SPOILER ALERT: The following story contains details from the season finale of Apple TV+’s Severance.
For Lumon macrodata refiners Mark (Adam Scott), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Helly (Britt Lower) and Irving (John Turturro), the Season 1 finale of Apple TV+’s Severance is full of revelations.
The episode, titled “The We We Are,” picks up right where the prior episode left off, watching as Dylan prepares to pull the control room switches that will bridge the consciousnesses of his colleagues’ “innies” with their “outie” bodies, allowing them to glean a better understanding of who they really are outside of work, in hopes that they’ll one day be able to escape the prison that is their professional life.
When Dylan executes the innies’ plan back at Lumon HQ, Mark is at a reading of his brother-in-law Ricken’s (Michael Chernus) book, The You You Are, with his boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) hovering around him—still posing as his harmless neighbor, Mrs. Selvig. And suddenly, he’s disoriented, slowly coming to recognize that Cobel and Selvig are one in the same, though he’s at the same time not entirely sure who he is, who the other people around him are, and what his relationship to them is, trying to put the pieces of that puzzle together.
Following Dylan’s execution of the OTC, Irving awakens in his apartment to find himself crafting creepy, black paintings that we recognize as being to do with Lumon, somehow emerging from the subconscious of his bifurcated mind. As punk music blasts in the room, he learns that he has a dog named Radar, and finds a picture of his father that his “outie” had hidden away, along with his navy uniform.
Then, there’s Helly, who finds herself at a gala—there running into faces familiar to viewers including Lumon employee Natalie (Sydney Cole Alexander), pro-severance politician Angelo Arteta (Ethan Flower) and his wife Gabby (Nora Dale), who claimed not to recognize Mark’s sister Devon (Jen Tullock), after meeting her at her birthing lodge—most likely because she, too, is severed. The shocking revelation here is that Helly is, in fact, Helena Eagan—daughter of James (Michael Siberry) and granddaughter of Lumon founder Kier. At the gala, she’s expected to give a speech touting the benefits of severance, even if the procedure and the life that ensued drove her innie to a suicide attempt.
Back at the book reading, Cobel starts to suspect that something is off with Mark, as he hides in a back room of Ricken and Devon’s house, questioning why his boss is at this party, as he learns that he has a sister, a brother-in-law, a niece named Eleanor and a wife named Gemma who died in a car crash, leading to his decision to get severed. Cobel’s suspicions are confirmed when Mark accidentally refers to her as “Mrs. Cobel”—and things get tense when Devon steps away for an important conversation with Mark, leaving her baby with the woman she knows only as Selvig.
Mark tells Devon everything about his experience at Lumon, with the pair agreeing that the company needs to be investigated, and that reaching out to Ricken’s reporter contacts, rather than the police, might be the best way to get that done. When Devon realizes Selvig is actually Cobel, she races out of the room to find that she is gone, concerned that she has taken her baby with her—though this doesn’t end up being the case.
We then cut to Cobel speeding down the road in the dark, calling Milchick (Tramell Tillman) in a panic. He’s not inclined to speak to her, given the fact that she was recently fired by Lumon, but gives her his ear when she reveals that the OTC has been triggered, leaving the MDR innies to roam freely in the outside world. Cobel resolves to “fix” the situation “like I fix everything,” as she sends Milchick to the control room to shut the OTC down.
Unwittingly crossing paths with Cobel out on the road is Irving, who drives to the address of his Lumon love interest, Burt (Christopher Walken), only to come to the heartbreaking realization that he has a romantic partner in the outside world.
Back at the gala, Helly has retreated to the bathroom, while freaking out about the fact that she’s a part of the family behind the evil Lumon. Then, her father James drops in, hinting at his plans to sever the entire world, so that all will be “Kier’s children.” Just as Helly is heading to the stage to give her speech, Cobel arrives and deduces that her innie, too, has been set free. Helly tells her, “I’m going to kill your company,” with Cobel threatening to make her friends at Lumon “suffer” if she fails to play her part in spreading the propaganda that severance is a “kind,” “empathetic” and “transformative” technology that is in the world’s best interest.
Back at Lumon HQ, Milchick finds that Dylan has roped off the door to the control room, trying to convince him to open the door by offering new workplace incentives like paintball and coffee cozies. While Dylan just wants to remember his “f***ing kids” being born, he learns, courtesy of Milchick, that he has two others, with the severed-floor manager offering to tell him all about them if he complies.
