Severance theories: we try and work out just what the hell is going on in the Apple show

Since it premiered on Apple TV Plus, Severance has had us all trying to work out what the heck is going on in the dark, bizarrely funny thriller.

In a time where streaming services often release whole seasons in one go, the new show’s weekly rollout has made our borderline obsessive chatter feel refreshingly retro – reminiscent of the days when everyone was losing their minds over the likes of Lost and Twin Peaks or, admittedly much more recently, Westworld. 

Created by Dan Erickson and produced and directed in part by Ben Stiller, Severance follows a team of office workers at a sinister biotech company called Lumon Industries, who have all undergone a procedure known as ‘severance’. 

Supposedly used to keep the data-refining work they do a secret, the operation splits people’s consciousnesses in two: one for work and one for their personal lives. That means that when they’re in the office, their ‘innie’ can’t remember anything about their real life and is essentially trapped at work. As soon as they leave, however, their ‘outie’ can’t recall what they’ve been doing all day, which complicates their attempts to rediscover who they are and learn the truth about their jobs.

With just one episode of Severance remaining, the mysteries are starting to unravel. But what revelations await? Let’s delve into some of the most talked-about theories so far, and weigh up how likely they are to be accurate or not… 

Spoiler warning: we’re looking at everything up to (and including) Severance episode 8! Turn back now if you are not all caught up…

Christopher Walken as Burt and John Turturro as Irving in Severance

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Severance isn’t a security requirement of a job, it’s some kind of mental health therapy (or social experiment)

One of the most popular theories is that ‘severance’ isn’t a singular surgical procedure, but a social experiment or therapy practice. Early on in the season, it is mentioned that Lumon founder Kier Eagan’s ultimate goal was to tame the “four” tempers: woe, malice, frolic, and dread. On Reddit, one user reckons that the data the severed employees are processing are their own negative emotions, categorized into each of said tempers.

“The affirmation they have to say in the break room (which is where they go when they stop participating in the designated activities) is all about taking responsibility for their actions, expressing regret, and ‘meaning it’. A classic and foundational principle of therapeutic progress,” they reason in their post, while noting that the meeting sessions the office holds “are structured just like a group therapy session.”

At this stage, we don’t really know anything about the characters other than Adam Scott’s Mark, who appears to have chosen to be severed to escape the pain of losing his wife. So the idea that Lumon could be monitoring people’s emotions, and reactions to real-life things such as grief, is not so far-fetched.

The innies are doing ‘content moderation’

When Helly (Britt Lower), Lumon’s latest addition, finds herself working in MDR, she’s told to identify the “scary” numbers displayed on her computer and place them into digital bins. This has led many people to speculate about what the numbers mean, with one viewer suggesting that the gang are actually just doing content moderation.

Content moderation is a real job, carried out at companies such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and involves workers filtering out disturbing content to ensure they adhere to a set of pre-established, platform-specific guidelines. While we appreciate that that fits in with Mark and the others describing the numbers they’ve got to identify as “scary”, this seems like it would be a pretty lackluster reveal given how high-concept and ambitious Severance is.

Dichen Lachman as Ms. Casey in Severance

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Mark is actually dead

Some Severance fans believe that Mark was the one who died in a car crash, not his wife, “and what we are seeing is an attempt at programming a clone/android to replace lost loved ones.” 

Their theory continues: “Outie Mark goes through his life and the chip collects data, then Innie Mark refines that data the next day at work, reprogramming Outtie Mark to be more like he was before his death. The background with the death of his wife is an attempt to help him process and work through his own death. They tweak his background until his emotional state is stable again.”

Severance episode 7, titled ‘Defiant Jazz’, reveals right before its credits roll that Mark’s wife is – or at least, looks exactly like – Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman), the severed floor’s wellness counselor. So she is still “alive” in some capacity, and that adds weight to this particular theory. That said, if Mark is really a clone or an android, with somewhat synthetic memories, why wouldn’t Lumon just let him think that everything was fine? And if they were trying to make him process his own death, then wouldn’t they just be upfront about what really happened?

