“Don’t live to work. Work to live.” That’s the haunting slogan printed on the packaging for Lumon’s patented Severance™ chip. We see the cutesy phrase as a masked tech pops open the container and casually inserts the chip into Helly’s brain, much like someone might pop a new contact in their eye or inject oneself with a daily dose of insulin. While it’s pretty gross to watch someone drill into Helly’s skull, it’s even eerier to realize how streamlined, commercial, and routine this whole process is.
Which leads me to the question: How many severed people are there in the world of Severance?
This question might take a while to answer, but if Mark’s run-in with a group called the Whole Mind Collective later in the episode is any indication, Lumon is seeking to expand its severance technology beyond just work and into the world at large. If the teenager from the collective is to be believed, the company wants to force certain people into severance as well. This concept is horrifying as all get out but seems pretty on par with the doings of a shadowy conglomerate in a dystopian universe.
One thing is for sure, if Lumon goes through with this rumored severance expansion, they’re gonna need a new slogan.
In his new role as department head, Mark has a new list of responsibilities in the mornings, and he completes his tasks dutifully. He even silently acknowledges the portrait of Kier Egan in the office. Weird. This is definitely not a thing that normal employees are expected to do, ever. Evidence is mounting that Lumon might just be a secret cult that worships the color green. (So. Much. Green.)
What are normal employees expected to do? Well, Helly is still going through orientation, so we get a lot of exposition as Dylan, Irv, and Mark walk her through a typical day at the office.
But first, an aside about Helly. We get a few glimpses of her outie as she goes through the severance process. She’s accompanied the entire time by Mr. Milchick, and he seems quite grateful for her presence. He’s gentle and kind to her as he carefully explains everything. We find out that he was even there when her innie tried to escape on her first day.
“I really don’t want to be in there,” says outie Helly as she spins around, forcing her innie back into the fray. This scene recalls Mark’s words from the previous episode: “Every time you find yourself here, it’s because you chose to come back.” But while other severed employees might not realize that their innie doesn’t want to be at work, Helly is 100 percent aware in this moment. She knows that her innie desperately wants to escape, yet she keeps forcing her to return. Curious.
On Helly’s second day, she gets a veritable download of info. The macrodata refiners are looking for scary numbers in lines of code, and progress is rewarded with inane prizes. Finishing 10 percent of a file earns a Lumon-branded eraser, but there are no pencils. Finishing 25 percent earns a finger trap. No adult in the history of ever has enjoyed a finger trap, much less a coffee mug full of them. And 100 percent earns a bizarre caricature. While all of these items are completely useless, Dylan seems to enjoy receiving them because they mark his progress and achievements. What he’s really striving for is the waffle party, which is awarded to the refiner of the quarter.
While Lumon is fictional, this sad little incentive structure is not too far from how many businesses treat their workers IRL. If you’ve ever had to attend a half-assed pizza party or forced-fun company picnic as a reward for meeting quota, you know what I’m saying. Do you own a branded mug or stress ball from anywhere you’ve worked? Yup, me too. The mug was my Christmas present; there were no bonuses that year.
Lumon seems to revel in providing these special yet entirely worthless perks to their employees. They want to give the appearance of providing incentives to their severed employees without doing all the tedious work of trying to understand them as real human beings. After a team-building exercise gone sideways, Mr. Milchick offers up a melon party. The fruit is served in fancy melon bowls, but there’s no watermelon in sight; it’s mostly honeydew, which would be enough to drive BoJack Horseman insane.
The party triggers another escape attempt from Helly. Maybe she hates honeydew, too. She doesn’t believe that Lumon’s patented code-detector technology exists, so she flees to the elevator with a resignation note hastily scribbled on a Post-it. Ever the gentleman, Mark ends up taking the fall for Helly and lands himself in the dreaded Break Room.
