If you haven’t been watching Severance on Apple TV+ you’re missing out on one of the most stylish, quirky, and perplexing shows in streaming right now. You should also get caught up before you read on because there will be spoilers ahead for the season so far. But if you have been watching, you’ve probably enjoyed speculating about what’s really going at Lumon as much as we have. In advance of the finale, titled “The We We Are,” we’ve gathered all the evidence and clues to come up with some theories to answer the biggest questions we have about what the hell is going on down on that severed floor and the motivations of the characters, inside and out. See if they match your own. And we’ll all see how much proves to be true when Season 1 comes to a close on April 8.
What is up with Ms. Cobel’s obsession with Mark?
Oh, and it’s an obsession all right. She moved in next door to him. She maneuvers to become his sister’s breastfeeding consultant (WTF?). She severed his wife (and possibly faked her death)! When she gets fired, he’s the first person she goes to. She can’t stay away from him.
Theories and Speculation
The obvious answer is it has to do with Gemma, and this pretty twisted experiment of putting a severed husband in the same building as his “dead” and severed wife. But why is Cobel shadowing him outside of Lumon and pretending to be his dotty neighbor Mrs. Selvig? She steals a candle from Gemma’s craft box in Mark’s basement and later we see “Ms. Casey” using it in a wellness session. It’s as if she’s constantly trying to test both of their memories. She even asks Devon if her brother has mentioned still seeing his wife anywhere. That’s quite a tightrope she’s walking, and she seems to get off on it. Is it just thrill seeking? Or does she have a deeper personal connection to Mark? Maybe he’s just a valuable asset she doesn’t want to lose. It seems a lot of trouble to go to for one employee, but there’s evidence to support this. Dylan tells Helly that the special etched portrait on Mark’s desk was a gift from the company for some early success that changed the way they refine data. Could it be that simple?
What is going on with Helly R and her outie?
Helly’s innie wants to get out of Lumon as desperately as her outie wants her to stay in, and they are both pretty mean about it, too. Helly’s foiled escapes, suicide attempt, and her reaction to her co-workers’ learned helplessness forces viewers to ask the existential questions hovering around the series. What is identity without memory? Are the “innie” workers, who aren’t free to make their own choices, slaves to their outie’s wishes? Is that ethical? And why would anyone choose to become, not to mention remain, severed? This place sucks. Why is outie Helly so determined to ignore her innie’s request to leave.
Theories and Speculation
After reviewing the episodes, it’s pretty clear that Helly has some personal connection to Lumon. Think of how excited Mr. Milchick was at her orientation, that she’d decided to “join them.” Mr. Milchick is constantly documenting the department’s activities with his camera, but the only photos he takes are of Helly or have Helly in them. Cobel gets fired because she hid Helly’s elevator “accident” from the board, which means Helly has to be pretty important to them. She’s not just another innie. I smell a PR stunt. We’ve seen Mark’s home life, and some of Irving’s too, but the only clue we have to Helly’s outie’s life is a quick glimpse of her dressed up and drinking champagne at the end of the most recent episode, “What’s For Dinner?” I’m very much looking forward to seeing innie Helly’s reaction to being at that party.
How did Gemma Scott become Ms. Casey?
It seems Mark’s dead wife isn’t quite as dead as he thinks. His whole reason for working at Lumon was to escape his grief over her passing, at least during the workday. But now that we’ve seen her face in photographs we know his innie actually knows her as Lumon’s wellness counselor. Was her death staged? Did she volunteer for severance or was it forced on her? Does she even have an outie identity anymore?
Theories and Speculation
From the way Mr. Milchick and Ms. Cobel treat her after she’s relieved of her position, Ms. Casey is a work in progress. Some have speculated that she’s Gemma’s twin or a robot, but that doesn’t fit with the way Cobel has been putting her and Mark together hoping to see evidence of some spark of recognition. After one last wellness session proves unfruitful (to Cobel’s clear disappointment), she orders Milchick to take Ms. Casey back down to the “testing floor.” Petey mentioned to outie Mark that he suspected there were severed workers who never left the floor. You can also see three little houses drawn on his map next to the words “some people might live here.” Gemma/Ms. Casey must be one those permanent residents (after all, they couldn’t risk letting her outside where she could be recognized) who no longer has an outie identity at all. How did she find herself in that position? Maybe she has some connection to Lumon we don’t know about yet. Or she was offered some incentive to become a test subject. Lumon has seemingly endless resources and ways to manipulate people into doing their bidding.