Milchick and Ms. Casey are robots

The Ms. Casey reveal leads right into another hypothesis; that she and Milchick (Tramell Tillman), the severed floor’s supervisor, are robots.

In terms of severed employees at Lumon, we’ve only really spent significant time with MDR’s Mark, Helly, Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irving (John Turturro), and Burt (Christopher Walken), Irving’s “friend” from the Optics and Design department. Patricia Arquette’s Harmony Cobel, Casey and Milchick are their superiors, and since we’ve not seen the latter pair away from work, some have claimed that they’re actually not severed, they just don’t exist outside Lumon. 

Now that we know Casey is Mark’s supposedly dead wife, the notion that she’s a robot kind of checks out. Does she resemble Mark’s late spouse on purpose, and is planted as a test to see just how well the severance process works? Is her unnatural tranquillity a by-product of her being a machine? Perhaps. As for Milchick, though, ‘Defiant Jazz’ sees him bleed when he gets bitten by Dylan, which points to him likely being human.

Severance TV show

(Image credit: Apple TV Plus)

Lumon’s severed employees are in Kier Eagan’s brain

Now, there’s a chance those who think Lumon’s employees are in Kier’s brain might have seen Disney Pixar’s Inside Out one too many times, despite it being quite an interesting idea. 

“The downstairs is asleep or maybe unconscious/subconscious, and upstairs is awake. Or maybe the other way around,” one Reddit user poses in a thread. “The macro data refiners are the four humors that they talk about in the hall of perpetuity (pituitary gland?): woe, frolic, dread, and malice. They’re raw emotions. When the raw emotions try to come to the surface, they are held back by the more logical parts of the brain (frontal lobe). Like Helly trying to escape and being rejected by her other self. The white halls represent neurons. The two in the optics department are the eyes. The break room might be guilt.”

The fact that the severed employees leave Lumon and spend time with friends and family – or at least Mark does – on the outside suggests that they are definitely not living inside founder Kier Eagan’s brain. Unless every human we see in the show is? But that would be really bizarre, even by Severance standards.

Irving and Burt are a couple outside of Lumon

Of all the theories out there, Irving and Burt being a couple outside of Lumon is arguably one of the best. It’s simple and super romantic, as it suggests that love is such a powerful emotion, it can defy the severance process. Some people are just meant to be, eh?

Given that Irving and Burt are both men, there’s something quite powerful to be said about queerness with this theory, too, as it cements the idea that people’s sexuality isn’t something that is determined by circumstance or choice.

Loving #Severance . OMG did you see episode 4? Please tell me I’m not the only one who thinks Burt and Irving’s outies are a couple?! 4, 2022

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Both characters are a little older – in fact, Burt retires in episode 7, leaving Innie Irving heartbroken – and are both sticklers for the rules, which often prevents them from making their affections for one another explicit, even when there’s no one around. Some have suggested that this mirrors how they might have felt on the outside, due to prejudice and homophobia they may have faced when they were younger.

Harmony may have lost a child 

While we’re nearing the finale, we’re still not really sure what Harmony’s whole deal is. She seems to enjoy bossing Mark and the like around, and keeping tabs on their outside selves. But when it comes to her motivations, we’re still completely in the dark.

What we do know is that she worships Kier Eagan, so much so that she has a shrine to him in her home. In one episode, close-ups of said shrine offer up glimpses at a breathing tube and a hospital bracelet that bears the name ‘Charlotte Cobel’.

Now, we’re aware that Lumon is a biotech company, and is no stranger to the world of fringe science, so it seems possible that Harmony has lost a daughter and that, perhaps, the organization has promised to bring her back somehow? This theory could go some way to explaining why Lumon has such a hold over Harmony, and why she’s willing to stop at nothing to keep the innies in check. It might also be the reason she’s so beside herself when she gets fired – for meddling in the outies’ lives, and not reporting Helly’s suicide attempt – in episode 8, titled ‘What’s For Dinner?’

