that could also be evidence that someone used the goats in an attempt to trigger Dylan as well.

A goat minder wearing a business suit who feeds the goats on his lap in the middle of an office building smacks of unreality. The shadow goat in the hall was a hint, a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Summary of the Allegory of the Cave:

In the allegory “The Cave,” Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are the prisoners’ reality, but are not accurate representations of the real world. The shadows represent the fragment of reality that we can normally perceive through our senses, while the objects under the sun represent the true forms of objects that we can only perceive through reason. Three higher levels exist: the natural sciences; mathematics, geometry, and deductive logic; and the theory of forms. Socrates explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not the direct source of the images seen. A philosopher aims to understand and perceive the higher levels of reality. However, the other inmates of the cave do not even desire to leave their prison, for they know no better life.”

In episode 3, when Mark asked Petey if the permanent innies he’d just heard about were chained up, that was another reference to the Allegory of the Cave. The uneducated masses are kept chained in place, facing the cave wall, so they don’t understand that the shadow puppets they watch aren’t reality. They have no way to know that life could be different and no way to escape, so they accept whatever life is provided for them as normal and fine. The innies on the severed floor understand their situation and believe their self awareness gives them freedom of choice, but in reality, their information and movements are controlled. Their outies think they are even more informed and more free, but they are just as in the dark as their innies. Their ability to leave is unclear.

Cobel subversively draws the severed workers toward the next stage of development by encouraging them to look beyond the shadows/surface of their lives and the information Lumon feeds them. She tells Mark, “We serve Kier,” rather than “We work for Lumon.” That’s an important distinction, just as Burt made the distinction between the messages and wording in different editions of the handbook and various paintings. Whatever their motivations, Cobel and Burt are leading the refiners away from the shadows and toward the light, which coincides with leading them away from Lumon’s current corporate ideology, back to what they see as deeper truths Kier taught in earlier times.

I’ve written about the severed floor as a cave before. The comparison between a windowless basement that’s many floors deep where people never leave and a cave is an obvious one, but Kier also compared his mind to a cave in episode 3. He had to fight for control of the elements which threatened to overwhelm the cave of his mind, suggesting his mind was too full. That message is the reverse of the Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that people start out vapid and empty, then need to be led toward curiosity and education.

Let’s note that Socrates and Plato didn’t have children- kids are wired to explore and learn. You have to train them to become the stationary adult zombies in the cave, who believe they’re happy with the oppression they’ve been molded to accept, hence the chains. But getting into the meaning of the chains would be a whole book (which others have already written anyway), where I promote unschooling and self-directed learning, so let’s move on.

Mark feels that severance is helping him through the trauma of losing his wife. His alcohol consumption argues otherwise, but sometimes internal changes aren’t visible on the outside until they reach a tipping point. Maybe recent events have drawn back him into the world and shown him his importance to other people, giving him reasons to move on. A scapegoat, or many baby scapegoats, might help him put aside any guilt he has about making Gemma less of a priority in his life. But for now, let’s stick with the shadow puppet level of reality that Mark and Helly live in, and look at some science.

The most realistic use of the baby goats would be as product testers. If this is their purpose, they’ll be moved to the testing labs once they reach a certain age (are ready), then smeared with shampoos and dyes or implanted with prototype severance chips to see what it does to their skin, eyes and brains, just like cruel companies do to small animals in the real world. Or maybe their organs are harvested for Eagan organ transplants. The organs won’t be rejected because the Eagans live on goats’ blood or are demigods of some sort. 😉

Or they may be part of a cloning program, since they were identical. Maybe James Eagan is pushing for a replacement body, stat, before the Grim Reaper catches up to him.

Sorry, brief lapse away from current science, into the comic book and game imagery this show loves. Honestly, cloning and using animals to replace human parts is still futuristic, but it’s not crazy. Scientists in the real world have been trying for decades to find a way to use parts of animal bodies to replace faulty human parts. As with human transplants, the main obstacle is convincing the immune system not to reject them. And of course humans are addicted to doing medical research on animals with the assumption that the results will translate to humans, though that’s hit or miss.

In episode 1, the first thing Helly asked Mark when she saw him face to face was, “Am I livestock?”

We know that legally, she’s not a person. It’s been made clear that she has no legal rights of her own.

She woke up laid out on a table as if she were someone’s next meal. For women, it’s understood that means you’re there for food or sex. Mark kept his clothes on, so she assumed it was dinner time. Or she’s been taught that severed Lumon employees don’t count- they’re invisible to the outside world, so Lumon can do whatever it wants with them. Just as it can with other forms of property, including livestock, especially when no one from the outside is watching. And just as it probably has done with humans in the past, but it’s paid off the victims or made sure it will never be caught.

We know that Outie Helly has no respect for innies, so Innie Helly woke up with that attitude in the back of her mind. We’ve also been shown multiple times that Lumon has a fundamental intolerance of weakness, which came straight from Kier.

The innies live like Puritans, expected to always be healthy, productive and on their best behavior. They are only borrowing their bodies, after all. When they’re unable to live up to Lumon’s high standards, they’re punished in ways that are probably illegal- the tactics used in the Break Room are usually used for interrogations and torture, not in normal school or work situations. And remember, innies never go home or even sleep. These expectations apply to every moment of their lives, forever.

I feel a little panicky thinking about it.

