This week’s Severance asks the question: What if your work handbook doubled as a cult scripture? And furthermore, what if it were the only thing you were allowed to read? Well, a hackneyed self-help book called The You You Are might start looking pretty good in that situation.
With the discovery of Petey’s map, a field trip to O&D, and a generous sprinkling of references to passages from the handbook, the world of Lumon is beginning to come into focus. Given the eerie directives from the handbook, Lumon’s cult status is pretty much confirmed, and like most cults, it demands complete and total subjugation from its subjects. In particular, the Break Room is very reminiscent of a cultlike punishment as it involves a form of attempted brainwashing.
Even though the one rule of Break Room seems to be not to talk about Break Room, they’re all talking about it. Helly and Dylan talk about the creepy sounds in the room. Helly heard an “angry mumbly guy,” while Dylan heard a “crying baby.” Being severed, the refiners don’t know how truly messed up their workdays are, but they do know something is very off about the Break Room.
Far from broken, Helly has become even more determined to find an escape hatch. When she finds Petey’s contraband map, she feels she has allies, but this illusion is shattered when Mark impulsively shreds the photo. She tries to get Mark to see how twisted his situation really is by saying she doesn’t want to be a part of his family because she doesn’t understand how someone would give up so easily on a friend. Or themselves.
We do get the sense Mark has tried to escape before, though. He knows about the horrors of the Break Room, the bad soap, and Milchick’s “extraction” techniques, as well as probably some other as-yet-unforeseen nightmares. He’s been broken, though it seems his spirit might have been easier to break than Helly’s. After all, Mark’s outie sent his innie into Lumon out of compassion; he wanted to give himself a reprieve from his grief. However, Helly’s outie does not seem so kind.
Britt Lower’s performance as Helly continues to amaze. Lower whisks us along with Helly as she storms into Cobel’s office in a tempestuous fury, brandishing a paper cutter and demanding to record a message to her outie. Wish granted. So when she finds herself back in the elevator, blue disc in hand, she is baffled. She’s even more thunderstruck when she watches the recording. As Helly’s outie, Lower transforms. She leans in menacingly, each word sharp as a razor — “I am a person; you are not” has a particularly venomous bite to it — and knowingly damns a part of herself to eternal misery. It’s clear this woman is used to getting exactly what she wants and not by using any charisma or kindness. At the very least, she’s a mega-Karen; at worst, she’s pure evil.
It seems as if Helly’s request happened right around quitting time as we transition to Mark in the real world. He spies an article about Petey’s death and sees the funeral is happening. So he goes. And Cobel, er, Selvig is there.
Cobel is most definitely not severed. She heads to the funeral to retrieve the patented Severance® chip. A gruesome, lengthy, and borderline unnecessary scene unfolds in which a home video of June and Petey rocking out to “Enter Sandman” plays for the mourners as Cobel drills into Petey’s skull. When she brings the chip back to work the next day, Milchick asks, “That’s Petey?” Cobel confirms. This phrasing seems odd — like, Is that chip actually Petey? Can they download his consciousness into some sort of simulation à la Devs or Westworld or the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero”?
At any rate, Cobel is starting to have some doubts about the permanence of the severance process. And she seems to be using Mark as her guinea pig. She knows about Mark’s grief, and because she’s his stalker, she probably sees Mark leave after they return home from the funeral. Perhaps she even knows where he goes.
We don’t, though. At least not yet. This episode is the first of three directed by Aoife McArdle, and by the end, she makes an indelible impression. She continues Stiller’s work of framing Mark’s lonely life in stunning relief, but in this moment, she gets to follow him as he finally releases some of his inner anguish.
As Mark heads to a mysterious location, the camera lingers on a pitch-black road. Perched in the hills above, we spy Mark’s headlights snaking through the windy terrain. He parks on the side of the precarious road and gets out of his car, the flare of the headlights searing into our vision. The effect here is achingly gorgeous, perhaps even symbolic, as the light appears as two diagonal blue slashes intersecting a fuzzy, red-tinted band. Mark continues on, locating a scarred tree. This, we’re meant to realize, is where his wife died. For a few moments, McArdle lingers on Mark’s fully lit, tear-stained expression in the glow of the headlights. But then he leans down, grief subsuming him, and the light teases the edges of his face, making him into a mere outline of a man.
