‘Severance’ Creator Dan Erickson on Those Finale Twists and the ‘Cultism’ of Lumon

Erickson tells TheWrap about creating a show that speaks to the current cultural moment, and “what we owe to our employers and what we owe to ourselves”

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Spoiler Alert: The following contains spoilers for the “Severance” Season 1 finale.

Believe it or not, “Severance” executive producer, writer and creator Dan Erickson was nervous that the pandemic — with its erasure of The Workplace and Office Setting — would “destroy” the relevance of his series, about employees at a sinister conglomerate who have chosen to cognitively bifurcate their work and personal lives via a brain procedure. 

“We’re all in this amorphous home office world,” Erickson told TheWrap in a recent interview tied to the show’s Season 1 finale (and conducted before the show was renewed for Season 2). “So I think the idea of that separation became really interesting in a way that I didn’t anticipate… I like to think that the same frustrations that led us to this moment as a country and as a world are the ones that I was feeling when I wrote this because I was working office jobs, and I was dealing with all these increasingly insane requests that are made of workers. This was born of that.”

“Severance” — Erickson’s brainchild of more than five years, when the show was initially greenlit — largely follows Mark (Adam Scott), a severed worker at the all-looming big-tech corporation Lumon. An unexpected promotion following the mysterious disappearance of his work best friend Petey (Yul Vazquez) and the addition of a new hell-raising worker Helly (Britt Lower) leads Mark down a path to uncover what’s lurking beyond the pristine white and ever-winding sanitary corridors of his insulated workplace. 

While conceived long before conversations of the Great Resignation were taking place, the series has its ‘80s-era trackpad on the pulse of society at large, exploring themes of late capitalism as it relates to the panopticon-reminiscent surveillance and cult-like office setting. In “Severance,” an omnipresent family — the Eagans, Lumon’s founders — commands obsequious reverence on par with religious devotees. 

“Employees are the ones who are expected to give and give and give, with the understanding that this is a family — you’re doing this out of love,” Erickson said, “but then that is often not returned by the employers in any kind of a substantive way.”

The season finale depicts the core four Lumon employees against the world, as they devise a plan to trigger their “innie” brains in the outside world in order to gain further insight into their personal lives and warn trusted individuals of the behind-the-scenes abuse they face at Lumon. In a race against the clock, Dylan (Zach Cherry) stays behind to activate the Overtime Contingency Protocol, aiding Helly, Mark and Irving (John Turturro) piece together their outer realities.

Erickson breaks down the finale’s explosive twists — including Helly’s “outie” Eagan alter ego — and more in TheWrap’s Q&A below.

TheWrap: Was the twist of Helly being an Eagan something that was immediate from the outset or did that develop over time?

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It wasn’t immediate. It was something that developed over time and I don’t remember exactly when the idea first popped up because we had a writers room where we broke most of this stuff. Then there was a process after the room had wrapped with [director] Ben [Stiller] and I where we went through it and refigured some of that stuff. So I think it was in the writers room that we had the idea but it definitely wasn’t something that we knew from the jump. 

I thought that it ended up making sense with Helly’s story because it was sort of this thing where she keeps going higher and higher up to try to find somebody who’s going to show her empathy or just hear what she’s saying. And this idea that she reaches the top of the mountain and the person sitting there is her — that she [ultimately] realizes that she was the one keeping her here all along and she was the one in the highest position of authority. It just felt like the ultimate nightmare for somebody like Helly.

For Irving, we see the connection between his “outie” obsessively painting the break room and the globs of black ooze that consume his waking life as an “innie.” What was the approach behind that, and is that a possible indication that severance is not as effective as Lumon thinks it is?

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It’s funny, and… we intentionally left some ambiguity in that moment as to what exactly is going on: Is this something that “innie” Irving saw and it somehow has permeated to his “outie?” Or, is this some sort of a signal that “outie” Irving is trying to send to “innie” Irving, like does “outie” Irving know about this hallway somehow? We intentionally left it a little bit vague, what he’s trying to do. 

But what we learn is that “outie” Irving is in no way the company man that “innie” Irving is. He’s got some agenda happening, and I just thought that there was something really interesting in that idea of this guy who is the ultimate loyal company man and is the same person on the outside but has had a very vastly different life experience — that he could become a subversive, that he could become somebody who’s planning something that may not be in the company’s interest. So there’s a lot left to explore with that character. I knew from the jump that I wanted…there to be more to [“outie” Irving’s] motivations than we would think initially.

In certain ways, there are parallels to each “innie” and “outie.” They’re different people, but obviously still kind of the same. For example, Irving’s steadfast clinging to Eagan principles is informed by his obsessiveness in the outside world. With that, will we find out more about Dylan’s arc — why he chose severance given that he has a family? 

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I think that the end of Season 1 certainly opens the door for a Season 2 that is a little bit more of an ensemble piece on the outside. We made the choice to follow Mark exclusively for most of Season 1, and stay with his perspective. We like this idea that these coworkers are mysteries to him, just as they’re mysteries to us. We’re just like Mark — we have no idea who Dylan or Irving or Helly are on the outside. At a certain point, you’ve sort of played that song, and now it’s time to expand and open it up to something else. And so, we’ve got this amazing ensemble of actors and one of the most fun and exciting things about a Season 2 is is seeing them play that dichotomy, the way that you saw Adam play it in Season 1 where he’s the same person but he’s expressing these traits differently, and he’s had this profoundly different life experience.

