Allow us to save you some time: There’s no need to Google “how many episodes of Severance are there?” or think that Apple TV Plus is messing with you. Severance’s first season had nine episodes (not 10) of expertly mounting suspicion and intrigue. Then it went out on the ultimate cliffhanger.
Luckily, creator Dan Erickson was more than happy to talk about it.
[Ed. note: This article, as you might’ve guessed, goes into full spoilers about season 1 of Severance.]
In the ninth and final episode of Severance’s first season, Mark (Adam Scott), Helly (Britt Lower), and Irving (John Turturro) experienced life on the outside, with Dylan (Zach Cherry) literally stretching to ensure that their “outie” state stayed in place. And after they each have a startling revelation — Helly, that she’s an Eagan; Irving, that his work flirt, Burt, is married; and Mark, that his wife is alive — the switch flips back.
You can thank executive producer Ben Stiller, who Erickson says encouraged him to end the season at that moment. Originally, Erickson had one more episode planned in order to unpack what the trio found out about their life outside of work at Lumon during their daring out-of-office sorta-heist. Or, put a different way: Erickson knows exactly what happens when season 2 rolls around. (Which Apple TV blessedly greenlit on Wednesday.)
“As we’ve discussed a potential season 2 [...] it’s a lot of those ideas from those subsequent [episodes], what was going to be episodes 9 and 10,” Erickson tells Polygon. “And we’ve sort of rethought and reconceived it to be kind of the beginning of our season 2.”
What can Erickson tell us? Severance season 1 leaves a whole lot of questions about the exact world being built out at Lumon Industries, not to mention the personal investment that Helly, Irving, and Mark — with his very much alive (in some sense?) wife — are only beginning to understand. So we got the creator to shed a bit of light on where season 1 leaves the world of Severance.
How did your sense of the season change as it grew from a narrow focus to a broader thriller story?
Primarily, this season is about these worlds colliding — and this individual, this guy [Mark], but also, these two worlds that have been so intentionally kept apart sort of inevitably fusing and finding their way together.
The overtime contingency where the innies are waking themselves up on the outside, that had always been part of the story. And that was always going to be the idea — that they’re waking up and they’re having these revelations, that they’re answering this question that was asked, literally the first question of the show, which is, “Who are you?” And so it was always going to be that, but in my original [outline] of the season, there was then going to be a subsequent few episodes. It was like, episode 8, maybe, was going to be the overtime. Then we were going to see some of the fallout of it, and it was going to continue on.
Ben Stiller, who directed the first and the last run [of episodes], he was always sort of the opinion that we should let things breathe, and let the stories happen organically, and not rush to cram too much thriller-y, genre-y plot in it that we’re sort of losing track of the emotional core. [...] I remember there was a meeting where we were talking about the overtime [episode], and he was like, “I think that’s the end. I think that moment when they click back right at the end, like, that’s the end of the season.” I was like, “OK, people are gonna be pissed. But OK!”
And he was right, because it’s such a powerful fucking ending, and it’s such an exciting way to end it, and makes all these questions of what comes next.
What takeaway do you want to leave the audience with? Not just emotionally, but like, how much of Ms. Casey’s grander mystery do we have presented to us yet?
Very little, I think. There’s a lot of questions. Most of which we had answered in our minds when we wrote it, but some of which we didn’t. Like, some of which we’ve been subsequently discussing. But yeah, like, is she severed? Does she know — is she in on it? Is she a victim? Is she kidnapped? How did she go from being in this loving marriage with Mark to being Ms. Casey down from the seventh floor? And so that’s a big, big question mark at this point.
There was the part where the supervisors are watching and mention that it’s good that Mark and Ms. Casey don’t recognize each other.
Yeah, no, that’s true, there is that line, which certainly seems to point it that way.
At what point did you come to think of Helly as her own worst enemy?
