SEVERANCE S1E2: Half Loop

S1E1 * S1E2

In Which: Helly settles in, and Mark’s curiosity wins out

We open with a flashback: Helly recording the message we saw her severed self watch in Episode One. She sits in a stark white room, indistinguishable from all the severed floor rooms; Milchick is behind the camera, focused and efficient. But when Helly finishes he’s not the paternalistic, falsely-cheerful Milchick of Macrodata Refinement. He’s quieter, slightly nervous. Deferent, almost. He’s different with a non-severed person. Or maybe he’s just different with Helly.

He walks her through Lumon’s sunlit lobby, briefing her on what’s going to happen next: her severed self will wake on the severed floor and work the day, but the next time she will be “sentient” will be when she leaves in the afternoon. They pass a massive engraved profile of an old man: Kier Eagan. Milchick asks if she knows his favorite breakfast was three raw eggs in milk each morning. Helly says she’s heard that.

We see Helly in surgery, sitting up, awake; Milchick is there with the doctors. They make an incision in the back of her head, and insert a small cylinder. She feels no pain, but becomes slowly groggy. Milchick snaps a photo, and she blacks out.

The next thing she knows, she’s coming through an emergency door into a stairwell. Milchick is waiting there for her, smiling, reassuring. He says her orientation has been so much fun, and when she questions what she’s doing there, he tells her when a new hire is adjusting to the situation, sometimes they bring them into the stairwell to “experience the transition viscerally.” Helly somehow translates this as meaning she’s trying to leave, but Milchick assures her no, this is normal, and she can head right back in.

She does, but finds herself out in the stairwell again. She’s mildly disconcerted, and again Milchick reassures her. He opens the door for her, and this time she runs back into the building. He gets on the phone, telling someone it’s going “fair”–and Helly runs through the door again, this time falling to the ground. He helps her up, remarking she’s “an inquisitive one.”

“I really don’t want to be in there, do I?” she observes, thoroughly spooked.

“You’re learning that you do,” he says.

He switches gears, telling her earnestly how much they all appreciate her doing what she’s doing. She pulls herself together, and heads decisively back into the building.

And then she’s coming up the elevator, and Milchick greets her with a bouquet of flowers, congratulating her on her first day.

Roll credits.

Morning. InnieMark arrives at the office, the first one there. He turns on the lights, and from his mailbox retrieves the Senior Refiner Morning Checklist. The checklist is primarily mundane things like refilling the soap dispensers in the bathrooms, but there’s also a few more suspicious items: “Review employee lunches” and “Acknowledge Kier Eagan portrait (verbally or silently).” The last task on the list is “Self-assess: can I lead today?”

Mark zips down the list with a spring in his step. He likes this: the crisp, tangible goals, keeping things neat and organized.

But as he’s dusting the items on the desks, he picks up a photograph of himself, Irving, Dylan…and Petey. He stops, looking at Petey’s smiling face, his enthusiasm ebbing. Each desk has one of these framed portraits; he picks up all four, and heads to the storeroom to tuck them onto a high shelf.

Helly comes in as he’s arranging items in front of the hidden portraits, and asks if it’s “tomorrow.” He tells her it’s actually next week; it’s Monday. He tells her she’ll get used to it. She’s largely ignoring him, disconcerted; she checks her watch. “So it’s 9:05?” He says yes–they stagger their start times since they aren’t supposed to meet on the outside. As with everything else, he presents this as if it’s entirely normal.

“So I guess we’re not friends,” she says to him.

He rolls that over in his head, and smiles at her. “Guess not.” He heads out of the storeroom to finish his tasks.

As Mark checks Helly’s computer connection, Dylan explains to her what he’s been doing. He tells her his file is 96% “refined,” and when he finishes he’ll qualify for an incentive. He shows her a mug full of finger traps and erasers, and with pride opens a drawer to show her a number of caricature portraits he’s won. She’s bemused but polite, and asks if the portrait is the highest tier reward. He says no: if the department hits their quarterly numbers, someone gets named Refiner of the Quarter and gets a waffle party. He interprets her bemusement as competitiveness, and tells her he’s a lock for it this quarter.

She asks about a crystal cube Mark has on his desk: a portrait of Mark on a stand, lit from below. Dylan says no, that’s not an incentive, it’s just something they gave him.