It’s completely unclear what macrodata refinement is. Dylan thinks they’re cleaning the sea, while Irv believes they’re taking swear words out of movies. My theory? They’re prepping brains for the severance process. Those creepy little brain implants have to get coded somehow, and who better than actual severed people to do the job. One lingering question, however, is why 80 percent of the files expire before the workers have a chance to finish them.
Regardless, the central task of the department is a task that causes the employees to be upset and stressed and scared every single day. Oh, and we haven’t even covered what it’s like for the innies day in, day out. They don’t get to eat any food that isn’t Lumon sanctioned! They never get to leave! They never see sunlight! They never get to sleep! It’s basically all the ingredients for a torture chamber. Or, as Dylan puts it, “endless toil.”
Even when the severed workers dare to doze, they get penalized. We get a wild interlude with Irv in which he nods out at his computer, dreams of viscous black goo flowing into his workstation, and then gets sharply reprimanded by Mr. Milchick. It’s worth noting that this goo is prominently featured in the trippy opening credits sequence, so we know that it’s not just some random vision.
Irv is directed to a “wellness check” with a woman named Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) who reads him facts about his outie in a monotone voice. He’s not allowed to react to these facts, as she encourages him to enjoy them all equally and without preference. Her robotic nature and insistence that Irv also adopt a completely flat affect during this session are shades of Westworld. It definitely had me wondering if someone is going to end up being revealed as a full-on host at some point in time. Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality? For devoted worker bees such as Irv and his new friend Burt (Christopher Walken), that answer seems to be a resounding no.
The interaction between Irv and Burt is electric yet fleeting. They both stop to admire a truly hellish painting on the wall. It depicts a man bathed in light, brandishing a whip in the direction of a fool, a goat, a young woman, and an old woman. For me, looking at this hellscape elicits the same feeling that I imagine the macrodata refiners get when they see the scary numbers; Burt says it calms him.
Back in the real world, Mark calls out from work after a night with a date gone wrong and a surprise visit from nosy neighbor Mrs. Selvig. He’s curious about the address that Petey gave him in that auspicious red envelope. So he punches 499 Half Loop Road into his GPS and takes a drive. There, he finds Petey living in an abandoned greenhouse and feverishly mapping out the floors below Lumon. The man suffers from reintegration sickness, so Mark does the right thing and asks him to come back to his house.
While Yul Vazquez’s performance as Petey is evocative and disturbing, and Adam Scott’s work as a grieving, perpetually drunk Mark is compelling, the sequences in the real world have been falling a bit flat so far. Everything happening in the isolated cubicles below Lumon sparkles with more urgency and interest than the tidbits of information that Petey has to offer in the cold light of day. But by the end of the episode, Petey is having some sort of episode in Mark’s basement shower where his brain can’t seem to differentiate between his innie and his outie. His reality skips like a broken record, and it’s definitely time to worry about this dude.
It looks like it’s time for my staggered exit, so I’m going to go grab the elevator. Until next time …
• Mark’s work laugh is truly perfect. Scott is doing a fantastic job of making the two iterations of his character feel like a true whole. Innie Mark is a more naïve, sweet version of the jaded, emotionally scarred outie Mark, but so far, both versions are unfailingly polite, helpful, and kind.
• The little severance chips kind of look like the small vials of blood from Theranos, another radical technology that staked claim on changing the world … but just ended up ruining untold lives.
• As Mr. Milchick sherpas Helly through her severance process, we find out the answer to one of the orientation questions Mark asked her in the very first scene of the premiere: What does Kier Egan like to eat for breakfast? Turns out it’s three raw eggs in milk. Who is this dude? Rocky?
• Does Mrs. Selvig have the hots for Mark? That aside about her dead husband building a guest house in heaven for her lover was incredibly creeptastic.
• As Mark looks for a light bulb in his basement, he comes across a box marked “Gemma’s Crafts.” In it, he finds a lightly used candle that’s half-green and half-red. Thus far, the green-and-red motif seems to be a crucial element in the series, so it seems possible that this humble candle might play a role down the line.