SEVERANCE S1E5: The Grim Barbarity Of Optics and Design

S1 * S2 * S3 * S4 * S5

In Which: Mark becomes an uncle, and severed alliances are formed.

(The title card says “The following contains a depiction of suicide. Viewer discretion advised.” That’s not accurate. There are disturbing images of Helly hanging from a noose, but she is not dead, and in fact does not die. It’s disturbing, but this warning is erroneous. I get it, though: they wanted to avoid spoilers, which I have just provided.)

Helly, in the elevator, “transitions” to her outie self. She immediately starts scrambling at the noose, trying to get a footing against the walls. Her shoes keep slipping. A security camera shows the elevator opening at the surface, Helly still kicking and struggling, but there is no one at the security desk. The doors close again.

Mark walks into MDR, where Dylan has been reading Ricken’s book. He asks if Helly has gone; Dylan hides the book, confirms, and gets back to work. Mark heads out to the elevator and calls it; the doors open to reveal Helly, now unconscious, hanging from the extension cord. Mark grabs her legs and lifts her as high as he can, shouting for help. Graner arrives and gets the cord off her; they carry her into the severed floor lobby. Mark is distraught; Helly is coughing. Graner tells Mark to get on the elevator. Helly opens her eyes and meets his before he leaves.

Mark reaches the top floor, leaving his memory of what happened behind.

Roll credits.

Next day. OutieMark checks in and descends the elevator as usual. InnieMark “wakes” up moments after discovering Helly. He emerges to find Cobel and Milchick waiting for him. Cobel makes him sit down before she tells him Helly is alive and expected to recover fully. Mark assumes they’ll be letting Helly leave, but Cobel tells him OutieHelly has no plans to resign. Helly will be back to work in a few days. Mark asks if that’s enough time, and without answering, Cobel tells him Helly’s attempted suicide was his responsibility, and he should thank Kier she’s still alive. Mark is carrying enough guilt to say nothing as she and Milchick leave.

At the MDR cubes, Mark sneaks Ricken’s book into the bathroom. “My failure to break into the literary world in my 20s,” Mark reads, “was devastating, yet it taught me a vital lesson: that it was not me that was wrong, but literature itself. And that to find my place in the world, I would first have to break it entirely.” Day after day, Mark reads from the book, captivated by the short, seemingly profound phrases: “What separates man from machine is that machines cannot think for themselves. Also they are made of metal.” “A good person will follow the rules. A great person will follow himself.”

Cobel’s office. Graner returns Petey’s chip to Cobel. Analysis has shown Petey was fully reintegrated. He suggests celebration, and she just stares at him. She’ll want to wait to tell the Board, he suggests, especially after Helly. When she still says nothing, he realizes she didn’t tell the Board about Helly’s suicide attempt. Cobel tells him to analyze the data and figure out who it was who performed the reintegration. She wants to provide all the data to the Board at once.

Evening. Mark leaves work to discover dozens of messages from Ricken on his cell phone: Devon is in labor. He drives out to the birthing cabin, arriving just as Alexa is leaving. He’s awkward, but clearly pleased to see her; they have a stiff but cordial conversation. He apologizes for their date, and she tells him it’s fine, and says Devon is doing well. She says there’s time yet, and Ricken is “doing this thing where he cries over her,” so she thought she’d give them some privacy. She leaves, and Mark goes in.

Ricken is, indeed, crying over Devon, curled up next to her on a bed, rubbing her stomach. “I just don’t want to be like my father,” he says, as she rubs his back, somewhat absently. “I know, baby,” she says. “It’s good you’re getting it out now.” Ricken sits up as Mark enters, and he and Devon welcome him. He calls the cabin “cozy,” and Devon asks if he saw the one next door, which she refers to as “psychotically expensive.” “It’s just fat cats making fat kittens,” Ricken says, settling back next to her.

Devon winces, a contraction beginning; both she and Ricken get up, and she bends over on the bed, supporting herself with her elbows. Mark stands next to her, wondering what to do, and Ricken tells him to quickly tell a secret, because “the fetus is drawn to clear air.” Devon tells Ricken now is not the time, but he says “It’s fine, I’ll start,” and tells Mark he’s hurt that Mark hasn’t acknowledged his gift of the book.