When Helly steps to the stage for her speech, she reveals that she is Helena’s innie, rather than Helena herself, and that “everything they told you about severance is a lie,” with workers effectively being “prisoners” subjected to endless torture. Back at the book reading, Mark comes upon a photo of his wife, who he immediately recognizes as Lumon wellness worker Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman)—exclaiming, “She’s alive!” Then, Milchick makes his way into the control room and tackles Dylan, and we cut to black.
Today’s finale was written by series creator Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller. Arquette and Scott produce the series from Endeavor Content, with Erickson, Mark Friedman, Chris Black, John Cameron and Andrew Colville exec producing alongside Stiller, Nicky Weinstock and Jackie Cohn for Red Hour Productions. In conversation with Deadline ahead of the episode’s airing, and the series’ Season 2 renewal announced on Wednesday, Stiller and Erickson broke down the events of the finale, discussing Lumon’s “alpha plan” and more to be explored going forward.
DEADLINE: Dan, you wrote the pilot for Severance on spec more than 5 years ago. How much did the Season 1 finale end up aligning with how you envisioned the show might play out, if it were to get made?
DAN ERICKSON: Well, it’s funny. It was definitely a long, many-step process getting it here. When Ben first read this, it was just a pilot…something that I had submitted largely as a sample script. In the back of my heart, I hoped that maybe somebody would make it someday, but it wasn’t until I sat down with Ben and he was like, “No, let’s make it. There’s something here,” that that really even occurred to me as a legitimate possibility. So, we sat down and worked through the pilot, and Ben was always very drawn, I think, to the human side of the story, and this quieter, melancholy idea of this man who would choose to do this to himself and his own brain. In talking through it, we really focused on the character element of it, and then also with Ben and Jackie Cohn and Nicky Weinstock at Red Hour, we went through and created a rough idea of the season—of where it all might go, where it might end. Then, we had a writers’ room where we fleshed all that out, and then Ben and I worked on it even further.
So, this idea of having the last episode be what it is, in my original version, it was in there, but that wasn’t necessarily the end of the season. But as we talked through it, we realized emotionally, dramatically, it really is the perfect point to end it. So, that’s what we did. To me, this season was always about the breaking down of the barriers between these two worlds. In the beginning of the season, [episodes are] a bit more segmented, in terms of the innie and the outie worlds, where I think in the pilot, [the] first half is basically all innie, and then second half is basically all outie. We wanted that barrier to get muddier and blurrier as the season went on, so it made sense that the breach of that barrier was the end of this part of the story. It was literally the characters climbing out of their little hole they were in and into this new world, and having to contend with that and figure out what to do.
BEN STILLER: I would just say in the process, because it was a long process, Dan was really tireless. He really is always open to exploring his own ideas, and he has an amazing mind, where he will go to places and really thinks things out in such detail, to the point where he’s basically written almost all of The You You Are. [Laughs] Dan has a really almost inexhaustible facility to create these ideas and go different directions, and we talked about it. But ultimately, what I really responded to, and what Dan and I really were connecting on, was this idea that Mark is a guy who is trying to become a whole person. He’s set up this concept of a guy who’s split, and ultimately, this show is heading towards somehow Mark connecting with himself, being whole. So, that’s the overall idea of it, over the course of [however] many seasons.
All of the storylines within that, we talked about slowing things down a little bit, because Dan really had a clear idea of everything that was going on, all these unanswered questions, and we felt like we wanted to hopefully draw the audience in enough and answer enough questions, but also leave unanswered questions that we know we will answer. Part of the fun of the show, I think, is audiences being able to try to fill in for themselves what’s really going on and ask those questions.
DEADLINE: What were the biggest challenges for you, Ben, in directing the finale?
STILLER: I think it was all about fulfilling this idea that Dan had written for the climax of the season saying, “Okay, this is where it’s going to go. These people are going to come out and they’re going to experience the outside world for the first time.” So, it was trying to figure out a way to, stylistically, break every rule that we had set up for the series, in terms of just the visual style of it. We did move the camera a little bit in Episode 7, with the music dance experience, but for the most part [in Season 1], the camera moves that are happening are very rigid. And it was like, “Okay, Episode 9, they’re coming out into the world, they’re experiencing a world they’ve never experienced, so we should feel something we haven’t felt before in the show.” That was where the idea came for the camera always to be moving, and always to be trading off from points of view, figuring out ways to show the characters, but then also show their point of view. So, we were kind of thinking about that the whole time. We didn’t shoot the episode in sequence because we did block shooting for the entire show, so whenever an Episode 9 scene would come up, the idea was to just try to have as many single shots as possible that connected the action, and try to get that feeling of tension, knowing it would sort of be wall-to-wall music and pulsing, and being [with] the innies experiencing this as much as we could.