What are the other protocols Lumon has access to?
We know that the “overtime contingency” is an emergency protocol that allows the company to switch a severed employee from their outie identity to their innie away from the severed floor. The other functions we can see on the screen include “Beehive,” “Branch Transfer,” “Clean Slate,” “Elephant,” “Freeze Frame,” “Glasgow,” “Goldfish,” “Lullaby,” and “Open House.”
Theories and Speculation
These other functions hint at all the different ways Lumon can potentially control anyone who has a company chip in their head. At this point we can only speculate what each of these do based on their names. “Clean Slate” implies a full memory wipe (like what happened to Gemma maybe?), while “Elephant” could allow a worker to access a specific memory, and “Goldfish” could activate a short-term memory only mode (as well as being a nod to fellow Apple TV+ show Ted Lasso). “Glasgow” is a little bit more obscure, but it could be a reference the “Glasgow Scale” used in medicine to indicate the level of responsiveness of a coma patient. One thing is for sure, though. There is a lot that Lumon is not telling its severed employees about its power over them. And we still don’t know what happens to employees who leave the company via resignation or retirement, like Burt. Is the chip in their heads left in tact, to be activated at some point in the future should the company feel its necessary?
Speaking of which, has something like this already happened to Irving, who obsessively paints the hallway to the testing floor when he’s not at work? Does he have a prior connection to Burt he doesn’t know about? It would be an ironic twist if the proof of emotional connection beyond severance Cobel was looking for between Mark and Gemma was right there in front of her in the form of Burt and Irving all along.
What the hell are the microdata refiners doing anyway?
This, here, is the crux of the whole series. What the hell is this job? What does the company do? And why is it so secretive? All they know is they are processing time-sensitive files with obscure names by evenly distributing numbers that evoke certain emotional responses into boxes with categories marked WO, FR, MA and DR. It doesn’t seem to be highly skilled work, but it’s also not something that can be automated by machines.
Theories and Speculation
Most sharp-eyed viewers have already worked out that the abbreviations represent the four tempers the company’s revered founder Kier famously tamed: Woe, Frolic, Malice, and Dread. Some have also pointed out that they correspond to the four refiners themselves: Mark is Woe, Dylan is Frolic, Helly is Malice (replacing Petey, which also fits), and Irving is Dread. And don’t get me started on the tempers’ surprise cameo at the so-called waffle party. But this doesn’t explain what the numbers are or what they do.
One popular theory is that they’re not actually doing anything. The entire job could be part of an experiment to demonstrate the benefits and effectiveness of the severence process. The show has been hinting that Lumon wants to go wide with severance as more than an in-house procedure. They’re looking to market it as a product to be sold to the general public or other companies. If so, MDR could be the maintenance phase of their beta testing. Severance is a form of mind control, after all. They would want to prove that it will last. For more evidence, take the woman at Devon’s birthing retreat who seemed to have had a short term severance that covered her time in labor. And she just happens to be married to the senator who’s the leading political proponent of severance.
But there’s also information out there that could counter the idea that MDR is a harmless exercise. Apple released a companion book (a bit of a misleading description since it’s only 43 pages long) mid-season called The Lexington Letter, which is full of potential clues to puzzle together. It’s essentially a “tell-all” letter from a former severed employee named Peggy to a newspaper in an attempt to expose what Lumon has been up to. Like our heroes, Peggy was a macrodata refiner (another branch, another state) who found a way to communicate to her outie through coded messages in a secret language from her/their childhood (thus eluding the symbol detectors). One of the big takeaways of the letter is her horrified discovery that within minutes of her innie completing a file called “Lexington” a bomb exploded in the real world, destroying a truck that belonged to a Lumon competitor and killing several people. That’s a hell of a coincidence. Don’t expect any clear answers in the book (just more questions), but it’s a quick read and worth a look if you really want to dig into the lore. Plus, it’s free!
Of course, I don’t expect there’s going to be enough time to cover all of this in one episode. Which is why the announcement this week that Severance has been renewed for a second season came as welcome news. Now the only problem is the long wait to find out the rest of the answers.