Mark tells him he never received the gift, and Ricken entirely forgets about Devon’s contraction, alarmed that someone stole a pre-release copy. Mark is hovering over Devon, hands on her back, making sure she’s all right; the contraction finishes, and Ricken pays enough attention to check in with her. Devon says she’s going out to get some coffee. Mark and Ricken are left alone, and Ricken recruits Mark into helping him “set up the room.” He asks Mark to help him hang kelp, and when Mark asks why, he says, “Do you really want me to explain it?”

Devon wanders to the luxurious cabin next door and spots a young woman–very pregnant, wearing a white satin robe–through the window. She pleads for coffee, and the woman in white lets her in. Devon introduces herself; the woman in white is called Gabby. She’s quiet, a little misty, but friendly enough. Devon says her husband is driving her crazy and her brother is depressing her. Gabby asks if this is Devon’s first; this is her third. She says she’s naming him William. Devon says “Three kiddos. I’m so fucking scared of ruining one child.” Gabby says she has a lot of help.

Back in Devon and Ricken’s cabin, Mark is helping Ricken hang kelp from a line strung around the room’s perimeter. Ricken is still processing the theft of his book, opining that if the thief reads the book, it’ll probably change his life, maybe even make him turn himself in. He tells Mark he knows the last time he was in a medical facility it was for Gemma, and Mark expresses some skepticism that the cabin counts as a “medical facility.” Ricken says, with practiced passive-aggressiveness, that giving the baby Gemma’s name as a middle name would have been such a lovely tribute, but “I understand you were unable to be comfortable with it.” Mark says, quietly but firmly, “Your kid deserves her own name, without some…big, feely baggage.” Ricken looks as if he hadn’t thought of it that way before.

Ricken is dozing when Devon returns with her coffee. She lies down on the bed next to Mark and tells him “I made friends with the richest lady in baby camp.” She says Gabby was quiet but nice, as well as “cute”–she tells Mark she should send him up to meet her. He says he imagines she’s spoken for. Devon suggests Alexa might go out with him again, but he’s pretty sure she wouldn’t. Another contraction starts, and Devon asks if she can squeeze his hand. They lean over the bed from opposite sites, Mark holding her hand, and he asks, half-joking, if she needs him to tell a secret. When she says yes, he says “I kinda think Lumon may be up to something.” “What, like with your paychecks?” He says no, he’s just been hearing “stuff.” She asks who he’s been talking to, and he reminds her of the businessman he spied in her back yard.

Her contraction gets stronger, and she yells. Ricken wakes up, and Mark goes to get Alexa. Mark sits outside on a dock by a lake, watching the sky grow lighter with the dawn, as Devon shouts and swears her way through a safe and successful birth. Mark thinks of Petey’s cell phone, and the blocked calls; he remembers Petey looking him in the eye before he fell down dead.

Back at Lumon, Milchick is preparing Mark for Helly’s return. Helly’s arrival this day will be her first conscious experience since the hanging. He tells Mark it’s important his eyes are kind.

Milchick leaves Mark by the elevator. When it opens, Helly is on the floor, arms and legs braced against the walls, hyperventilating. Mark crouches next to her, reassuring her she’s okay, and widens his eyes into some forced horror-clown parody that passes for kindness. Helly just stares at him, regaining her equanimity.

At MDR, he tells her all the dangerous items have been put away, so she should be safe. Unsure of what to say, he tells her it’s okay if she wants to focus on happy numbers for a while. She bursts out laughing at that, but Mark doesn’t join her. He asks if she wants to talk about it, and she walks away from him.

Irving suggests they hide inspirational handbook quotes for her to find. Dylan says she just needs to start earning perks. Mark, listening to them chat, surreptitiously pulls out Ricken’s book, only to have Ms. Casey come up behind him. He starts when he sees her, and she says she’s there, on Cobel’s orders, to observe Helly. She’s to discourage further suicide attempts, and, “upon request,” is authorized to perform a hug. Dylan pops up from this and asks if he could have one of those; she says “No,” in her tranquil voice. He nods and sits down.

