Had the show’s obsessive fans gotten to the end of that episode, which is now out, and not known there would be another season to resolve what happens in those last moments, there would have been mayhem. Mass protests. Marches. Hysteria. Boycotts against Apple and all its products. My MacBook would be out the window and floating in the Hudson by now. (OK, there would be a bunch of angry tweets, probably. But still!)
In other words, that is how you do a season finale.
That is how you thrill the show’s loyal viewers, who have spent the season combing episodes for clues and Easter eggs, then taking to Reddit to debate theories.
You reveal some of the show’s biggest mysteries, and you make those reveals shocking. You build up to a breaking point, one that makes it clear that what just happened could possibly upend the entire universe of the show. But you also leave enough up in the air so that, when the screen cuts to black, the viewer realizes that they haven’t breathed in about three minutes and exhales with a banshee-wail of aaaaahhhhh!
And, most of all, do the thing that so few series these days seem to accomplish: Make it clear that every moment of the series—every character choice, camera angle, line of dialogue, and twist—was supposed to be there. That you knew where you were going the whole time. That there was a plan, and the end to that plan was going to blow everyone away. (Then, for the love of God and for the safety of this country, make sure everyone knows there is going to be a season two.)
A waffle party is in order for everyone involved.
(Warning: Spoilers for the season finale of Severance follow.)
When we last saw our severed friends in last week’s penultimate episode, “What’s for Dinner?” they were on the brink of chaos.
If you’ve read this far into this piece, you likely know the premise of the series and what the rules are of this sort of sci-fi, upsettingly familiar, and definitely disturbing-in-its-resonance universe.
Lumon, a massive corporation/possible cult that appears to be founded on Scientology-esque principles for living a better life, developed technology that allows willing participants to surgically sever their brains. When they are at work for Lumon, they have no memory of their home life, and vice versa.
It’s presented by Lumon as something not just revolutionary, but altruistic: a way to achieve work-life balance, and even to deal with trauma. Adam Scott’s Mark, for example, has the severance procedure after the death of his wife. Death-ish of his wife? So much to talk about there… But in any case, it’s obviously far more nefarious than that: a means for a company to imprison unquestioning and loyal employees.
The North Star behind any of this working is that the work self (the “Innie”) and the home self (the “Outtie”) can never know anything about each other.
So perhaps the most consequential event of the series happened when floor manger Milchick (Travell Tillman) employs what’s known as “Overtime Contingency” in order to switch Dylan (Zach Cherry) from Outtie mode to Innie mode while he’s at home in order to interrogate him—something that goes terribly wrong when Dylan’s son barges in. Now Innie Dylan is aware that Outtie Dylan has at least one child.
That misstep, exposing Dylan to his kid, tees up the key events of the finale, “The We We Are.”
The refiners—Mark, Dylan, Helly (Britt Lower), and Irving (John Turturro)—decide to plot a way to perform the “Overtime Contingency” on themselves, switching over to their Innies while they’re in their home lives in order to seek help exposing Lumon and the inhumanity of severance. Dylan volunteers to stay behind at the office to perform the task, and the other three will be the ones “woken up” in the real world.
The first audience gasp (let’s just assume that every time I gasped, shrieked, grit my teeth, or hugged my pillow, everyone else watching did, too) happens in the very first seconds of the episode.
What a genius move to have Mark wake up while mid-conversation with Patricia Arquette, who, at work, is his domineering boss Ms. Cobel, but at home is his busybody next-door neighbor Mrs. Selvig. Innie Mark doesn’t realize that the woman he’s talking to isn’t his boss in this context, but playing the part of Mrs. Selvig. It disorients him as he, while at a book party for his brother-in-law, tries to piece together what his home life is like, and why Ms. Cobel is there.
It’s heartbreaking and stressful to watch him try to figure everything out. At first he thinks his sister Devon’s (Jen Tullock) baby is his own, not his nephew. When he finally realizes Devon is his sister and that they have a close relationship, he knows she’s who he should confide in about everything going on at Lumon.