That was the main idea behind it, and then in editorial, we’re just thinking a lot about how to jump back and forth between the stories, and Geoff Richman, who edited it, we looked at different ways of different language. We came up with this sort of flutter cut idea, this fritzing idea that, in our minds, related to the severance chip, and as a way to intercut between the storylines, too. It was just [coming up with] ideas like that to help tell the story.
ERICKSON: From a character perspective, this really is the episode, to me, where [the macrodata refiners] become a team. That’s the story of the whole season, in a way, but I love the shot right after Dylan goes after Milchick. We see they’re all touching Dylan and holding onto him. To me, you watch that and you just get this sense like, “Oh, they’re a family. Whatever has happened, they’ve evolved and become this unit that cares about each other.” There’s still evolution to come with that, but story-wise, I think that’s part of why it’s such a satisfying episode to me, is it’s a coming together of these group of people that we’ve come to love.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your plans for Season 2?
STILLER: I think it’s important for fans of the show to know that the unanswered questions do need to be answered at some point. It’s just, I think we feel this responsibility to do it in a way that is both responsible and entertaining. Part of the fun of the show, I’ve found, is that people have so many different theories and ideas and thoughts about it, so there’s a responsibility you have, and one thing I can guarantee you is that Dan Erickson has thought about this, and thought about it a lot over many years. We felt that there’s a balance [to aim for], because if too many questions are answered, then you don’t have a chance to really speculate and live in the world as much. So, we’re trying to figure out how to live in that world and figure out that balance, but the answers are there. It’s just, we want to try to mete it out in a way that feels fun and satisfying.
DEADLINE: How much more do you know at this point about Lumon, the layout of the company’s headquarters, its mission, and the work that the MCR team is doing? And exactly how much more can we expect to learn about all of this going forward? Dan, I know you laid out loose ideas for yourself about things like the company’s code-detecting elevators, and how those might really function, even if the series hasn’t thus far offered up those answers.
ERICKSON: To me, it was important to really figure out as much of it as we could before we got into telling the story, because it’s like once you understand the maze you’re in, then you can play in it. It’s a lot of work and sometimes tedious work to talk about the details of the company and how it’s run, and all this stuff, and how big the severed floor is…That said, we do have a pretty good conception of what the alpha plan is for Lumon—what their overall intention is, and what role these characters are going to play. There’s definitely a framework that we have in mind, and the challenge is, like Ben was saying, it’s all about balance, in all things.
You want to have a framework so that you can confidently move ahead, but you don’t want it to be so rigid that you’re beholden to it, and you’re just ticking boxes. Because that’s how I think you get this sort of robotic storytelling that loses some of the cool, organic fun. I like being surprised by this show, and I have been. We were talking about some stuff yesterday and just coming up with some new [ideas], it’s like, “Well, okay, this is crazy, but we could do this thing.” So, it’s a balance. But we do sort of know what Lumon wants, anyway.
STILLER: Having shot the show in a bubble over the last two years, in terms of not knowing how it would come together, or the tone—having an idea in our heads of what the tone was, but not really, having it go episode by episode because we had to block shoot— it’s really been good to now have this experience of people reacting to the show and watching it, and having a little bit of distance from it, so we can see what the show is really, and be able to tailor the second season to what the strengths of the show are, and where people are going. Because you have an idea in your head, but [when] you actually make it and see it, it becomes its own thing. So, that’s been a really good thing, that we’ve had the opportunity to feel how the show interacts with people watching it before we’ve actually made the second season.
DEADLINE: I imagine one of the biggest questions you’ll be grappling with in Season 2 is how the knowledge the innies have gleaned of their lives in the outside world will affect them when they’re suddenly trapped back at Lumon. If Dylan’s explosive reaction in Season 1 to learning he has a son is any indication, Season 2 is likely to be quite dramatic.
STILLER: Obviously, that’s a huge question and something that really is important to be dealt with because their whole perception of the world has been altered by having this glimpse. That’s going to be a lot of what the second season has to deal with—a big part of the engine of the second season’s beginning.
ERICKSON: Just talking about that Dylan moment, that’s one of my favorite moments in the show because it’s such a turn for Dylan. I remember at one point we were chatting about it and the way that Patricia phrased it…We were just talking about his story in that moment and she’s like, “Well, yeah. Once you’ve seen your child, then a finger trap is just a finger trap.” Once you know that you’re a father, it literally just shifts your whole value system and sense of what’s important. So now, we get to hopefully see how that kind of shift plays out for all the characters, and for management, too.
DEADLINE: Is there more to understand about Mark’s importance to Lumon’s mission, and why Cobel has been so fixated on him?