Helly is leaning over her computer keyboard, Ms. Casey sitting a meter away from her, a stenography pad in her lap. Helly isn’t working, but is drifting; she pulls out an eyelash, and turns to find Ms. Casey making a note. Ms. Casey asks if she’s upset, and reminds her she can request a hug; Helly says she’s good.

At his desk, Irving is struggling to stay awake. The numbers on his monitors blur; a drop of the black, shiny tar drops from the ceiling onto his hand. Surreptitiously he looks up at the ceiling to see a shadow flowing over the lights; he pushes back from his desk as tar begins streaming down. Mark pushes his chair back, and Irving turns to look at him; his left eye is dripping with tar.

Irving jumps to his feet, startled, and all the tar is gone. Mark asks if Irving is all right, and Irving says he needs to go to O&D “to seek Burt’s counsel.” Mark glances at Ms. Casey before asking Irving to make a copy of Burt’s map in case they have to come after him.

Irving heads to the copier with the map Burt drew on the back of a small Optics and Design card; but instead of copies, the copier spits out a number of large-format color copies of a painting. The painting shows a dozen people, all in suits and slacks, some with knives, many bleeding. The attackers are all wearing green Optics and Design access cards; the victims are all wearing blue MDR cards. Irving picks up the copies, horrified, and turns to find Milchick behind him. Milchick apologizes and says his copies went to the wrong machine. Irving wasn’t suppose to see this. Irving asks what they are, and Milchick waits a beat before telling him it’s a joke for Ms. Cobel. Irving asks if it’s the O&D coup that Dylan is always talking about. He asks if it actually happened, and Milchick says of course it didn’t. “Nothing like that could happen here.”

Irving shows Dylan the print in the supply closet. Dylan feels vindicated, but Irving reminds him Milchick denied it ever happened. Dylan points out with seven people, O&D could hurt them quite a bit. Irving wants to ask Burt about it, and Dylan reminds him Burt lied about the size of his department.

Milchick runs across Ms. Cobel in a file room. “You ran a 266 on Irving B?” she asks him. He says he thought it might discourage Irving from spending time with Burt, and asks if he should have consulted her first. She thinks a moment, then says no, it was good initiative on his part. He moves next to her; she’s watching MDR on a monitor. He asks why she has Ms. Casey watching Helly. She says she’s trying something new with Ms. Casey. “Keep it between us.” Milchick looks deeply uncomfortable.

In the bathroom, Helly rinses her hands and rubs compulsively at her throat, which is marked with a bruise from the extension cord. When she emerges, Ms. Casey, waiting anxiously outside the bathroom door, asks her to describe her time in the restroom. Before Helly can answer, Mark spills a cup of coffee over a stack of Ms. Casey’s spare notebooks. He apologizes profusely. Ms. Casey tells Helly she needs to accompany her to the supply room; Mark says he’ll watch Helly while Ms. Casey is gone.

Once Ms. Casey leaves, Mark says he never showed Helly where they keep the extra pen caps. Helly’s not interested, and he says she’s right; they shouldn’t go anywhere without Ms. Casey. Properly baited, Helly agrees to go with him. “Be careful out there, boss,” Dylan says as they’re leaving. “Weird energy about.”

Ms. Casey is rushing back with a ludicrous number of notebooks in her arms. She passes a conference room, where Burt is pacing back and forth, talking to himself. She stops to look at him, then keeps going.

Mark asks Helly sincerely how she’s doing. She says she’s really bad, and thanks him for noticing. He leads her down a dark corridor; the lights come on as they approach. He opens a glass door to a large room, the carpet covered in plastic, tarps over groups of cubicles. He moves between two groups of cubicles and pulls out of his pocket his attempt to recreate Petey’s map. He suggests they can work on it together, and she hands it back to him, saying she’s not his new Petey. She walks off, the lights coming on and turning off in her wake, and he follows.

Ms. Casey arrives back at MDR, alarmed to find Mark and Helly missing. She heads out after them, notebooks still in hand, but stops before she leaves to tell Irving that Burt is in the conference room.