If the WandaVision maxim “What is grief, if not love persevering” holds true in the world of Severance, then Mark’s heart is truly and fully consumed by memories of his late wife. How could something like a severance process ever wholly block out such visceral and emotional connections to people in the real world? Cobel’s skepticism leads her to try to find out. The next day, she sends Mark to a wellness session with Ms. Casey, and what’s there, front and center? Gemma’s green-and-red candle. Innie Mark doesn’t really give the candle a thought, but he does build a tree out of clay. Could this be the tree he was visiting the night before? Severance lets us wonder.
This show is reminiscent of so many pop-cultural touchstones, and it’s an interesting litmus test to see what those are for each individual who watches the show. For me, it’s Lost, Westworld, Better Off Ted, The Good Place, and Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But the comparison I feel most is to the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. As the show progresses, it seems as if the concept of love might just be the connective tissue that holds this show together at its core. Love is what gives us hope even as the often oppressive world seems to be closing in. And like in Eternal Sunshine, love is what convinces us to try again even when the odds seem stacked against us.
Mark’s impulse to hack his brain in order to separate from his grief and difficult feelings is certainly reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine. But the show also seems to be setting up several potential story lines for love in the severed world, one of which is the relationship between Helly and Mark. From their brief interaction in the Lumon parking lot in episode one, it sure seems as if they don’t know one another in the outside world, but something is certainly going on between their innies. Same for Irving and Burt, or “Burt and Irvie,” as I’ve started calling them in my head. (Sorry not sorry. I’ve been watching a lot of Sesame Street with my kid lately.)
Burt and Irv’s relationship feels a little too organic and instant to be something born out of an office flirtation, right? They both have unbridled enthusiasm for the word of Kier that they take care to express with measured emotion. But when they stop to admire a creepy oil painting depicting a handbook passage (um, what?), their hands naturally gravitate together for an electric moment. It’s a stolen moment, though, because we can all imagine what the handbook says about interoffice relationships. Irv also discovers that his would-be paramour is lying to him about the size of the O&D department, so I’m sure that’s going to put a crimp in things.
Any potential relationship between Helly and Mark seems doomed as well as she makes one final plan to GTFO. Desperate and with no other options, Helly grabs an extension cord and a garbage can and makes a run for the elevator. Perhaps her outie wants to condemn her to a life in hell, but she can’t accept it. Instead, she plans on ending it all. Outie Helly really didn’t think this through.
This is the second week in a row that Severance has left us on a death cliffhanger, and while Petey is dead, I’m not so sure about Helly. We literally just met her aggro outie, so there seems to be a lot more to her story.
It looks like it’s time for my staggered exit, so I’m going to go grab the elevator. Until next time …
• At one point, Irv asks Mark if he remembers the “spicy candy.” What? Is he talking Fireballs? Red Hots? Or something more sinister? There are some weird things going on with food on this show, but “spicy candy” has me wondering the most.
• The funniest visual of the week is Cobel fiddling with a finger trap. Finger traps are the new stress balls! Also her flippant comeback to Grainor, “If you want a hug, go to hell and find your mother,” is just so cutting and hilarious at the same time. I will be stealing it.
• Is anyone else starting to think Cobel may have possibly killed Mark’s wife? She seems obsessed with him beyond just the Lumon connection. Her comment about them both having a date at the funeral was cringe city.
• When Mark escapes Cobel and goes to the bar at the funeral, I was reminded of the great Party Down episode in which Adam Scott tends bar at a funeral. Scott has played a key role in two of the all-time great workplace comedies of our generation, and if you haven’t seen Party Down, now is the time.
• I really loved how Ms. Casey asked Mark to do an exercise with clay. I’m a therapist, and I have a few different activities in my toolbox where I ask clients to use clay in different ways. Motor skills are stored in a very distinct part of the brain, and doing creative things with our hands can activate the mind and body in ways talk therapy can’t.
• The music. The music. The music. Every time the main melody of Theodore Shapiro’s haunting score plays, it sends a shiver up my spine. It kicks all the emotion up to 11.