Severance Season 1 Ending Explained: Innies, Meet Outies

"Severance" slipped onto the scene in February, easing viewers into a Phillip K. Dick-like sci-fi story about workers at a mysterious company who have their consciousness split into an on-the-clock self and an off-the-clock self. The series started out as an eerie if deliberately paced workplace allegory set in a brutalist office building, led by Adam Scott as worker bee Mark.

Over its nine weeks, though, "Severance" grew into one of the best and most propulsive shows on TV. Its heart-pounding finale, "The We We Are," sees three of Lumon's employees wake up to the outside world. The results are scream-at-your-TV level thrilling and rewarding. The series, which is directed by Ben Stiller and created by Dan Erickson, has always been more concerned with the emotional effects of its inhumane central procedure than anything else. As such, this is the rare TV finale that answers more questions than it asks, finally cluing us in about the outside lives of the characters we've come to know only inside Lumon's doors.

The truth about Irving

Let's start with Irving (John Turturro), since we got a quick glimpse into his outie's life last week. This episode really packs a punch in its opening minutes, frontloading a bunch of information about each of our heroes and allowing them to react to it for the rest of the episode. For Irving, who we know as a sweet, gay man who is a stickler for following Lumon procedures, we realize almost immediately that he's a military veteran. It's also pretty clear that he's lonely.

We see that the thick black acrylic paint he was smearing on a canvas last week is actually him painting the Lumon hallway again and again, like something from a nightmare. We also see that he apparently lives alone, but has a dog named Radar. That the good boy is named after a character from "M*A*S*H" should have been our first clue that Irving has a (probably emotionally complex) tie to the military, but we know for sure when we see his assorted medals and an American flag.

All of this seems to make Irving quietly sad — his innie is so peaceful, after all, and he's pictured such a highbrow life for himself. He's heartened and surprised to realize his outie is hiding one more thing: he's been researching Lumon. He has a cache of secret documents, including a map with his work crush Burt's (Christopher Walken) name already written in the corner! Does Irving already know Burt? We never find out for sure, but we do get to see him drive to Burt's house — a harrowing task for someone who's never driven before — where he sees the man seems to be happily living with a partner of his own. At episode's end, Irving is banging on Burt's door, but his workplace love hasn't answered it yet.

Helly: A Severance story

The episode's biggest jaw-dropping moment is another one that comes early on. When Helly (Britt Lower) awakens, she's in the middle of a fancy party, talking to none other than Lumon board liaison Natalie (Sydney Cole Alexander). The show doesn't give us time to question this, instead immediately laying its cards on the table: Helly, the woman who hates Lumon so much she tried to kill herself to escape, is actually Helena Eagen, daughter of the company's CEO and the latest in a long line of cult-ish family members working on the Severance concept.

Helena, it soon becomes clear, has been working at Lumon as a PR stunt, to put a positive spin on Severance ahead of a vote on its legality. Helly learns this a little at a time as she wanders, wide-eyed, through the crowd of an event that seems to be the opening of some type of gala dedicated to her project. In a talking-head interview snippet displayed on a giant, slowly rotating photo wall, Helena tells interviewers the Lumon employees are like family to her. "I took a Severed job because it sounds freaking awesome," she says, in direct contradiction to everything we know about her. "So no, I don't think Severance divides us, I think it brings us together."

We get a taste of exactly how cultish Lumon is later in the episode, when Helly goes to the bathroom to compose herself and her father meets her there. This will probably be the most closely-examined part of the episode, and for good reason: there's a lot going on here. "I cried in my bed when they told me what she tried to do to you," her father tells her in a creepy, reverent whisper, referencing her innie's suicide attempt as if they really are different people.

He says the grandfather would cherish her sacrifice, and that one day she'll sit beside him. He also tells an ominous story: Helly's father says that when he brought home the first prototype Severance chip to show her, she said it looked pretty and that "everybody in the whole world should get one." Just before he's pulled away, Helly's father adds one last comment. "They will, because of you. They'll all be Kier's children." What the hell does that mean? Nothing good, clearly.

Mark finds himself

Mark's transition from innie to outie is smoother than the others because he starts off in a vaguely familiar situation. He's talking to Harmony (Patricia Arquette), who his outie knows as his batty neighbor Mrs. Selvig. Mark doesn't make much of this but finds an excuse to leave the conversation. He runs into his sister, who he briefly mistakes for his wife. This episode sneaks in so many small moments expressing the innies' tentative hopes, and Mark's hope for a family is one of the sweeter, sadder ones. He's pretty thrilled to discover he does have a family of sorts, and that his brother-in-law wrote the book that changed his life inside Lumon.

The scene at the reading is one of the episode's most intense, since Mark keeps trying to speak with his family privately to explain that he's actually his innie, but keeps getting sidelined by silly book event-related issues. By the time he finally tells Devon (Jen Tullock) that Lumon needs to be investigated, their conversation is cut short by the realization that Harmony is Mrs. Selvig, and she now has Devon's baby. The family tears out after her, only for Mark to realize soon after that Harmony left the baby safely in a bedroom. Still, it's one of the episode's freakier moments, and Tullock is excellent as a mother realizing just how fully this woman has invaded her life.

There's a sweetness to Mark's plot that's missing from the others in this episode. You get the sense he doesn't need to be severed at all, because he feels instantly at home in his outie's world. When Devon tells him he used to be a history professor, but got the procedure after losing his wife in a car crash, you can sense some deeper understanding of self click into place within Mark. He's been on a journey of self-discovery all season, and now, he seems to easily and empathetically reconcile his two halves.

20 minutes of freedom

"The We We Are" ends on one of the best cliffhangers in recent TV history, the kind that would leave all of us screaming into a pillow if "Severance" somehow didn't come back for a second season. Luckily, based on Erickson's comments in a TCA Zoom panel and the show's overwhelming acclaim, it most likely will.

Mark's sense of peace evaporates quickly when his eye catches a photo of his wife. It's Ms. Casey (Dichan Lachman), the Lumon therapist he grew fond of before her sudden firing. He runs out to the living room, and shouts, "She's alive!" Meanwhile, Harmony has rushed to Helly's event, and tries to stop her from going on stage. "I'm gonna kill your company," Helly tells her, and Harmony responds with a threat to torture Mark's innie. Helly goes through with it anyway, turning her speech into a frantic but purposeful tirade against the company for its secret, despicable policies. Meanwhile, Irving is pounding on Burt's door.

All the while, Dylan (Zach Cherry) is in the control room at the Lumon building, stretching as far as he can to hold the two switches keeping his coworkers in "overtime mode." Milcheck (Tramell Tillman) attempts to saw through the rope outside the door, hilariously offering Dylan insignificant workplace incentives like coffee cozies all the while. "Just say the word and I'll get you a coffee cozy literally right now," he says. Dylan answers by screaming: "I wanna remember my f***ing kid being born!"

Dylan is genuinely a hero here, giving up his own chance to have a life outside Lumon so the others can get a glimpse of their own. When he's finally tackled to the ground, we hear the system turn off with a perfectly underwhelming "ding," signifying the trio will immediately revert back to their outie selves. Mark, mid-scream, trying to tell his sister his wife is still alive. Helly, mid-speech, trying to tell the world Lumon is corrupt. Irving, mid-knock, trying to tell Burt he loves him. Ding. The credits roll.

We're left with the residual shock of the innies' adventure, which amounts to about 20 life-changing minutes total. It's like Plato's Allegory of the Cave: these people have seen the real world now, and they can never go back to clapping for the shadows on the wall.