Irving goes to find Burt, and asks what he’s doing there. Burt hems and haws a bit, then says he was looking for Irving because he hadn’t heard from him. Before Irving can respond, Dylan catches up to him and pulls the conference room door shut, tying the handles with his belt and locking Burt in. Both Irving and Burt start shouting at him. Dylan insists Burt was attacking, and reminds Irving of the painting. Dylan asks Burt about the six people he’s been hiding from them. Irving, overwhelmed, starts shouting for a manager.

Mark catches up with Helly, although at this time they’re totally lost. She stops and says “I told her I wanted out and she told me I wasn’t a person.” She starts walking in the other direction. Mark tells her not to focus on her outie. He brushes her arm and she stops; he asks what she wants, in here.

“What I want,” Helly says, “is for her to wake up while the life drains out of her and to know it was me who did it.”

Before Mark can answer, there’s a strange noise, like the cry of a baby. They both stare down the hallway, confused.

Irving returns to the conference room, saying he checked the whole storage wing and couldn’t find Mark or Helly. Dylan says O&D has probably already killed them. “Irving, what,” says Burt, thoroughly confused. Somewhat formally, Irving asks if Burt knows where Mark and Helly are. Irving says no, he was just coming to see Irving. He says he knows he lied about it being only him and Felicia. Irving asks why he didn’t go straight to MDR instead of stopping at the conference room, and Burt says he didn’t know why Irving hadn’t been back, so he was practicing a joke to say when he got there. Dylan says to recite the joke, and Irving says he hadn’t worked it out yet. Irving asks why he lied about the number of people in his department, and Burt says his people don’t trust MDR. He says there are old stories, silly ones. They say all of MDR has pouches carrying “a larval offspring” that will leap out and attack if anyone gets too close.

Dylan, with no self-awareness at all, says “That’s fucking psycho.”

Irving says it’s a joke, of course, but people are strange, and the sentiment remains. He says the theory is the larva eventually eats and replaces them. “Which would,” he says to Irving, segueing nicely into flirting, “solve the mystery of your youthful energy.”

Burt laughs; Irving smiles and looks down; Dylan looks between the two of them, incredulous. He pulls Irving aside and asks if he’s interested in Burt. “You disapprove?” Irving asks. Dylan says he does, and Irving admits the handbook forbids such relationships. “Rat-fuck the handbook,” Dylan says. O&D are all dangerous, and it’s not safe.

Mark and Helly follow the noise until they come across a room full of…baby goats, climbing over hay bales. There’s a man in a business suit sitting in a folding chair, a kid in his arms, feeding it with a baby bottle. “They’re not ready,” he insists desperately. “You can’t take them yet. It isn’t time!” He tells them to leave, and they retreat.

Dylan is following Irving and Burt back to O&D. Burt’s hands are tied behind his back with Dylan’s belt. Irving tells Burt about the painting, entitled The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design. Burt says there’s no painting by that name. He asks what O&D was doing in the painting, and Irving says it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t think it was real. “I’ll have to confer with my larva, of course,” he says, and laughs. Behind them, Dylan shakes his head.

At O&D, Irving unties Burt, and Burt invites them in. As Burt is showing Irving a painting called The Courtship of Kier and Imogene, pointing out that handbook notwithstanding Kier fell in love with a woman he worked with, Dylan is nosing around the paintings. He finds the very painting Irving showed him earlier, and confronts Burt, calling him a liar for saying he’d never heard of it.

Irving takes the painting, and says it’s not the same–in this painting, the attackers are wearing MDR badges, and the victims are O&D. Burt says it’s called The MacroData Refinement Calamity. Dylan wonders why there would be two versions of the same painting, but the others have no answer.

Mark and Helly continue their wandering, speculating about the goats. Mark stops and turns to Helly. He knows she doesn’t want to be there, but he’s glad she is. “And I’m sorry,” he adds, “that this is the best I can do right now.” Helly, moved by his sincerity, offers to clean up the map for him. “Your drawing is shit,” she says, and just like that they are allies.

Ms. Casey stumbles across them, notebooks still in her hands. Mark says they were just heading back, and she verifies they are both unhurt. They reassure her, and she’s palpably relieved. “I’m glad,” she says. “I was scared.” Mark apologizes, and with deep gravity, Ms. Casey says “I forgive you.” The three of them head back to MDR…with Cobel watching on a monitor.