ERICKSON: Yeah, there is. I think we still don’t fully understand the why of it. We’ve obviously learned truths about his wife and his history, but I think that there’s still a big sense of, why him? So, that’s all stuff that we’re talking about how best to explore as we move ahead.
DEADLINE: It seems that going forward, Mark may find himself in quite an interesting love triangle, as well, with Helly and the wife he’s only just learned is alive.
STILLER: I think all that’s a part of it, and what’s fun about the story, and the concept that Dan created, is that there’s a lot of different ways you can go with this, in terms of what areas to explore. I think we would hope that the show never really gets locked down into exploring one thing, because there are a lot of different themes that are posited by this idea of Dan’s that he’s exploring. So, I think that’s the fun thing about it, is that that’s definitely a part of it, but there are other, bigger ideas about the work-life balance that we’re exploring, too.
DEADLINE: Will we learn more soon about the black goo from the title sequence that Irving has seen in visions and painted at home?
STILLER: Yeah. There’s obviously the element that we see in Episode 8 that connects us to that imagery that he’s been seeing. But as it relates to the hallway that he’s been painting, I think that hallway is also sort of an unanswered question.
ERICKSON: To Ben’s point, we’re going to come to understand more about what outie Irving is doing and how this process worked. Viscerally though, I just love that it’s represented by this sort of black sludge coming from above, because it really to me represents this sense [that] you can build as secure of a space as you want, but ultimately, life finds a way, and the outie world is going to find its way down here in potentially a scary way.
DEADLINE: Will we learn more going forward about Cobel and Milchick? The latter has been particularly inscrutable; it’s hard to imagine who he is outside of work.
STILLER: We don’t want to give away [too much], but…Milchick…is a cypher. He’s, I think, a really, really interesting character, and there’s a lot to explore there as an audience in Season 2. I think because of his position and who he is, and his relationship with Cobel, you do know nothing else about him, and that’s the fun of next seasons coming up, is the chance to go to all these places.
ERICKSON: One thing we would say over and over again as we were developing [the show] is, “Everyone’s severed, even if they’re not severed.” Everybody is a different person at work, and this whole show is sort of a metaphor for that. So, it’s really interesting to me when we were discussing how to treat the unsevered characters…In Milchick’s case, I really felt like we’re telling the story from the perspective of the MDR team, and he could be anybody’s supervisor or boss, who you have no idea what their life is outside. And it’s fun to think about and speculate. I have people like that in my real life, so that was kind of the idea, is we were going to hold off on that for now.
DEADLINE: Will we be seeing Regabhi again soon? Or other characters active in the movement against severance? And is there a possibility for a happy ending for Irving and Burt?
STILLER: No comment. [Laughs] Look, the fun thing has been seeing how people have responded to Burt and Irving, and that really beautiful story that Dan wrote. They’re obviously very invested, and we’re excited about telling more of that story in Season 2.
DEADLINE: Do you have a sense of how many seasons Severance might run, in a perfect world?
ERICKSON: I would say exactly 14 seasons. It’s all planned out…No, from the beginning, obviously with any show, you don’t know how long you’re going to have to tell the story. So, I always tried to keep it fluid enough that this is a story we could tell in two seasons, this is a story we could tell in six seasons. I think it’s a big enough world, and part of the reason that I initially wanted to do this as a series, as opposed to a movie or something, was just the question of, how would the world change if this technology existed? The first question we obviously get into is how it would affect work and office culture, and that’s what we’re exploring here, but it opens up so many questions, and it’s such an interesting, slightly tweaked version of our reality that it was something that I was like, “You could easily spend six seasons, just exploring this one question.” So, I think there’s definitely potential for a good amount of storytelling.
DEADLINE: I imagine this series will open a lot of doors for you, Dan, if it hasn’t already. Are there other projects in the works, or is Severance getting your full focus for now?
STILLER: [Dan] signed an exclusive deal with Red Hour for the rest of his life. [Laughs]
ERICKSON: It was actually with Ben, specifically. [Laughs] For me, the show is kind of my whole life right now. Ironically, it has killed my work-life balance, but in the best possible way. I definitely have other projects—other written scripts, even—that I would love to get into, and people I would love to work with. But right now, I’m just very much in this world and happy to be there.
DEADLINE: Ben, are you still intending to direct your Spiro Agnew film Bag Man soon?
STILLER: I’m hoping to shoot Bag Man this summer, which would probably be as we’re gearing up for Season 2, but definitely plan to be involved in Season 2 very much and probably direct two episodes. Dan is working very hard right now on a Season 2, so we’re all in. [I feel] really super invested and excited about it.