Mark finishes the computer setup, and he and Helly sit before the monitor so he can explain her work to her. As he’s opening a task file for her. Irving interrupts politely, and notes that Mark has removed the group portraits from their desks. Mark points out there will be new photos taken at Helly’s party later.

Mark returns to teaching Helly, bringing up a grid of numbers and telling her it’s their job to sort those numbers into five digital buckets. Irving interrupts again, saying he thought the old photos were supposed to stay on the desks until the new ones were provided. Mark doesn’t respond to him, explaining to Helly all the data is encoded. Irving gets up and walks off-screen.

Helly asks Mark how she’s supposed to categorize the data if she doesn’t know what it means, and he tells her that each group of numbers elicits an emotional response from the refiner. Some numbers will make her feel fear. She’s deeply skeptical, but Mark assures her she’ll know it when she sees it.

Irving returns with a paper in his hand. He’s printed out the portion of the handbook on changing out group photos. He suggests Mark peruse it when he has a chance. He apologizes to Helly for the interruption, and returns to his desk.

Helly stares after Irving for a moment, then asks Mark if she’s trapped there. He says she can submit a request to her outside self for a resignation if she wants, although those tend to be rejected. He adds, in a tone that makes it clear he thinks it’s obvious, that she probably doesn’t want to do that, since this version of her only exists at Lumon. If she quits, she’ll essentially be ending her own life. Before she can respond to that, Milchick enters, wheeling in a Melon Bar on a cart for Helly’s party.

The party opens with them sitting in a circle, the four refiners and Milchick. A red ball rolls toward Irving, who picks it up. He introduces himself, says he’s worked there for three years, and shares that he knows all nine Lumon principles. Milchick asks him which is his favorite, and he considers a moment before saying, “All nine.”

Irving rolls the ball to Helly, who picks it up unwillingly; she introduces herself, says she’s been there about ten hours, and says she doesn’t know anything about herself. Milchick, expansively, says of course she does, but she holds her ground, saying she doesn’t know where she lives, or if she has a family. She asks if she can record a message to her outie, and Milchick says communication between innies and outies is discouraged. She asks about writing a note, and Milchick says the elevators are equipped with “code detectors,” making them shut down if they detect written words. She pushes, and Milchick interrupts, still smiling, but decidedly icier. He takes the ball from her and introduces her to the group: She’s Helly, she’s 30 years old, allergic to almonds, and has “weak enamel.” He says, moving into false warmth, that from what he’s seen here, she definitely has a family.

Mark, who has been listening carefully to Milchick throughout this, smiling and laughing in all the right places, introduces himself next. He’s been at Lumon for two years. His fact about himself becomes a confession: he removed the old team portraits before he was supposed to. He said dusting them that morning made him sad, and so he hid them away, which he knew was against protocol. Milchick, whose eyes have gone absolutely dead above his smile, says he finds Mark’s reaction “sweet,” but points out Mark didn’t react this way the last time someone left. Mark reminds him they knew that person was leaving; Petey just vanished, and he doesn’t know if he’s changed jobs, or is dead somewhere.

Milchick says “That’s enough.” And Mark looks down at his hands, silent. Helly watches their exchange, riveted.

Milchick reminds them that death isn’t a thing that happens in this place, that they’re insulated from it all. Mark nods, still looking down. Milchick tells them the appropriate response to that is gratitude. Mark finally looks up, meeting Milchick’s eyes again; he’s anxious, and he nods again. At that, Milchick cracks a smile, and the tension eases.

Later, as Dylan is picking out fruit from the melon bar, Irving notices something black under his fingernails. He frowns; he’s able to clean it out easily, but there’s a fair amount of it.

Mark apologizes to Helly for derailing the meeting. She asks how he’s going to check on Petey, and he replies Milchick made the situation pretty clear. She calls him on that, and he tells her, with a tense smile, that Milchick is actually a pretty good guy, and that when he tells them something it’s best to listen–because Milchick can’t always be “nice like that.”

Milchick calls them together and snaps a photograph. When that’s done, Helly marches across the office, telling everyone she’s finished and she’s leaving. She writes “I Quit” on a sticky note and heads for the door. Mark reminds her of the code detectors, and she tells him they sound made up.

Mark pursues; Helly breaks into a run and makes it to the elevator. She gets on, and the door is almost closed when the lights go red and alarm sounds. Mark almost makes it to her, calling out “Please, you don’t know,” before the fire doors close on either side of the elevator.