As Devon keeps brushing him off because she has party-hosting and baby-raising duties to do, Mark tries to evade Ms. Cobel-as-Mrs. Selvig, who is suspicious that something is going on with him. You just about have a panic attack while watching. We keep cutting back to Dylan, who is struggling to keep the “Overtime Contingency” going. The episode is, essentially, a 40-minute ticking time bomb.
The stress level explodes through the ceiling when Mark, who doesn’t yet know that Ms. Cobel has been posing as Mrs. Selvig, casually calls her “Ms. Cobel,” tipping her off that this is the Innie version of Mark. I screamed so loud in horror, like I had just seen a ghost, that I think it scared off my apartment’s actual ghost.
Meanwhile, with confirmation of what the refiners are up to, Ms. Cobel speeds off in her car to get to the Lumon headquarters to end the Overtime Contingency before everything is exposed—perhaps, it seems at first, with Devon’s baby in the car, at which point I paused the episode to retrieve my prescription of Xanax.
Of course, Irving and Helly have also woken up as Innies.
Irving is in the middle of one of his creepy paintings, which turns out to be of the cursed hallway where Lumon employees are marched down to an elevator to be “retired.” We last saw the hallway when Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) tearfully walked down it, just after we learn—in one of the most stunning twists of the season—that she is actually Mark’s wife, who is supposed to be dead.
Irving finds in his apartment a literal chest of information about Lumon employees, and discovers the address of his brief in-office paramor, Burt (Christopher Walken). Shaken, he decides to drive to his house. When he arrives, he sees that Outtie Burt has a husband, and my heart felt as if someone with sandpaper and thumbtacks glued to their fingers had decided to give it a massage.
Then there’s the most surprising reveal of all: Helly, whose attempts to escape her severed life included a suicide attempt, wakes up at a Lumon gala, where her Outtie is being celebrated as the keynote speaker.
It turns out she’s a member of the Egan family, and volunteered to be severed because she believes so much in the cult-like mission of the company. All of the unsettling old favorites are there and in black-tie: Natalie (Sydney Cole Alexander), the liaison at Lumon who does the mysterious “board’s” bidding; Angelo Arteta (Ethan Flower), the Lumon-funded politician campaigning to bring severance to the masses; and his wife Gabby (Nora Dale), who Devon had met at the birthing retreat and who had appeared to have been severed so as to not remember childbirth.
Britt Lower is so good in this episode, flitting between the shock and devastation of Helly learning who she is as an Outtie with the nerves that come as she realizes that she’s not just about to expose the company to anyone, but at a gala, in front of her Lumon-head father, where she was meant to extol its virtues.
That’s a lot of plot description, but also barely scratches the surface of the gloriously complex web that starts to untangle in the finale, as threads from earlier in the season are finally pulled at and unknotted.
But it all leads to the intense final sequence when, after the episode-long lead-up, the trio emotionally unleashes in the last seconds before Milchick finds Dylan and disconnects the Overtime Contingency.
Irving runs up to Burt’s front door and starts hysterically banging and crying for help. Helly reveals the truth about severance—”We’re prisoners down there!”—as security runs up to stop her. And Mark sees a photo of “Mrs. Casey” in his sister’s office, and realizes that, not only is his wife alive, but he had been working with her at Lumon in his Innie life and had no idea. He runs out to find Devon, and screams, “She’s alive!” Then the screen cuts to black. Overtime Contingency is over.
There has never been a greater finale cut-to-black. The Sopranos wishes.
We talk so often about “sticking the landing” when shows, like Severance, accrue an increasingly obsessed audience week after week. When fans become so invested in the narrative and its mysteries, creating any satisfying conclusion can be an impossible task. Solve things too easily, or in a way that seems at odds with what viewers “wanted,” and you’re skewered. But leave things too open-ended and face the outrage of those who felt they were owed answers.
That was a helluva cliffhanger, and if we lived in a world in which that was the last time we ever see this show, I’d want to be severed from my memories of ever having watched it in the first place.
But there were so many brilliant puzzle pieces from the season that finally came together, revealing just how meticulously plotted everything has been, that the series accomplished the miracle of both: juicy reveals while leaving us wanting more. Two things, that, in a great episode of TV, should never be severed.
For more, listen to ‘Severance’ star Adam Scott on The Last Laugh podcast.