That was not originally the plan until late in writing the season. I think it came because of this idea that [...] she’s just so single-mindedly committed to getting out, and encounters more and more resistance the higher up the chain she goes. And she’s holding out this hope that at least, maybe, that this alternate version of her would have empathy for her. And so this idea that she would reach kind of the end of the line and realize that she’s the ultimate enemy, she’s the one who is keeping herself there — and not only that she’s keeping herself there, but that she’s sort of running the whole show — just seemed like the most heartbreaking and horrific revelation for that character. And so we said, OK, let’s do it.
It’s an exciting thing to have this sense of: She’s now the only person whose outie will never pull her out of that the way other people’s might, but she’s also the only person who is kind of invulnerable, a little bit, to the threats that [Mrs. Cobel] makes to her. Cobel just straight up has to threaten everybody else in her little gang or whatever, but she can’t do anything to Helly.
She can’t. But at the same time — and as we’ve talked about how a potential season 2 might play out, that’s something that we’ve talked about — [...] but just this idea that like, yeah, she’s invulnerable. [With] other characters, they can’t beat you, they can’t lock you in a dungeon for months, because they have to keep up appearances for your outie. That might not be the case with Helly, because her outie is in on all of it. So there might be good and bad sides to the revelation from her perspective.
Tell me about Irving’s arc, and what you think about leaving his story, in a way, the most unresolved of any innie who’s on the outside there.
It’s true he doesn’t get a lot of resolution, and if anything, that last episode provides more unanswered questions for him. I really thought it would be interesting to have him seek out Burt during the overtime contingency, and if there was a way that he could find his location and go and try to find him. And then of course we have this kind of happy yet heartbreaking revelation that [Burt]’s got this loving husband or partner and life on the outside.
And we talked a lot about: What is the exact end of that story? Does he turn and leave? Does he leave Burt to his happy life? Or does he decide, No, screw it [...] I need to at least tell him that I’m here and I love him and I care about him and that we had something?
And yeah, it was honestly a really hard decision to cut it right where we did, because I care about Irving and I wanted the door to open and for him to at least get to say something. But ultimately, it was like, No, it’s this; this leaves him in such an unsettled, vulnerable place — that it was just interesting to think of what the next stage in his journey would be.
But then, of course [...] he wakes up in his apartment. And he’s got all this weird, like, Lumon research stuff that he’s doing. And so it gets sort of overtaken by the Burt question. But there’s this question of, like, What the hell is his outie up to? And I think I was really interested in this idea that the company man — the ultimate company man — realizing that his outie might not be on the same page; he might be doing something very different from what [his innie is] doing.
We tried to leave it a little open: Like, why is he making the art? And what is that image that he’s drawing, and what is the significance of that, and what’s he going for? It’s so funny, because, like, my tendency with the scripts is to sort of sometimes awkwardly lay everything out. And, you know, Ben is great at sort of pulling back on that sometimes. He’s like, I think this is the sweet spot, [or] we’ve answered enough that people aren’t just going to be furious at us. But there’s, there’s still going to be this sort of burning need to know more.
Did you have a sense of what you wanted Christopher Walken’s Burt to be doing? Was that always art or the art department?
At first, it seems like it’s just internal. It’s like, you hang the art for this office, and I think that it’s sort of hinted at that they’re maybe the ones creating the finger traps and cubes and stuff — but it’s all internal. But we talked about this idea that there’s been distrust intentionally seeded between the departments, and that each of them has a secret thing that they’re doing that the other departments don’t know about, that they don’t even necessarily understand what it is like.
It just became: Well, if Optics and Design, the corporate paintings, are the cover, what’s behind that? And what’s in that universe, but expanded and more mysterious and different? So yeah, we have them producing these strange objects that we don’t know the purpose of. We, the writers, have a sense of where it all comes together, but it’s certainly not clear yet at this point in the story.
Is this the last we’re supposed to see of Christopher Walken’s character? Is that what retirement looks like?
I won’t say. I will say that when we wrote it, we didn’t know. When we wrote it, we were like, Maybe we’ll see him again, maybe we won’t.