Opposite Mark, a dark-haired, pale-skinned man with the look of an aging Secret Service agent opens the fire door. He regards Helly through the half-open elevator doors. Mark watches him, horrified, as he turns off the alarm and beckons Helly off the elevator. The man takes the sticky note from her hand, then tells her to accompany him.

Mark knocks on the fire doors, calling out “Mr. Graner!” Graner opens the doors and lets Mark in. Mark, all good cheer again, thanks Graner for finding his “wayward trainee,” and says he hadn’t had a chance to explain the rules to Helly yet. He says her misstep was entirely his fault. Graner considers this, then beckons Mark to come with him instead. Mark follows Graner around the corner; he meets Helly’s eyes, and gives her a brief, reassuring nod. She watches him disappear, abruptly aware that maybe there’s more gravity to all this than she understands.

Mark follows Graner to the Break Room: a room with a long, narrow, poorly-lit hallway leading to a single door. Mark enters; Graner closes the door after him. At the other end of the hall, the door opens: Cobel is waiting for him there.

Evening. OutieMark is sitting in a dark restaurant with a young woman nominally is own age: Alexa, a gentle-faced woman with kind eyes, copper-dark skin, and a wide and ready smile. She’s his sister Devon’s midwife, and Devon has set them up on a date. He flirts gently, awkwardly, and with some success; he asks her about her work, and when she asks about his he makes some obvious and self-deprecating jokes about the severance procedure itself. She asks if it doesn’t bother him, the idea that he’s leading an entirely separate life he knows nothing about. “I think for some people,” he tells her, “it’s the point.”

They walk outside. It’s a cold night; the streets are nearly deserted, although the curbs are packed with parked cars. They run across a group of people handing out flyers–they’re protesting severance. Mark immediately gets his back up. He jeers at the protesters, telling them they’re trying to keep people from making their own choices. He becomes increasingly aggressive; Alexa, distressed, tries to get him away.

Later, Mark is home–alone–drinking a beer, when Mrs. Selvig knocks on his door with cookies, still apologizing about the trash bins. They sit in his dark kitchen eating cookies with milk, and she asks if he was on a date. He says yes, but he didn’t think it was going anywhere. She tells him her husband, before he died, told her he was going to build them a house in the afterlife, with an extra room in the back to accommodate whoever she might meet after he passed away.

After Mrs. Selvig leaves, Mark goes down to the basement, and opens a box labeled “Gemma’s crafts.” He opens it, and picks up a red and green candle. He runs his thumb over it, then replaces it and closes the box again. Later, he falls asleep in front of the television.

The next morning is gray and rainy. Mark gets into his car, and finds the flyer he took from the protesters the night before. He calls in sick to work, pleading digestive issues, and heads to the address Petey gave him: 499 Half Loop Road.

At Lumon, Irving expresses concern to Dylan about Mark’s whereabouts. Dylan reassures him that they wouldn’t fire two people in the same week. Irving says he hopes so; there’s a lot of work to do for the quarter, and he certainly doesn’t want to be department chief. Dylan says he’s pretty confident for a guy who “once got disciplined for dozing.”

Irving freezes at that, staring at Dylan. And instead of his usual sarcasm, Dylan apologizes. Irving says “I can’t help that I was hired older than you.”

Helly arrives and asks after Mark. “Sick or fired,” Dylan tells her breezily. “Probably sick.” She asks if they’d fire him over her note, and Dylan says no, he did his “stint” in the Break Room. Helly looks vaguely concerned, but doesn’t ask.

In Cobel’s office, Milchick tells her and Graner that Mark has called in sick. “Funny timing,” Graner says.

Mark pulls up to what appears to be a long-abandoned greenhouse–windows broken, draped plastic torn and falling down.

At Lumon, Dylan is regaling Helly with tales of refinement, and Irving is getting sleepy. He struggles to stay awake..and black goo, shiny and thick, begins to drip down the walls toward his computer. It bubbles over the cubicle walls, creeping onto his keyboard, oozing forward until it touches his finger. He pushes away from the desk, hands before his eyes, shouting “No!”

Dylan gets to his feet, and Irving looks back at his desk: there’s nothing there. He apologizes, but it’s too late: Milchick is there, having witnessed Irving dozing off. Milchick is not smiling.

Mark wanders through a warren of ruined buildings and rotted wood walls. At the end of one cavernous building, he finds Petey, who’s been living there.

