SEVERANCE S1E1: Good News About Hell

S1E1 * S1E2 * S1E3 * S1E4 * S1E5

In Which: we meet our cast, and have an inciting incident.

“Who are you?”

On a bland conference room table ringed with neatly-placed chairs lies a fair-skinned woman with red hair. Her clothes echo the blue and teal carpet; everything here is precise, perfectly placed, planned. The question comes from a speakerphone set on the table: a small box, old-fashioned but instantly recognizable.

The woman stirs, and the question comes again: “Who are you?” A man’s voice, mildly challenging.

She’s groggy; her head hurts. After a moment, the man apologizes for getting ahead of himself, and asks her if she’d be willing to take a survey. She ignores him, climbs off the table; there’s nothing in the room, no windows, no pictures, just a single door. She stumbles toward it, tries the handle; it’s locked. She pounds on the door, more and more frantic, but whatever has made her groggy is still affecting her, and she falls to the floor. She asks what she gets for taking the survey, and the man says, “Depends on your answers.”

He asks her name. She scoffs at the simple predictability of the question–then realizes she doesn’t know. The voice grows abruptly gentle. It’s all right, he tells her, if the answer is “unknown.” He asks her where she was born, and now she’s becoming alarmed. He asks her to name any US state or territory, and she manages to come up with Delaware. He asks her an odd question: “What is Mr. Eagan’s favorite breakfast?” and agrees when she says the question is nonsensical.

And then he asks her the color of her mother’s eyes, and an expression of profound loss crosses her face. She fights tears, asks what’s happening. The man tabulates her answers: “Unknown, unknown, Delaware, unknown, unknown.”

The door opens, and a backlit figure appears. “That’s a perfect score,” he says.

Title card.

Mark Scout, a pale man with dark hair in his indeterminate forties, is sitting in a car in morning sunlight, the sound of birds singing all around. He is sobbing unreservedly, absolutely giving in to it. As we watch he pulls himself together, checks the time, puts a lanyard with an ID around his neck, and gets out of the car. He’s in the parking lot of Lumon Industries, which is full of line after line of neatly parked cars. He enters the building, shows his ID to the receptionist; she waves him on, and we get one shot from above of the green and blue carpet, the receptionist’s desk centered in the pattern–not identical to the red-haired woman’s conference room, but clearly the same place.

Mark enters a empty locker room, opens a locker, trades his watch for another, leaves his wallet, and swaps his ID for one without a picture. A guard runs a wand over him; he relaxes into it. This is his everyday routine.

He gets on an elevator, and as he heads downward, he…changes. He straightens, his face relaxes, he looks more alert. If he doesn’t precisely look happy, some of the misery he was experiencing in the car appears to have been shucked off.

He gets off the elevator and walks through a maze of windowless white corridors, moving with purpose, straight-shouldered, confident. He finds a used kleenex in his pocket and pulls it out; frowning in mild curiosity, he throws it into a conveniently-located wastebasket.

Eventually he arrives at a large, bright, white-walled, green-carpeted room. In the center are four desks, partitioned waist-high. There’s one person already there: Dylan, a round-faced, stout man with a dark beard and mustache, thinning on top, focused on an ancient computer monitor. He and Mark exchange greetings, and establish that another of their number, Petey, was absent yesterday and is probably absent again today. They trade mundane office banter; they’re both quick-witted, Dylan competitive, Mark disarming.

A third man walks in: Irving. Irving is older, perhaps past 60, pale, with close-cropped gray curly hair and basset-hound eyes. He greets them with “What’s for dinner?” and they remind him how much they hate that greeting. Irving is good-natured, regimented, a bit of a stiff; he gives Dylan a “back in my day” lecture when Dylan expresses concern he might miss out on being named Refiner of the Quarter, which would earn him a waffle party.

A dark-skinned man in a white dress shirt and black trousers walks into the room with a big smile that doesn’t quite hit his eyes: “Good morning, Macrodata Refinement!” The others fall instantly silent; Irving gets to his feet, almost at attention. “Good morning, Mr. Milchick,” he says. Milchick keeps smiling, and asks Mark if he can have a word. Mark follows Milchick back into the maze of white corridors.

