delayed gratification

Severance Earned Its Cliffhanger Ending

Can’t wait to see y’all at some unspecified point in the future! Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos by Aplle TV+

The season-one finale of Severance pushed its audience to the farthest edges of their seats then left them there, off-balance and out of fresh oxygen. After three members of Lumon Industries’ macrodata refinement team reintegrated their at-work and at-home identities long enough to sound the alarm about their insidious employer, the episode abruptly ended. Three pleas for help shouted in different contexts by Helly, Irv, and Mark — “We’re prisoners!” “Burt!” “She’s alive!” — still dangle in the air as the credits roll, leaving us to wonder what will happen when season two arrives at some unspecified time in the future.

This is how cliffhangers work. They overload our nervous systems, leave us a little breathless, and yes, make us frustrated. The really great ones — and the end of this season of Severance qualifies as a great one — should feel like the narrative equivalent of an almost-sneeze or coitus interruptus, except, like, in a good way. The pleasure comes from being almost satisfied but not quite, luxuriating in the possibilities that the (hopefully) inevitable satisfaction will bring.

But cliffhangers are a delicate thing. Push the suspense too high and reduce the reveals too much and what should be fun frustration can quickly turn into anger toward the filmmakers for pulling a Lucille Bluth. Dan Erickson, creator of Severance and the writer of this finale, “The We We Are,” seems very much aware of that high-wire act in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, where he notes that it was director Ben Stiller who pushed to cut the season off at the end of “the overtime contingency,” the brief period when Helly (Britt Lower), Irv (John Turturro), and Mark (Adam Scott) are unsevered and learning about their outie worlds. “I was like, ‘Okay, people are gonna be mad!’ But I think it’s by far the most effective point where we could have ended this part of the story, storytelling-wise and for the characters,” Erickson said. “They’ve all finally gotten what they asked for, and it has raised all these new questions and all these new problems that they’re now going to have to deal with moving ahead.”

The Severance cliffhanger is effective from a narrative standpoint for all the reasons that Erickson mentions. But it goes further than that by also working on a thematic level. There is truly no more appropriate way that season one could have ended.

I’ll explain what I mean by that momentarily, but first, it must be said that it’s understandable if some people were angered by this finale for reasons that have nothing to do with Severance. The TV landscape has made the cliffhanger experience thornier and more potentially enraging. Thanks to the binge model of rolling out series, a lot of shows take the approach of ending every episode on a nail-biter moment, knowing that the more suspense is generated, the likelier you are to stay up until 3 a.m., continually loading episodes to feed your insatiable craving for resolution. (Not that I have ever done this.) Some very good comedies and dramas do this in ways that still seem organic to the kinds of stories they are telling; Russian Doll and Dead to Me both immediately come to mind. Others are not quite as deft in their deployment of twists and gasp-inducing moments, and that can cause a bit of cliffhanger fatigue. When our collective chains are being yanked so often, a show pulling them again, even as cleverly as Severance does, might provoke the instinctive response to yell at the television.

The cliffhanger also has become a bit riskier because the usual structures around TV are so much looser than they used to be. This season of Severance ended on its ninth episode, which is not unheard of — The Gilded Age’s first season ran for nine episodes, and so did the sole season of Watchmen — but it also isn’t necessarily the episode count most viewers are conditioned to expect. I watched the Severance screeners in advance, so I knew that episode nine was the last one and I still had to check to make sure there weren’t more after feeling the sting of that finale. Cliffhangers are all the more challenging in a TV landscape where there is much less consistency about how long seasons are and often confusion about what is a limited series versus a continuing one. We can’t be certain when anything ends anymore, so when a story does so abruptly, it hits extra-hard.

The TV calendar as we once knew it has imploded in the past decade or so, which means that no one knows exactly how much time will pass between seasons of any given show. Way back in May 2005, some Lost fans (ahem, wrongly) got annoyed when the season one finale revealed the existence of the hatch without explaining it. But at least they knew they would find out more come September, the month when most major scripted TV shows resumed their runs. Now, because all the TV is coming out all the time all year long, we have no idea how long we will have to wait to learn what happens next to our severed friends. That can be annoying when we’re already carrying around so many continuing narratives in our heads.

The sheer volume of new television regularly flooding digital streams, coupled with pandemic delays that have stretched out the pauses on shows such as Barry, Russian Doll, and Better Call Saul, makes that weight all the heavier. Consciously or subconsciously, people may be more urgently seeking closure right now because it’s been evading us, in our television for sure, but also in the real world, where the pandemic still hasn’t irrefutably ended and a war in Ukraine continues with no obvious path toward a conclusion in sight. That’s one of the reasons why the limited series holds so much appeal. You know up front that if you invest in eight — or nine, possibly ten — episodes, you can check the box that says you’re done with that particular TV experience. A cliffhanger, especially as wielded by Severance, does the opposite of that.

So yeah, it’s more challenging than ever to pull off a cliffhanger ending that yields more appreciation than resentment. But Severance manages to do it because its deployment is not a mere gimmick. The conclusion of “The We We Are” is completely in line with what the series is about at its core: the stifling nature of the contemporary workplace (or at least a weird version of it) and the inability to fully integrate one’s life and personhood, as illustrated by the act of being severed. Central to both of those themes is the denial of information. If Mark, Helly, Irv, or our arm-stretching hero Dylan (Zach Cherry), the fourth macrodata refiner at Lumon, had a fuller understanding of their jobs, what the company does, or what their colleagues’ roles are, a key obstacle would be eliminated, for them and for us. This might not solve all their problems, but at least they would have actionable knowledge.

The same is true about their own identities, which are medically compartmentalized between work and home, thereby achieving the most extreme version of work-life balance, one where the two are fully separate. Throughout this season — as Helly rebels, Mark connects with Petey, Irv seeks to truly know Burt, and Dylan learns he has a son beyond the Lumon walls — the principal figures yearn more and more to grasp who they are as both innies and outies, despite their severed status. Again, on a fundamental level, what they need is information.

In the real business world — you know, the one without weird waffle parties and mysterious numbers that must be tracked on computers seemingly manufactured in 1982 — employees want to know where they fit into the larger picture, too. In Severance, and in actual offices, maybe even your own, rules are often put in place that are never explained. Workers are siloed off into their respective departments and encouraged to fixate on their own goals without seeking collaboration, a common workplace issue that may have become more pronounced in the work-from-home era brought on by the pandemic. Even the design of the Lumon office speaks to endless quests that remain unfulfilled. The long, long hallways in the Lumon basement — all the movement down there is lateral — evoke that classic bad dream where you keep walking and walking but never reach your destination.

What everyone wants from their bosses is reassurance that everything is going to be okay. More often than not, such reassurance is impossible to get. In Great Resignation America, many are opting out rather than continue to face the general sense of unease that comes from working for companies resisting unionization or organizations that may shutter unexpectedly.

A cliffhanger offers the opposite of reassurance. It freezes viewers in a state of limbo by withholding information, which is precisely what bureaucracies often do: drag things out and prolong discomfort. Severance is, in effect, making us feel a version of what it feels like to be a Lumon employee, which shares some things in common with what it feels to hold down a job of any kind in 2022 America.

The season finale puts us in the same position as Mark, Helly, Irv, and Dylan: closer to understanding everything but also prevented from truly getting the answers we seek. How better to terminate the first chapter in a series about an organization that shields the truth than by shielding the truth from those of us watching?

Severance Earned Its Cliffhanger Ending