They are treated like experimental lab animals with no human rights, like rats learning how to function in their maze when the bell rings each morning. If a subject fails the experiment, they are removed, like Petey was, and the test data is collected for further study, just as Cobel did when she retrieved his chip. Animal or human, considering the turnover, whether the subject survives the experiment seems to be irrelevant to Lumon.

So are the innies livestock? In a metaphorical sense, yes. They are fenced in, used until their owner has no more purpose for them, then disposed of in the most convenient way. In the meantime, Lumon is in control of their care and feeding. Management is reasonably benign, but not sentimental, just like a farmer is with farm animals.

They are also intellectual property. I’d be very interested in seeing the contract employees sign before the severance procedure. Since Lumon insists the procedure is irreversible and the innies are supposedly privy to Lumon’s super secrets, I have a feeling Lumon owns the innies and the implants in perpetuity, which means they de facto own the employee, body, mind and soul.

As the Whole Mind Collective said, severance is subjugation.

Let’s pivot and take a look at goats in the Bible and mythology.

In the Bible, the goat is considered a clean animal that is often presented to God in animal sacrifices, as mentioned earlier. In modern times, goats are associated with the devil, but this is a later interpretation. In ancient times, goats were valuable livestock. Metaphorically, Jesus and God prefer sheep because they are better followers, cited as meek not weak, while goats are better leaders, but have a tendency to be headstrong and stubborn.

Since any group only needs so many leaders and free thinkers, extra goat-types become unpopular and are driven out so that they don’t challenge the cool kids and leaders- these are the scapegoats. When Helly woke up, instead of asking Mark if she was livestock, she should have asked if she was a sheep or a goat, and if she was a scapegoat, meant to take the blame for others, or a Judas goat, meant to lead unwitting sheep to the slaughter.

In the paintings section, I discussed Puck, the Celtic/Irish domestic, trickster shapeshifter and occasional demon who appears in Shakespeare’s A Misummer Night’s Dream. He can appear as human, animal or parts of each. In Midsummer’s Night Dream, Puck creates magical illusions that the other characters stumble through all night. At the end of the play, he apologizes for his offenses, and asks the audience to consider what they watched a harmless dream, just as whatever happens to innies is supposedly wiped clean when their outie wakes up and leaves Lumon.

The weird energy that Dylan senses bouncing off the walls in this episode is trickster energy. Milchick does the 266 with the painting, after previously leaving Ricken’s book out for the refiners to find. Cobel is also up to something, as she tries something new with Ms Casey and lets Mark and Helly wander where they shouldn’t. Burt reveals all sorts of strange information, from MDR larval pouches to how Kier met his wife and the introduction to the hidden O&D backroom.

Kier Tames the Tempers

Puck is linked to the painting of the four tempers, most clearly because of the goat man. In Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), Puck was described as “the jester of Fairy-court.” Puck was also known for helping housewives with their chores in exchange for bread and milk, connecting him to the other three tempers.

In episode 3, I referred to the innies as the Machine Elf versions of themselves. Puck is another way of expressing that sentiment, recalling that a variety of substances can induce mania or euphoria that help one get through the day. Puck does the jobs women, who had few rights in earlier times and many expectations placed on them, can’t finish, and cheers the downtrodden, giving them a break from their bleak existences. He’s very similar to an innie who carries the tough loads of life for an outie.

Kier may have viewed this side of the tempers as weak and hedonistic, the parts of his nature that held him back from everything he strove to accomplish and instead sent him looking for fun and escaping work and responsibility by passing them off onto others. As he aged he used harsher and harsher methods to control this side of himself, if the whip in the painting is any indication.

Pan, the ancient Greek God of the wild, shepherds and flocks, was another mixture of goat and human. He’s associated with spring, fertility, sex, fields and forests and was frequently worshipped in caves and grottoes. Pan is also associated with the archetypal Horned God. He could multiply into a herd of Pans and took on a variety of forms, from fully human to fully goat, some of which had their own names. Pan is the only Greek God who dies. The word panic evolved from his name.

The Whole Mind Collective implied some of the potential misuses of severance outside of Lumon’s facilities, but Mark wouldn’t let us listen to them because the procedure has been a boon to his outie. It doesn’t take much imagination to think about how part time sex slave and Stepford Wife situations could arise, without the victims even realizing they’ve been violated.

If you want to explore the connection between goats, the Devil and witches (who apparently hung out with goats at their sabbaths and sometimes went flying with them) here are a few links. Witches used flying ointments to get take off, which reminds me again of Kier’s topical salves. Why Are Goats Associated With the Devil, Like Black Phillip in The Witch? All The Witch’s Most WTF Moments, Explained: A Spoiler-Filled Interview With the Director The Secrets Behind How Witches “Flew” (sometimes on goats)

Baphomet, symbol of balance and perfect social order, associated with Gnostics and Knights Templars.

ETA: Or maybe Lumen keeps goats as a tax dodge, claiming them as the livestock who live on the replica of Kier’s working farm or some such, which then would allow them to take agricutural tax deductions. Donald Trump keeps goats on his New Jersey golf course for this purpose and apparently also buried his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, on the same golf course, potentially for the same reasons. It would be in character for Lumon and the Eagans to have a cemetery or mausoleum on site for their dead.

Images courtesy of Apple+ and anyone else who owns them. No copyright infringement intended.

One thought on “Severance Season 1 Episode 5: The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design Recap

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