They arrive at the dark-walled, diffuse-lit office of Harmony Cobel, a woman of indeterminate middle age, light skin with little makeup, straight gray hair falling past her shoulders. She is formal and humorless, the relaxed leader of her domain. She welcomes Mark, and they sit on either side of her desk. Milchick plugs in a speakerphone, and Cobel tells Mark the Board will be joining them remotely for the meeting. Milchick retreats behind her, leaning against a credenza.

Cobel informs Mark Petey is no longer with Lumon. Mark is visibly stunned, but strives to maintain the professional, unemotional fa├žade they’re all wearing. He asks what happened, and Milchick tells him they can’t tell him: “We would be aiding an assault on Petey’s privacy by you.” Mark is being promoted. Cobel hands him a new keycard, congratulates him, and says, “A handshake is available upon request.” Mark considers this for a moment, then says, never dropping Cobel’s eyes: “Thank you, may I have a handshake.” Cobel, visibly annoyed, nevertheless keeps her promise and shakes his hand.

Cobel tells him Irving will shadow him on the training he will be running, and that all he needs to do is follow the script. Milchick hands him a loose leaf notebook, and Mark thanks Cobel. He turns back to the speakerphone to thank the Board as well, but they are silent. “The Board won’t be contributing to this meeting…vocally,” Cobel explains, and Mark nods as if this somehow makes sense.

In a small, dark, green-walled room with a video monitor, Mark and Irving prepare for the training. Irving expresses sympathy for Mark losing Petey, to whom Mark was apparently close. Mark shrugs off Irving’s sympathy and heads to the notebook. He notes there are protocols for when a trainee becomes agitated, and Irving reminds him she has to ask three times before Mark can let her leave.

The monitor comes on, and we see…the red-haired woman on the conference table. Mark, per instructions, launches into the survey: “Who are you?” His notebook details the STANDARD TRAINEE RESPONSE: UNKNOWN.

Belatedly, Mark realizes he’s messed up–he’s forgotten the preamble. He greets the woman more formally, flipping through the notebook looking for ways to get back on script as she rattles the door handle. Irving worries she’ll break in.

Cobel, from her office, is watching the training on an old computer screen like Dylan’s. Milchick asks if he should help; she says, “You should not.”

Having finished the survey, Mark–the backlit figure we saw in the first scene–enters the room, notebook in hand, as the woman climbs to her feet. He apologizes for messing up the ordering of her interview, and sits down at the table. “Am I livestock?” she asks. Mark, puzzled, assures her she is not. “Then what’s my name?” He tells her she’s called Helly R., and invites her to sit across from him. He tells her she’s been hired to work on Lumon Industries’ severed floor. She’s confused; reading from the script, he says before they talk about what the severed floor is, he wants to talk to her about “the work/life balance.”

Helly picks up the speakerphone, throws it at Mark’s head, and runs to the door again. He tells her it’s locked from the outside, and asks her if they could just sit down for a moment. He introduces himself, and tells her two years ago he woke up in the same room. He told the voice over the speakerphone he was going to find him and kill him. Helly, watching Mark with something between disdain and disbelief, asks, deadpan, if he killed the voice. He tells her the voice was Petey’s, who became his best friend. “There is a life to be had here, Helly,” he tells her.

She grabs the notebook and tries to pull it away from him, demanding to be let out. Mark glances at the camera in the ceiling, just once–Cobel is still watching from her office–and tells Helly in a low voice to ask him one more time. “Mark,” Helly says, enunciating clearly, “I would like to leave the building now.”

He reads from the notebook, telling her he’ll escort her out of the building.

They enter the white hallways. They pass a room full of empty desks; he tells her Lumon is expanding. She asks if she’s part of that, and he says no, she’s a replacement. “Why are you saying that like you hate it?” she asks. He doesn’t answer.

He marches her to a corridor with an exit door, and waits around the corner, telling her he’s not allowed to watch. She’s curious about that, but not curious enough to stop. She heads out the door…

…and finds herself heading back into the exit corridor. She frowns, turns around, heads out the door again, and comes back again. She runs at the door, flinging herself through, and this time we stay on Mark, who’s waiting for her. Several moments pass before she comes back inside.

Thoroughly spooked, she asks Mark, “Am I dead?” He says no. She asks why she can’t leave, and he says she did leave. He tells her to accompany him.