Milchick leads Irving down the hall, expressing his disappointment. Irving apologizes, and Milchick tells him nobody’s sending him to the Break Room. He’ll have a wellness check with Ms. Casey instead.

Back at MDR, Helly is scanning through meaningless numbers, utterly bored. She asks Dylan if anybody knows what it is they’re supposed to be cleaning. He volunteers his theory: they’re cleaning the sea. If things have become so bad, he speculates, that people will split themselves in half, humanity must be considering living under the sea. He believes the data helps remove all the deadly wildlife that humans can’t cohabitate with.

“This is the leading theory?” Helly asks.

Dylan returns to his work. “Nah. Irv thinks we’re cutting swear words out of movies.”

At Petey’s, Mark asks what they’re working on at Lumon. Petey doesn’t know. He says they keep the departments isolated–he has no idea how many there are. He shows Mark a map of the Lumon severed floor he’s been working on since he was reintegrated. He tells Mark he hid the original at Lumon.

Suddenly Petey’s hands go to his head, and he doubles over, crying out in pain. The spell passes, and he tells Mark it’s “reintegration sickness.” When Mark says he’s never heard of it, Petey says that’s because he’s the first person who’s ever had it. He says living in a greenhouse doesn’t help, but he can’t go home.

Mark, still skeptical, asks what they do on the severed floor that’s so bad, and Petey tells him about the Break Room. He pulls out an old cassette player, and plays a recording for Mark:

Milchick: I’m afraid you’re not sorry.

Petey: Please. I truly am. I’m sorry.

Milchick: Please read the statement again.

Petey: Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me, and only in me will their stain live on. I’m thankful to have been caught, my fall cut short by those with wizened hands. All I can be is sorry, and that is all that I am.

Milchick: I’m afraid you don’t mean it. Again, please.

Petey: Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me…

Petey stops the tape. Mark just stares at him. “The fuck is that?”

Lumon. Irving sits on a green sofa in a white waiting room, a painting on the wall behind him. There are a few unimpressive, homogeneous plants along the walls, and two gray doors, close together. Quiet music plays. He stands, pacing, and stops in front of the painting: it’s a picture of an old man–Kier Eagan–in armor, with a whip. He’s beating back four figures, which represent the Four Tempers: Woe, Frolic, Dread, and Malice. It’s a religious painting, and Irving is impressed with it.

A man emerges from one of the rooms. He’s shorter than Irving, and perhaps a bit older; he wears a blue jacket that looks like a lab coat. They apologize for running into each other, and Irving says he was just admiring the art. They discuss the painting, and Irving introduces himself. The other man identifies himself as the department head for Optics and Design, who decides which paintings hang where. He moves to stand next to Irving, who refers admiringly to other paintings in the building. The other man is clearly impressed–and maybe a little flattered–by Irving’s knowledge. Ms. Casey, a young woman with dark and expressive eyes and wide lips, comes out to fetch Irving, and the two men nod their farewells, parting with some reluctance.

Ms. Casey’s wellness room has wood-paneled walls, massive lights, and a single tree. She turns up some ambient bird and insect sounds. She pulls out a list of facts about Irving’s outie, and begins to read them to him. They begin with the generic: “Your outie is generous.” But they quickly move to specifics, some of which seem random, although they’re all phrased as complimentary. When Ms. Casey says “Your outie is splendid, and can swim gracefully and well,” Irving laughs, pleased, and she stops. telling him he can’t show preference for any specific fact. “That’s 10 points off. You have 90 points remaining.” She continues with more oddness, including “Your outie likes the sound of radar.” But when she compliments his outie’s lovemaking, he can’t resist a sigh, and she admonishes him again to keep his reactions equal. She says if he can’t keep silent, she’ll have to end the session.

Back at MDR, Dylan fishes some tokens out of a jar to choose a snack from the vending machine. (The available snacks are edamame (dry roasted), raisins (shriveled), peanuts (roasted and salted), beets (dried and sliced), blueberries (dried), ginseng (cubed), sunflower seeds, and something starting with “me” (smoked and salted).) He chooses raisins (shriveled). Helly approaches him, and asks if the stairwells also have code detectors (he says they do). She’s skeptical the resignations are being delivered at all, and he tells her to drop the idea of smuggling words out.