You worked out the ending with Ben Stiller, but once the actors slotted into their roles and you were like, Oh yeah, that’s Mark, that’s him, did it change the trajectory for you?
In terms of the story, I mean, not a ton; most of the story beats stayed the same. I think the character that changed the most as we worked with the actor was probably Cobel, Patricia [Arquette]’s character, just because it was, like, we had a lot of conversations with Patricia and sort of what makes her tick.
And a lot of the cultlike element of her character came from those conversations, whereas before, in the very first scripts, she was a bit more of a pragmatist, and maybe not quite as into the corporate mythology as she is obviously in this version. But the more we talked to Patricia, the more we were like, OK, no [...] there’s something really exciting and scary and sad in this, sort of, lifelong cultist character. And so that changed a lot of the story beats, is sort of trying to make that make — to honor that idea.
Are we supposed to think Cobel has a special attachment to Mark? Is she just another one of many Lumon people out in the world who are just a little bit culty in their ideas?
I think that she does have some special attachment to Mark. And I don’t think it’s entirely Lumon-based, that’s what I’ll say. I think that she’s — without giving away too much of what we’ll see — there’s a professional interest for sure. And obviously, we’ve seen that there’s some sort of experiment or something happening with him and his wife, and sort of observing them. But I think that you can see it in her eyes that it’s become about more than the job, and there’s another sort of strange motivator drawing her to Mark.
How did you start conceiving of a larger cult mentality behind all this, and how it goes beyond just devotion to a job?
We read up a lot on NXIVM. We read up a lot on all these different, sort of, cults. And then, further back on the spectrum, religious groups and other organizations that are maybe at times a little bit oppressive.
But it’s a spectrum! Because on the other end of that spectrum is Starbucks; the Starbucks employees are sort of taught the philosophy of Howard Schultz and all this stuff, and they’re sort of partners in Howard’s vision. It’s really interesting to me, the messy line between those two things. On one end is NXIVM and the other end [is] Starbucks, where it’s, like, you’re sort of buying into a cult of personality [...] and to a culture, and this idea of a family, when obviously, you’re not going to be treated with that kind of love and respect; it’s not going to be returned to you, necessarily.
I know one of your inspirations was The Backrooms concept, and the idea of endless office space. I’m interested to know how you went about fine-tuning what this group stumbles upon as they wander the halls of Lumon Industries. What felt like, Oh yeah, that’s exactly right, in terms of weirdness?
The Backrooms thing — the weird subgenre of, like, liminal horror, and this idea of endless space and nightmare logic — is so scary. Like, being in a place where, truly, the logic of the world prevents you from getting away somehow is so uniquely terrifying to me.
And then, in terms of what they see [...] my impulse sometimes is to go just, like, nightmare logic. Like, OK, there’s screaming baby goats now. And then there’s these other, sort of, horrifying things. But that was something, again, where in many conversations with Ben and others, we wanted to make sure that everything was being grounded in a reality that we could eventually justify.
And that even [went] down to things like, Why the hell does Helly wake up on a table? Why not just have her, like, wake up sitting in a chair? or, you know, Why is Mark a disembodied voice instead of being there in the room with her? And we talked about this idea of, like, psychologically, we almost want to make her feel like the building is a person, like the building is speaking to her, Lumon is speaking to her from on high. The great thing about Ben is, like, nothing gets by him without that level […] you have to break it down logically. And you’d have to go through and figure out what it all means. So it was it was a mix of nightmare logic and then this, like, extremely tight corporate logic that we had to kind of invent.
So then tell me about the goats, then. How do the goats play into this?
Ah, the goats. Honestly, when I first wrote the goats, I did not have anything in mind at all. Like, it really was just, like, what would be a weird, disturbing, but kind of funny thing to see? I think it was, like, a placeholder, for a while. I thought, Well, we’ll figure out what that’s going to be. We’ve solidified since then a lot of what’s going on, and a lot of what the next few reveals are going to be, assuming that we can get another season. And the goats ended up actually working pretty well. I don’t think we have seen our last goat on the show.