In Cobel’s office, Mark gets a bandaid for the wound Helly inflicted, and Cobel dresses her down cheerfully and hands her a disk with a video on it. “Welcome to Lumon, Helly,” she says, with a smile. Milchick leads her away, and Cobel admonishes Mark. She tells him her mother was an atheist, who told her there was “good news and bad news about hell.” The good news was that hell was imaginary. The bad news? “Whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.” She tells him his department can be good, or bad; the difference is the people.

Back in the Macrodata Refinement room, Mark returns as Milchick is setting up a portable monitor. Helly sits before it, and watches a video of…herself, reading a statement off index cards. She’s different in the video: cheerful, poised and eager. She explains she’s about to voluntarily undergo the severance procedure, which will surgically divide her memories: when she’s on Lumon’s severed floor, she won’t be able to access memories from her outside life, and vice versa. The procedure is irreversible.

The video ends, and Milchick ushers her to the set of desks.

“So I’ll never leave here?” she asks Mark.

Of course she’ll leave, he says, but it won’t feel like she’s been gone. She asks if she has a choice, and he points out every time she wakes up here, it’s because her other self has chosen to return. She asks if she has a family. “You’ll never know,” he tells her. It’s blunt, truthful, but there’s a gentleness in his voice, like his reassurance when she couldn’t remember her name. He knows what it means, how cruel it is; but she’s not alone in this place. She’s not misunderstood. She sits at her desk, and they all start working.

At the end of the day, Mark heads back up the elevator, sinking back into his weary, worn, grieving outer self. As he exchanges his belongings in the locker room, he notices his ID card has changed.

He walks out into the nearly empty parking lot, and finds a note under his windshield wiper. It explains he injured his forehead because he slipped while carrying boxes. In compensation, Lumon has given him a VIP card to a place called Pip’s. He drives away, distracted, and nearly hits a woman walking across the parking lot holding flowers. It’s Helly, and they don’t recognize each other. “Keep your eyes on the icy road,” she admonishes him, and he drives off.

Mark lives in a duplex, one in a row of identical duplexes, gray and white, trash and recycling bins out front. The interior is also gray and white, poorly lit with fluorescents. Mark drinks and watches television, sitting under the light of a single lamp.

In the morning he wheels a trash bin out, only to find a bin already in the spot. He calls his neighbor, Mrs. Selvig, on the phone, explaining to her with the patience of long practice that recycling and trash are collected on two different nights. He’s not angry; he can barely muster the energy to be frustrated. He clearly sees her mistake as chronic befuddlement.

Later a woman comes to his door, dark hair, light skin, fine eyebrows, pretty in a frank, good-humored, gentle way. This is Devon, Mark’s sister; she’s there to bring him to a not-dinner party at her house. Their conversation in the car is comfortable, mutually sarcastic, occasionally witty; he’s a shadow of who he was, but we can see that man, reflected in her teasing and her affection. She mentions they’re nearing “the anniversary,” and thought perhaps he might want company. “Nope,” he says, but he’s good-natured enough about it.

The not-dinner party involves conversation without food. Ricken, Devon’s husband, is a self-help guru; the other guests are a handful of his acolytes. The conversation involves inanities masquerading as deep, philosophical issues. One guest, learning Mark used to teach history, says he heard that during World War I it was called The Great War, because calling it World War I would have been in poor taste. Mark points out they didn’t know at the time there’d be another war, and the guests all act as if this is some divine revelation. Ricken tells them Mark’s late wife, Gemma, was also a teacher–and he tells them Mark is working on Lumon’s severed floor. Immediately they begin to challenge Mark’s decision, wanting to know what he thinks about “the other one.” Mark, defensive and irritable, says there is no “other one,” only him. Devon gently says it’s the kind of thing Mark should have been able to disclose or not at his discretion, and immediately Ricken apologizes. The others fall in after him, and the conversation settles down.

Later, Mark and Devon–who we now see is very, very pregnant–are in her kitchen. She makes him a sandwich and asks how therapy is going. He says he doesn’t need it, that his job helps. She suggests, gently, that avoiding grief for eight hours a day isn’t necessarily coping with it. She persuades him to spend the night at her house, where he sleeps in the room she and Ricken have prepared for their baby.