Irving returns. Helly asks how wellness was, and he says he met the O&D department head. Dylan says he’s met the guy–Burt–and that he’s terrible. Irving objects, and they argue. Helly turns back to her screen…and suddenly finds some of the numbers looking odd. She summons the others and points. They agree, and stand over her as she moves the mouse around a series of numbers, and cautiously clicks the mouse. The numbers vanish into an animated box on her screen, and they all sigh with relief. Irving congratulates her, and he and Dylan return to their desks. “They were scary,” Helly says, thoroughly unnerved. “The numbers were scary.”

Outside. Mrs. Selvig/Cobel looks out her window into Mark’s house. There’s a light on but no movement.

In Mark’s basement, he is setting up an old couch for Petey to sleep on. He points out a shower Petey can use as well. Petey thanks Mark for taking him in, and Mark deflects, saying his work self would be annoyed if he let Petey sleep in a greenhouse. Petey goes in for a shower while Mark finds him some clothes. In the bathroom, Petey’s cell phone–an old flip phone–starts ringing. He’s breathing hard, clearly uncomfortable; he ignores the call. He leans over the sink, and blood drips from his nose. He gets in the shower, and begins to see multiples of himself, over the sink and in the mirror; his head is hurting again. Mark calls to him, asking if he’s all right.

Roll credits.


Give yourself a treat: once, just once, watch the opening credit sequence. It wasn’t part of E1, and it’s beautiful and weird.

One of the reasons I end up going into so much detail on these recaps is because so much happens, and almost everything, no matter how small, has significance. In this episode, we see Helly get over her skepticism but not her desire to escape. We see Mark’s justification for what he’s done to himself–and we see, through Petey, some evidence that Mark is a substantially happier person without his memories. OutieMark is brittle, and often drunk; he has a temper, and his sense of humor has nearly been squashed into non-existence. InnieMark thrives on the sameness and the routine; he likes to think that all this bureaucratic nonsense means something.

But when it comes down to it, InnieMark knows very well what kind of situation he’s in. He does his best to warn Helly, and when she won’t heed him, he tries to save her. He goes through the Break Room for her, a person he barely knows. InnieMark is the sort of person who will suffer for his friends, who’ll lie to protect them.

OutieMark, despite his scars, is doing the same thing with Petey. He wants to know what’s happening at Lumon, even if he’s not quite at the point where he’s willing to raise any alarms about it. He doesn’t want to do what Petey has done, but he will protect him. He gives his Innie the credit for taking Petey in–but OutieMark is clearly not the kind of person who can let someone he knows is a friend–even if he can’t remember him–suffer alone when he’s clearly ill.

Helly continues to be the Stranger’s Guide to Severance. At the beginning, we get to see BeforeHelly, who’s maybe nervous, but clearly doing this consensually–and with some enthusiasm. More interesting, though, is Milchick’s behavior toward her: he means it when he tells her how much it means to them all that she’s chosen to do this. Helly is Someone in the Outie World, although whether all the other outies get treated the same we don’t know.

When I first watched, my guess was Helly was some sort of scientist or researcher. Someone important to…whatever it is they’re trying to do.

Which we still don’t know, despite Dylan’s thought-provoking flight of fancy. It seems clear that something in the implants is triggered by those numbers on the screen, but how or why that works is still a mystery. Even Petey, possessed of a single set of memories–however cluttered–can’t shed much light on what’s going on down there. What does seem clear, though, is that the severed employees are being subjected to some hair-raisingly abusive working conditions. We don’t really get what Milchick’s taped interview is about, but Petey-on-tape certainly sounds unhappy about it.

Couple things about Irving and Burt.

First, that painting. As with the stone carving of Kier at the start, there’s a more-than-human religious cast to everything we learn about him. Both Irving and Burt seem to have entirely bought into the mythos, whatever it is. Not so much, though, that their immediate attraction isn’t apparent to them both. In a severed world, new people would be extraordinarily rare, and to meet someone new that you actually like would be an amazing moment.

But if anything tops Burt and Irving, it’s Irving’s wellness session. Pretty sure his good cheer afterward didn’t have much to do with Ms. Casey’s list of facts, regardless of how complimentary they were. What an odd, controlling, passive-aggressive little therapy session, made all the eerier by Ms. Casey’s deadpan delivery of both facts and rules.

Oh, all the spoilers I could put here! But I won’t. 🙂

This episode we got a deeper picture of Life At Lumon, as well as a glimpse into how dysfunctional OutieMark actually is. Next episode: OutieMark’s investigations continue, and Irving tries to make Helly feel more at home, with predictable (and not) results.

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