Graner interrupts her and asks if she’s going to do anything about this. “The surest way to tame a prisoner is to let him believe he’s free,” she says. He asks how many more departments she’s going to let them find, and she says she’ll have a word with Mark. He tells her “upstairs” won’t take too kindly to this, and she reminds him to find out who hacked Petey’s chip.

Burt leads Irving and Dylan into the back room Irving had inadvertently discovered. He introduces them to his team as “friends.”


So, here’s my take on Helly’s state of mind: she is so enraged, so absolutely consumed with the injustice of it all, that her suicide attempt was not a self-destructive act, but the only way she could think of to explain to her outie exactly what a horrific, terrible person she is. And she’s so angry that her own death is actually irrelevant to her.

Helly challenges everything. She takes nothing at face value. Not acting–just accepting–was never on the table for her. She may die, but dammit, she’ll take out that other bitch at the same time.

Mark’s journey through this event is fascinating. He’s so relieved when he discovers she’ll be all right, but incredulous when he learns she’ll be coming back to work. Cobel tells him it’s his fault, and while he probably believes that, on some level, it’s maybe the first time he allows himself to recognize how truly fucked up the situation is.

InnieMark leans on Ricken’s book, whose facile philosophy provides him with baby steps toward self-determination. And when he deceives Ms. Casey so he can have a real conversation with Helly, it’s revolutionary. It’s also an apology, which Helly eventually recognizes: he knows how messed up things are there, but he also knows better than she does how little they can do about it. Whether or not he believes he’s fighting the same fight she is, she’s realized he’s on her side.

Speaking of allies–the only reason Milchick’s trick with Irving doesn’t work is both Irving and Burt can’t believe the other is up to anything nefarious. Yes, it’s a bit romance-novel-y, having them both be trustworthy simply because of the mutual attraction; but although Irving pushes Burt for answers about his lies, they’re both direct and forthcoming. Burt is far more pragmatic than Irving, who’s unsettled by breaking the rules: by pointing out how Kier met his wife, Burt is telling Irving there’s more to Kier’s philosophy than literal interpretations of the handbook. He’s giving Irving an avenue to preserve his belief while still allowing him to pursue their romantic relationship. He’s a kind person, interpreting his holy book the way he must to allow him to follow his heart.

But also, isn’t Dylan marvelous? Angry, flinty, utterly unaware of the irony of accusing Burt of being ridiculous when he thought similar things of O&D. He’s worried for himself, sure; but he’s also worried for Irving. He and Irving might snark at each other, but Irving is family, and you don’t mess with Dylan’s family.

In OutieLand, Devon has had her baby, and met an interesting neighbor. We get some wonderful bits with Ricken and Mark, and it’s interesting to note that Ricken is clear Mark doesn’t like him much. He’s also clear Mark thinks most of his beliefs are silly; Mark helps him hang the kelp, but Ricken spares him the explanation of why it’s there. His response to Mark’s reasoning around not naming the baby after Gemma is revealing as well; he looks as if the baggage never occurred to him. It probably didn’t; Ricken lives very much in the moment, focused entirely on himself. But he’s a good enough person underneath all that to see that maybe, just maybe, Mark was doing something kind for the baby, rather than taking something away.

Dear Alexa: Don’t. Just don’t. He’s a train wreck. You know it. Stay. Away.

So there’s a lot of character stuff in this episode, but the larger What The Fuck Is Going On narrative isn’t advanced all that much. The severed floor is shown to be weirder than we thought; Cobel is sneaking around hiding stuff from her bosses; Milchick is fucking with people, and one still gets the sense that he understands office politics better than Cobel does. And Ms. Casey is…something different. Cobel is “trying something new” with her, and that’s enough to make Milchick very, very wary. Ms. Casey doesn’t seem like the others: she’s far more naive. Simpler, in a way. Reminds me a little of Gabby from the birthing retreat: kind, quiet, and a little bit lost.

Next week: Here come some consequences. Also, Alexa doesn’t listen to me. Sigh.

4 thoughts on “SEVERANCE S1E5: The Grim Barbarity Of Optics and Design

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