Dissociation was once described to me as the experience of driving a car on autopilot. I’ve done this approximately 1 million times. Maybe you have, too. Reaching a destination and not remembering the specifics of getting there feels disconcerting yet almost thrilling. And even though I might not recall these drives, the version of me that was behind the wheel was definitely still me.
While this analogy is a simplistic, if effective, way to explain the experience of dissociation, it’s also what’s happening to the severed workers at Lumon. Even though the outies may not remember the days in their windowless cubicles, their innies are, for all intents and purposes, still versions of them. This week, Severance drives this point home in several different ways.
First, Dylan is experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance from the memory of his son the night before. On a brisk walk to MDR, Milchick explains to Dylan that he activated something called the Overtime Contingency (just a really excellent term) and that he didn’t mean for him to see his kid. Dylan is distraught. And the more he expresses his emotions, the more Milchick tries to shut him down. This is par for the course on the severed floor; innies aren’t allowed to emote as it displeases Kier.
Milchick’s idea of waking Dylan up in the real world was a very terrible plan. Even if Dylan hadn’t seen his son, he would have the insane knowledge that innies can be woken up in the real world just rattling around in his brain forever. Did Milchick expect him to forget? To let it go? There’s no way to put that tiger back in its cage. And furious tigers tend to bite.
The management on the severed floor has gone entirely off the rails. Cobel is fully aware of the potential revolt brewing, but instead of being present in the office on a day they’re locking MDR in and forcing (?) Burt from O&D to retire, she’s off teaching Devon how to breastfeed. Graner is dead (we’ll get to that). And Milchick is on his own to clean up the mess. But even though Milchick does seem very capable and ruthless, he’s beginning to make a lot of careless mistakes.
I haven’t talked much about Tramell Tillman’s performance as Milchick in these recaps yet, and that’s my bad. As inhabited by Tillman, Milchick cuts an exceptionally menacing figure. The way Tillman makes Milchick’s face go slack when he’s displeased, like he’s transforming into a robotic mercenary, is chilling to behold. (See: when he drops Mark’s coffee at his desk after escorting him to MDR.) He never raises his voice or resorts to violence (that we’ve seen onscreen), but we can tell he’s deep into the cult Kool-Aid and is ready to do absolutely anything to serve Kier and the Eagan family. The fact that he dresses in collared button-down shirts with short sleeves is such an amazing detail from the costume department; his choice of shirt means he doesn’t need to waste time rolling up his sleeves when he needs to get his hands dirty.
So when Milchick comes into the MDR department with a long-sleeved white turtleneck on, we know something’s up. In a bid to lighten the mood, he’s decided to gift Helly her Music Dance Experience perk a bit early. This perk is the weirdest one yet, but it makes sense given that the innies never get to listen to music even though they’re doing data entry, a job that should practically come with a set of headphones and a preloaded playlist of lo-fi beats.
From a list that includes options such as “buoyant reggae” and “tearful emo,” Helly chooses “defiant jazz.” Milchick starts undulating around like a sexy octopus, and Helly oddly gets into it. Mark and Irv also start to enjoy themselves, both doing variations on the middle-aged white dude dance. Everyone seems to be having a nice time — everyone, that is, except Dylan.
When the others pull Dylan up from his attack on Milchick, they rally around him like a protective force field. Irv and Mark hold him up on either side while Helly cradles his arm in her hands. All they know is something is wrong with their friend, and it’s Milchick’s fault.
After Milchick leaves, Dylan drops his bombshell. “They can wake us up,” he says. Zach Cherry brings such an intensity and urgency to Dylan in this episode, and his marked shift in attitude is the catalyst for everything that occurs from here on out. Confronted with a living, breathing reminder of his life above ground, he becomes a changed man, ready to do anything to stake a claim on his humanity. When Irv suggests the child Dylan saw wasn’t actually his, Dylan shoots him a look that could melt glass. “He’s my son too,” he declares.
Conveniently, Mark has Graner’s all-access key card, so they decide to go snooping. However, as soon as the door opens, Irv bolts to O&D, where he finds a horrifying sight: Burt is retiring. There’s a huge melon party complete with heaps of watermelon! It looks like an Edible Arrangements exploded. But despite the general levity and merriment, a sense of dread settles over Irv. This isn’t a normal situation in which he can just snag Burt’s number and they can meet up after work to continue to vibe. Once Burt leaves, he’s gone. Forever.
