On Severance, a quartet of office workers are trapped in a cycle of perpetual labor, unable to retain memories of anything that happens between punching out of work and punching back in again. The intriguing sci-fi premise has explored themes of identity, exploitation, and the capitalist cult of productivity. And the show’s mysteries have only deepened over the course of its first season, as creator Dan Erickson and company have proven willing to follow their concept’s every eerie implication to its darkest, most uncomfortable conclusion. It’s a series that absolutely works, which makes it all the more daring that its season-ending cliffhanger has turned it entirely on its head. The season finale has blown up the world of Severance to the extent that it will have to return as a very different show.
Spoilers ahead for the first season of Severance.
For most of the first season of Severance, Mark (Adam Scott), Hellie (Britt Lower), Dylan (Zach Cherry), and Irving (John Turturro) have had no hope of ever escaping the “severed” floor of the Lumon building. Their “outies”—the versions of themselves who exist only in the outside world and have no memory of what happens during their work hours—have consigned them to a hell of perpetual work, and there’s nothing the “innies” can do about it. Even Hellie’s desperate attempt to end her enslavement by hanging herself in the elevator (a sort of murder-suicide in which her cruel outie would experience their death) has failed. There’s no way out. That is, until the revelation of the “Off-Time Contingency,” a secret mechanism that can awaken a worker’s “innie” even when their body is outside the office. Suddenly, there exists the possibility of not only ending their suffering but discovering their identities and living out their real lives.
In the season finale, “The We We Are,” three of the workers embark on a reconnaissance mission to the outside world, while a fourth, Dylan, stays behind to man the Off-Time Contingency switch, holding the metaphysical door open for as long as possible. Mark, Hellie, and Irving find themselves dropped into the lives of their outie counterparts with a limited amount of time to find out who they are and, if possible, share their story with someone they can trust. Since we’ve been following both Marks—Innie Mark and Outie Mark—all season, his branch of the story is rife with dramatic irony. We know that the person Innie Mark needs to confide in is his sister Devon (Jen Tullock), and that if he sees a picture of his presumed-dead wife, Gemma, he’ll be able to identify her as the severed Lumon worker “Ms. Casey,” (Dichen Lachman) who is very much alive. But Innie Mark knows none of this, and has only about an hour to work it all out. Mark’s plotline is a tense maze of complications and near-misses that could make an invested viewer scream at their television. It’s a nightmare in the best way. The episode’s final moment, which sees Innie Mark running down the hall with a photo of Gemma and shouting “She’s alive!” just before time runs out, is one of the most triumphant cut-to-black cliffhangers in recent memory.
But it’s Helly’s story that breaks the show wide open, as the audience learns for the first time that her outie is actually Helena Eegan, a member of the super-rich family dynasty that rules the Lumon company. Helly discovers that her existence is a publicity stunt, an attempt by the Eegans to prove that severance is a safe and humane procedure. She awakens at an event in her honor, where Helena is expected to extol the virtues of severance to an audience of lawmakers and business interests. Helly finds herself in a position to share the terrible truth with a crowd of powerful people and land a blow to the institution of severance; she just needs to hope that she’s able to take the stage before time runs out and her evil counterpart retakes control of their body. Helly pulls through and gets at least part of her message across before she’s tackled by security, which means there’s no going back. The revolution has begun.
The final episodes of the season have also significantly expanded the stakes of the show. Severance is no longer about a small group of people trying to cope with their bizarre imprisonment in a world of endless, mindless work, it’s now about preventing the creation of a new global system of enslavement. Lumon is attempting to sell severance as a way to offer everyone a healthy work-life balance, but it’s really about creating a separation between labor and power. Severance not only allows Lumon to extract the maximum amount of labor from their workers by denying them their identities and brainwashing them to worship their founder Kier Eegan as a religious idol, but it creates a new class of laborers who have zero political influence. Their outies may still have the right to vote and money in their pockets, but for all practical purposes, they are no longer labor. They are profiting from the work of another person whose suffering is both out of sight and out of mind. If Lumon achieves their goal of universal severance, suddenly there are no workers in the “real” world, only managers and investors who are likely to become protective of the system that’s giving them the illusion of passive income. The miserable conditions for their working counterparts become just another inconvenient reality for consumers to ignore for their own comfort.
And that’s probably the best case scenario, as current Lumon patriarch James Eegan (Michael Siberry) demonstrates in the finale that Lumon’s religious devotion to company founder Kier Eegan isn’t just a tool for controlling severed workers. He appears to be a true believer who aims to ensure that every person on Earth becomes one of “Kier’s children.” Supposing that everyone becomes severed, the Eegans would have the means to indoctrinate all of humanity into their flock, to the extent that future generations might not even need to be severed at all. They’d simply be indoctrinated at birth into a religion that worships the Eegans and obeys unconditionally. (This might be a good time to mention that there’s currently a billionaire with a cultishly devoted online following who wants to install a chip in your head. Just a heads-up.)
For most of the season, Innie Mark’s dreary nighttime hours have been the less interesting half of the story, with most of the more memorable moments and compelling relationships occurring in the bizarre underground office. The “real world” plot has been necessarily slow, as Outie Mark’s hesitation to disturb his severed status quo is key to the show’s themes. Now, the actions of the innies have turned the tables, and the real action is topside. How will Devon and Ricken (Michael Chernus) act on Innie Mark’s revelations? Will Mark seek out Regabhi (Karen Aldridge) and attempt to reintegrate his two personalities to aid the search for Gemma? Will the series continue to follow Helena in the outside world, giving the audience a firsthand view of the Lumon machine? And what of Irving, who used his short window in the outside world to seek out his lost love Burt (Christopher Walken)? Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) has promised that the innies will be punished for their defiance, but their fates now lie in the hands of their counterparts, who are essentially a new set of characters. It’s a radical shift that all but guarantees that Severance’s future will offer its fans something totally new. Season Two can’t come soon enough.