Spoilers follow for the entire first season of Apple TV+’s Severance.
Nine hours in and one full season down of Severance, and I’m not sure we’re any closer to answering one of the series’s driving questions: What the hell is going on at Lumon Industries?
À la Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the Apple TV+ sci-fi thriller has unfurled mysteries and oddities surrounding the Macrodata Refinement team of Mark, Helly, Irv, and Dylan, and also like Yellowjackets, the first season finale of Severance, “The We We Are,” raised more queries than it answered. The overtime-contingency process does work, as we see Mark, Helly, and Irv wake up in the outside world thanks to Dylan’s actions back at Lumon. The Innie versions of these characters can survive outside of the company’s headquarters, despite being told by Cobel and Milchick that such an act wasn’t possible. But the suggestion that severance is a process that provides joy and balance is also, of course, further elucidated as a lie. Mark realizes that his bonds with his sister and brother-in-law aren’t exactly strong, Irv discovers that he was trying to track down other severed employees, and Helly learns that her last name doesn’t begin with an “R,” but an “E”: Helena Eagan.
“The We We Are” ends on a cliffhanger for the MDR team once Milchick breaks through the door and tackles Dylan, ending the Innies’ rule-breaking excursion. What will Mark do now that he’s realized his late wife, Gemma, looks exactly like — and might actually be — Ms. Casey, the wellness counselor at Lumon whom Milchick just sent back, per Cobel’s orders, to the “testing floor”? What about Irv, who sees that his beloved and now-retired Burt is seemingly happily in a relationship with another man? How will Helly’s speech against severance be received, since she’s the exalted Kier Eagan’s granddaughter? And, taking a step back, how does the MDR team fit into what Cobel, Milchick, and the Lumon board have been doing? These two factions have been churning along on zigzagging, crisscrossing paths all this time, with the latter holding power and knowledge that are used to manipulate and subjugate the former. But to what end?
Well, I have a theory about that! And the best way to visualize it might be through this clip from the series’s wonderfully designed CGI opening credits, from artist Oliver Latta/Extraweg:
That moment when mini-size Mark leaps into his own brain? That transference of consciousness and the manipulation of people’s bodies is what I think Lumon has been working on this whole time with the severance procedure, with the end goal of bringing Kier Eagan back to life. If they can compartmentalize your brain, if they can pick and choose your memories, if they can make you forget yourself and those around you, then they can control your physical body and use it for whatever they want. They could tame the tempers to make an ideal host, and they could put another identity in there. So maybe the end goal of the severed floor isn’t what Lumon is taking out of someone’s brain: It’s what they’re putting in.
Is a fair amount of this speculation? Sure. Helena’s father using the term “revolving” also made me think of Get Out. Cobel and Milchick’s obsession with whether the severance process is reversible and the casual way they refer to the surgical chip with the individual’s name to whom it belonged reminded me of Transcendence and Possessor. But put together, certain lines of dialogue from both the severed and unsevered Lumon employees, stumbled-upon moments in the company’s HQ, and the mythology of Kier seem to suggest that a significant portion of what Lumon is doing is cult shit, with the aim of getting their grandaddy back. Let us consider the miscellaneous evidence:
In premiere “Good News About Hell”:
- Helly’s question when she wakes up in that Lumon conference room: “Am I livestock? Did you grow me as food, and that’s why I have no memories?”
- The fact that no one actually knows what Lumon does: “What don’t they make?” someone asks, and Cobel says, “Whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.”
In “Half Loop”:
- Milchick: “Things like death happen outside of here, not here. A life at Lumon is protected from such things.” Red flag! Red flag!
- Are the “scary numbers” perhaps vestiges of a host body’s original consciousness that the MDR team is finding a way to throw out?
In “In Perpetuity”:
- The Lumon board refuses to believe Cobel’s fear, as seen in Petey, that severance could be reversed — because if so, then their plan for Kier might fail?
- Why make an entire replica of Kier’s home, with a bedroom and everything, if not for the re-animated man to live in?
- Burt and Dylan discuss the rumors about the MDR and O&D teams, respectively, with the suggestion that MDR members “each have a larval offspring that will jump off and attack when we get too close. … In this theory, the larvae eventually eats and replaces you.” So sort of like the horror movies The Brood and Possession, in which host/original bodies are replaced by duplicates?
- Baby goats aren’t that dissimilar from sheep, the first cloned mammal! They might be good practice to determine whether a clone of a human person could survive!
In “Hide and Seek”:
- Cobel’s song lyrics: “Progress, knowledge, show no fear/Kier, Chosen One, Kier.” A cult refrain through and through.
In “Defiant Jazz”:
- “Does Mark ever think he sees her?” Cobel, as Mrs. Selvig, asks his sister Devon; the fact that he doesn’t is a good sign that whatever compartmentalization of their memories could be effective … perhaps for a brought-back Kier.
- The little 2-D animated version of Kier Eagan says “I love you” to the person who successfully sorted all their quarterly MDR data, and that’s what the cult is looking for, right? Approval and affirmation, and they seemingly will go very far to secure it.
- “Take her back down to the testing floor, please,” Cobel says of Gemma/Ms. Casey to Milchick, and that location is revealed as a narrow, pitch-black hallway with an illuminated door … the same image that Irv has been obsessively painting in his apartment, and the ooze of which he’s been imagining in the MDR space. A suggestion that Irv’s body has perhaps also been repurposed, as Gemma’s was for Ms. Casey.
- The mask of Kier that Dylan puts on as part of his reward could be construed as a sort of test to see who would be worthy enough to embody the famed Eagan, no?
In “The We We Are”:
- A direct line from my notes on this episode when Mark realizes that Mrs. Selvig/Cobel is gone and Devon and Ricken’s child is missing: “Are they going to implant memories in a baby???” Because that seems feasible given what we’ve seen Lumon do, doesn’t it?
I admit: All of this could be wrong. (I am very aware that my “Adam is Javi” theory from Yellowjackets did not pan out!) Maybe I’m taking a leap forward in interpreting lines like Mark’s “We’re people, not parts of people” and Helena’s “I don’t think severance divides us. I think it brings us together” as indications that Lumon is preparing a sort of Frankenstein’s monster version of Kier to come back to life for them to worship.
But Severance has been very deliberate with foreboding and foreshadowing through its narrative and visuals, and if this first season has one lingering image, it’s Ms. Casey being forced down the pitch-black hallway of the testing floor to re-emerge as someone more in line with who Cobel wants. Maybe the second season of Severance is about the person sent there next in order to help Kier come back.
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