Mark gets up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water. Out the kitchen window, in the woods, he spies a pale, gray-haired man in a suit staring at the house. Mark stares back, and a car drives by; the man disappears. In the morning, he tells Devon what he saw, and she assumes the man was a “stumbler” from the bar down the road.

The next day, Mark is sitting in Pip’s VIP section, alone. He takes a call from Mrs. Selvig, who is still confused about trash pickup. She quizzes him on who he’s having dinner with, and…the businessman from the night before sits down across from him, telling him to get off the phone. Mark hangs up.

“Hi kids,” Petey says. “What’s for dinner?”

Mark doesn’t recognize the greeting, and some of the warmth in Petey’s expression fades as he observes Mark is different here. He tells Mark he’s Petey from work, and when Mark says that’s impossible, Petey says he’s not severed anymore. Mark is still incredulous, and noting Petey’s somewhat cagey manner asks if he thinks someone is after him for unsevering. Petey tells Mark a man called Graner, who’s Lumon security, is likely looking for him. He gives Mark a greeting card, and says if something happens to him, the things he knows need to remain known. He tells Mark they’re friends: “I’m your best friend. You’re my very good friend.” He rushes out of the restaurant.

In his car, Mark’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he opens the card. Petey has written a long note. He and Mark used to wonder who they were on the outside, he writes, and why they’d done this to themselves. Petey had thought they had to be monsters, but now he knows they’re not. Petey says he won’t force Mark to learn more, but if he wants to know, he should go to the address on the back of the card: 499 Half Loop Road.

Mark arrives home and puts out his trash bin. His neighbor, Mrs. Selvig, calls out from her doorstep to apologize for the mix-up with the trash. He tells her it’s fine; she asks if he’s all right, and he says it’s just tired. “My mother was a Catholic,” she tells him. “She used to say it takes the saints eight hours to bless a sleeping child. I hope you’re not rushing the saints.” He promises he’ll sleep, and bids her good night. He goes inside, and the camera cuts to her face: Mark’s muddle-headed aging neighbor is Harmony Cobel. The camera lingers on her as she stares after him, her smile fading.

Roll credits.

I have this thing I do with TV shows I’m curious about: I watch on my laptop for a bit, and if the show seems like something my family will enjoy, I stop watching so I can show them later.

In Severance S1E1, that moment hit at about 4:54, when Mark has asked Helly the color of her mother’s eyes. She’s already figured out something extremely odd has happened to her–but the look on her face when she realizes she can’t answer the question, good god. The situation has gone from odd to horrific, and she’s undone.

Literally, as it happens, although perhaps not as undone as she initially thinks.

Welcome to Severance, a show whose full and complex premise is presented in the very first line of dialogue: Who are you? If you lost all your memories, all your previous experiences, all your reasons for doing the things you do–what would be left?

The science fiction aspect, of course, doesn’t bear terribly close scrutiny. The severance procedure isn’t a memory wipe. People retain their vocabularies and their senses of humor, the ability to read and write, even cultural references (Dylan and Irving, at one point, argue hilariously about muscle shows). In a novel, there would need to be some hand-wavy pseudo-neurological explanation for how experiential memories have been taken in a way that leaves people individuals. But that’s the one great conceit we’re asked to accept on faith here: this is what the procedure does, so go with it, and the story will take care of the rest.

This episode–and most of the series–belongs to Mark, who we see most thoroughly on both sides of the severance divide. And he is the same man, more or less. He misses very little–watch his face during the dinner party scene, where he registers every singe thing said at the table, and chooses very carefully what he responds to. He’s conflict avoidant, and always measured in his responses; he’s more prone to challenge than direct confrontation. Does he have lines? Yes, he does. And while Mark doesn’t generally get pushed to violence, he goes very sharp, very fast.

What makes this show work is the tangible realness of all these people. Even the unsevered Lumon staff–Ms. Cobel, Milchick, Graner, Natalie (who we haven’t met yet)–are the sort of people we’ve all met at one time or another. Especially those of us who’ve worked in an office. Severance is a thoughtful and provocative piece of speculative fiction, but it’s also a sharp-edged satire of corporate bureaucracy. Here, in an era where many people were forced to leave the physical office–and many have elected not to go back–it’s particularly apt.