It’s very suspect that Burt’s retirement party is taking place only a day after O&D met with MDR. Earlier in the episode, Burt tells Milchick his experience in the break room was “quite enough.” Christopher Walken imbues this line with a slight tremor, suggesting that something other than the reading of the apology statement went on in there. As the other department head involved in that situation, Mark left his break-room session with bruised knuckles. We don’t see any obvious bruising or injuries on Burt, but that doesn’t mean he left the break room unscathed.
And now it seems as if he’s being forced to retire. As Irv realizes the gravity of the situation, a fire builds in him. His innie brain tells him an outburst is not acceptable, but his raw human emotion just can’t be contained. He raises his voice and, indicating his fellow severed employees, shouts, “You’re just going to let him die!” When Milchick tries to diffuse the situation, Irv shoots back, “You smug motherfucker. You’re not severed.” Damn, Irv!
Eventually, Irv and Burt have a sweet farewell moment. However, given that Burt is played by the great Walken, I somehow don’t think this will be the last we see of him. There’s also the distinct possibility that Burt and Irv know one another — and could even be together! — in the real world, so please don’t despair, Burving shippers. I see you.
Once Irv gets back to MDR, he learns that Helly and Mark have been to the security office and that they know how to activate the Overtime Contingency. He signs on to the plan, snarling, “Let’s burn this place to the ground.” Everyone else nods in tacit agreement.
In the outside world, we’re treated to another huge bombshell of information. The night before the Music Dance Experience, Mark ducks out on Alexa to visit Petey’s contact. In an effort to encourage him to reintegrate, she drops a lot of innie guilt on him. Unfortunately, Graner busts in and breaks up this conversation. Mark freezes, but the contact wastes no time smashing Graner over the head with a baseball bat, Negan style.
Mark does every wrong thing in the book as he flees the scene. He vomits in the alleyway, then proceeds to dump his blood-soaked clothing in his own overstuffed trash can. Mark! Have you ever listened to a crime podcast? Or even watched an episode of Dateline? You just assisted in the murder of one of your co-workers! Work smarter!
But Mark’s mind is still clouded by grief and whiskey. When Alexa comes to pick up her wallet the next day, Mark is bonzo drunk. Alexa just wants to GTFO of there, but Mark holds up a picture of Gemma and rips it to shreds. Alexa (rightfully) bolts, leaving Mark to emote like a madman in the street.
He goes back into the house and starts to tape up the picture. In a voice-over, we hear Mark listing pleasing facts about his dead wife much as Ms. Casey listed facts to the innies in their wellness sessions. She loved dogs. She hated cardigans. She was allergic to nutmeg. And he loved all of these things about her equally.
Gemma is Ms. Casey. Ms. Casey is Gemma. Holy shit.
Given the Eternal Sunshine feel of the show, this twist is not wholly unexpected, but wow does it pack an emotional gut punch. There are so many questions. Did Lumon stage Gemma’s death? (It sure seems like it.) Why? (No clue.) Are Gemma and Mark part of some larger severance experiment? (It’s likely!) This week we saw Cobel claim to have irrefutable proof that reintegration can happen, and given that she’s been placing the two together in various odd situations — and asking Devon curious questions about the manifestation of Mark’s grief — it’s possible Gemma and Mark are part of her body of evidence.
To paraphrase Wilde and Wonka: All I know right now is the suspense Severance is building is terrible. I hope it’ll last.
• Milchick seems to take pictures only when an event focuses on Helly. He took them on her first day at her orientation and now again during the Music Dance Experience. Something’s up.
• Watching Burt’s retirement video made me feel very disoriented. How do you say good-bye to people you don’t actually know? Walken’s characters are often full of violent whimsy, but here he portrays this tangle of confused emotions in a very human and relatable way. Also — what? Burt has been severed for seven years? Compared to Mark’s two years and Irv’s three, that seems like a lifetime.
• If you’re interested in diving a bit deeper into all the dense Severance mythology, Apple TV+ released an official e-book this week focusing on one severed employee’s efforts to reveal the truth about Lumon. You can find it here.