Severance is being used outside of work environments

In episode 5, titled ‘The Grim Barbarity of Optics and Design’, Mark’s pregnant sister Devon (Jen Tullock) meets a fellow mother-to-be named Gabby while staying at a swanky birthing lodge. In the following installment, ‘Hide and Seek’, she bumps into Gabby again, but Gabby seemingly has no clue who she is. Later, Gabby reveals her baby son’s name to Devon, and the latter is shocked to realise that it’s not the one she’d said she had her heart set on back at the cabin. Then, Gabby introduces her husband Angelo, a prominent pro-severance senator whose campaigns are funded by Lumon. 

Some have interpreted Gabby’s scenes as proof that Lumon is severing people outside of the workplace, which has pretty terrifying implications. In this instance, it appears that Gabby was severed during childbirth, but if you sever yourself as a means to avoid every uncomfortable situation, where does it end? Are you really living a full life? 

There’s also the scary idea that Gabby doesn’t know she’s severed, which would mean that she didn’t opt into the process like Mark and co did. When Devon introduces herself, Gabby is clearly confused. Not recognizing people would be a common occurrence if you were severed outside of work, so why was she so disorientated?

Helly R is a descendant of Lumon founder Kier Eagan (or she’s a spy)

Severance’s pilot partly revolves around Helly’s first day as a severed Lumon employee. During his attempt to ease her into her new job, Milchick says to her in private: “When we heard you were coming here…? It was like a miracle. It’s amazing, what you’re doing.” Helly’s new colleagues have been told plainly that she’s just a replacement of Petey (Yul Vazquez), MDR’s former head (who has since presented himself to Outie Mark and asked him for help exposing Lumon’s secrets), but Milchick’s affirmation suggests that she might already be someone important to the company.

Elsewhere, eagle-eyed fans have picked up on the fact that the severed floor’s unpredictable motion detector lights always turn on for Helly as she walks around the dark halls, that the subject of family tends to come up around her, and that her outie’s cold and dismissive attitude towards her innie is wildly different from the way Mark regards his own.

Britt Lower as Helly R in Severance

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

In the episodes we’ve seen so far, Mark has been questioned by his real-life friends on his decision to undergo the severance procedure, as they argue that his innie might not enjoy being stuck at work for his entire existence. In response, he always assures them that he and his innie are one and the same. Elsewhere, when Innie Helly threatens to hurt herself if she’s not allowed to quit her Lumon job, her outie tells her: “I am a person, you are not. I make the decisions, you do not.”

“Who would think like that and then do it to themselves?” one viewer ponders on another Reddit post. “Someone who needs to explain why it’s okay to sever people. Someone like an Eagan.”

There’s also the fact that Cobel got dismissed when Lumon learned of Helly’s suicide attempt, and difficulty accepting her severed status, which points to her being of more importance to the company than most other employees.  

Others have suggested that Helly is a spy, planted by an organization that wants to find out what really goes on at Lumon, and use said info to bring it down. Despite what the innies have been told – that severance is, pretty much, irreversible – we know through Petey that reintegration is possible. Is Outie Helly working with the people who helped Petey regain his memories?

The baby goats are actually clones… with human children consciousnesses

Okay, now, this last one is a little out there, and while Severance has already proven that it’s not afraid to go to some really dark places, it is probably too bleak to be plausible. But when a show is as odd as this, you can’t really rule anything out. 

In episode 5, Helly and Mark stumble across a room in which a single worker is feeding a ton of baby goats. Said moment is never explained, or really touched on again even, and some viewers have since suggested that the animals may be trial clones implanted with human minds – more accurately, childrens’ minds. Hey, baby goats are called kids!

It has been mentioned by Mark, Irving and Dylan that Petey used to greet the gang with an enthusiastic, ‘Hey kids, what’s for dinner?’ joke, too. They used to find it amusing because an innie would technically never know what they’ll be having for dinner, but the ‘kid’ part has stuck in people’s minds after seeing the goats. Perhaps the characters were goats, and now they’re more advanced clones? Only time will tell – and with only one episode left, we won’t have to wait too long for answers.

Severance is currently available to stream on Apple TV Plus, with new episodes being released every Friday. If you’re all up to date and itching for your next genre fix, then why not check out our roundup of the best sci-fi movies, and draw up a new to-watch list. 

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