Which brings me to the cast. There are no weak performances here, nobody who shatters the reality of the show. Not even John Turturro, instantly recognizable–he appears, you say “Oh, it’s that guy,” and then he’s Irving. Christopher Walken, who first appears in E2, elicits the same response. I didn’t recognize Patricia Arquette as Harmony Cobel until I looked her up.

And because of these heavy hitters, the others are perhaps that much more remarkable. Tramell Tillman, playing Milchick, is effectively terrifying, scary the same way clowns are: his expression says one thing, but every instinct you have tells you you’re in danger. I hadn’t seen Britt Lower in anything before; she’s got a critical part, playing the confrontational skeptic Helly, the one with no intention of conforming, dealing with the kind-hearted but ultimately subservient Innie Mark. She is the viewer’s escort into the world of the severed floor, remarking on everything that’s wrong, everything that makes no sense. Without adding spoilers–Helly’s behavior throughout the show is absolutely consistent, and Lower never misses an emotional beat, be it humor, grief, or cruelty. Zach Cherry as Dylan is the archetypical That Guy in the office, breezy and cynical and competitive. There’s more to Dylan than we see at first, and it took me a few binges of the series to recognize him as the dad of Macrodata Refinement, complete with jokes, but fundamentally protective and wanting the group to bond. Jen Tullock as Devon is absolutely believable as a loving sibling to a man who’s going through hell and isn’t inclined to accept or ask for help. I can’t figure out what Devon sees in Ricken–a marvelously self-absorbed but ultimately good-hearted Michael Chernus–but I believe she loves him, even if her interactions with him are simpler than they are with Mark.

There’s also Dichen Lachman as the woolly-headed and sweet-natured Ms. Casey, and Sydney Cole Alexander as Natalie, who is palpably horrible in a corporate marketing way. And I’m forgetting a host of other supporting actors. They’re all brilliant, and they all fit.

But I do want to reserve some extra praise for Adam Scott, who plays Mark. The last thing I saw him in was The Good Place, where he played the snarky, smarmy, unsubtle demon Trevor. He was a brilliant comic foil to Ted Danson’s Michael. In Severance, up against a pack of Oscar winners, he is gobsmackingly amazing. Mark is repressed, restrained, bruised and battered–his reactions are subtle, almost camouflaged, but every moment he’s on screen we know exactly what Mark is feeling. The scene in Cobel’s office where he is promoted is an astonishing feat of artistry on the part of all three actors. But it’s Mark/Adam’s scene, and his performance is riveting. It doesn’t sound like much in the recap–a guy gets an unexpected promotion after his friend is summarily fired–but the scene itself is strange, unsettling, tense, and suspenseful.

They’re all good. If I had to give out just one Emmy, I’d give it to Adam Scott.

I’ll finish this rambling pseudo-critique with a comment on the look of the show. Color is used with great care. Amongst the MDR group, only Helly is habitually allowed color (it’s not a coincidence, I think, that she’s a redhead), and she’s always wearing something that compliments the blue and green of the corporate decor. Everything within the Lumon building is spare and almost entirely unadorned, because every piece of furniture, book, picture, fire extinguisher has a specific purpose. The outside world is oddly anonymous, and sparely populated; the location is fictional, but even so, it seems an untouched middle-of-nowhere place.

The Lumon building itself is apparently the old Bell Labs building in New Jersey (at least the exterior). It’s a masterpiece of Brutalist oppressiveness: so big, so cavernous, even large groups of people feel like nothing. It looms over everything, like an old god who hasn’t quite decided to wake up. The outside world is equally oppressive, but because it’s entirely sterile and anonymous, from Mark’s deeply depressing home to Pip’s Bar and Grille. Even Devon’s house in the woods has a generic Camping Lodge feel to it.

Is there a reason for this? Are these moody locations a clue of some kind?

I think everything in this show is a clue of some kind.

Anyway! Next week we learn a little more about the severance procedure, and we find out if Mark’s curiosity gets the better of him. And Liz will wax poetic-ish again about why teambuilding exercises reveal far more about the people who run them than the people who are supposed to be getting to know each other.

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