Shifting gears, we find out that Casey (Dichen Lachman) is actually Mark’s late wife Gemma— 

[Gasps] What?!

There’s some wild theories about what happened — including that the company staged Gemma’s death. Was that also something you had in mind from the get-go, especially considering that severance can alter memory, as Cobel (Patricia Arquette) mentioned?

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That is an idea that I had pretty much from the jump. The story is very much about this broken person who is going through grief and is going through this horrible loss and has literally sort of shattered himself — is broken into pieces — and is looking to put himself back together in a way over time. So we didn’t want to undercut that with just a twist. We only wanted to do it if there was a way to then continue Mark’s emotional journey and not totally subvert it and not totally turn it into a different arc. 

I had the idea that his wife is there and is at Lumon, but I didn’t really have a concept of how she got there initially. Is she in on it? Is she severed? Who is Miss Casey as opposed to Gemma, is this a clone of the same person? I intentionally started out the process without knowing the answer to that question. But then as we started talking about Mark and his greater for-the-series arc, we had to get into it. We had to start being like, OK, what did happen and how was that going to affect the journey that he’s on and the journey that she’s on and the journey that the other characters are being sucked into. 

We know now what happened, but there’s definitely a lot of room for speculation.  

In the show, “innies” are designed to have no or as little capacity for anything aside from work as possible. Was there a consideration to how an individual might find meaning in that space? In your opinion, was that rebellion inevitable? We have that historical understanding of MDR perhaps staging a violent coup, according to O&D. I’m curious how you approached the idea of Lumon controlling its workers through finger traps and Music Dance Experiences.

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It’s a really interesting question and really relevant because that was one of the main things we talked about is where does each character take meaning in this world? Where do they find meaning? We talked about Dylan as being the capitalist where he’s got these objects that have been artificially assigned with value by the company in a way that I think happens in the real world all the time, where a certain car is a status symbol, and it shows that you’ve achieved a certain thing, and it’s designed to mean more than just the physical object.

Whereas Irving is much more the spiritualist. So many companies like this have a cult of personality surrounding their founder or their history or their lore. And there’s often sort of this sense of like, ‘Yeah, this is more than just coffee. We’re saving the world.’ Not that I’m referencing any particular coffee maker there. But yeah, it’s Starbucks. But yeah, Irving has kind of bought into the more spiritual side of this corporate ethos. For Mark and for Petey, we talked about, it’s more about the people that they’re with, and that because they’re in such a meaningless void of a world, it becomes about the person sitting across the desk from you or to your left or right.

All of them [are] struggling to stay fulfilled by what they’ve seen as their purpose in life. With Dylan, it’s that moment where he awakens and realizes he has a kid, and it’s funny, Patricia Arquette was actually the one who — we were just chatting one day on set about that moment — was like, ‘Yeah, once you’ve seen your kid, a finger trap is just a finger trap,’ which I think was the most astute way to put that. Of course, Irving has the romance with Burt (Christopher Walken) that opens him up to this bigger idea of love and meaning and importance. And then Mark is dealing with having to be in a leadership position. He’s got this total rabble rouser who’s just showed up in the office in Helly, and so it’s him trying to come to terms with still caring about the people around him and still deriving meaning from relationships, but also being in a position of power and feeling like he has to keep the structure stable. And he ultimately breaks on the side of his coworkers, he chooses the people around him over Lumon.

Previously, you spoke about how the setting and time period of the show is purposefully vague. Given the numerous discussions of the Great Resignation and labor movements worldwide, regarding big tech, was that a factor in making Lumon seem like such a looming presence? You mentioned cults as well — were there any religious cults or totalitarian regimes or things like that that influenced the show?

We’re in such a fascinating moment right now. I think that the pandemic became this catalyst for re-examining what role work should play in our lives, and what we owe to our employers and what we owe to ourselves and at what exact point you should draw the line between what of yourself you’re willing to give up for the benefit of having a paycheck. So when the pandemic hit, it was so funny because I really didn’t know if this show was going to completely lose its relevance. It was like, ‘Oh, God, are we making an office show, right after offices went extinct?’ I was nervous that it was going to completely destroy all relevance we had, but it was fascinating to watch the relevance just change. 

The fact that so many of us are working from home now and doing our job 20 feet away from where we sleep, it just makes it that much more important for us to draw those boundaries and makes it more difficult because your boss may call you at 7 o’clock at night now — it seems less weird than it used to because we’re all in this amorphous home office world. So I think the idea of that separation became really interesting in a way that I didn’t anticipate. 

I like to think that the same frustrations that led us to this moment as a country and as a world are the ones that I was feeling when I wrote this because I was working office jobs, and I was dealing with all these increasingly insane requests that are made of workers. This was born of that. There was a sense of I and everybody else I knew who was working in that setting was feeling increasingly desperate. And that was my main reason to write this.

With the religious element or the cult-like element — everything. I mean, we looked at everything from NXIVM and Heaven’s Gate and these real famous cult situations. I think what we discovered is that it really is kind of a blurry line between what’s a cult and what’s not. Even something like — I truly don’t mean to harp on Starbucks, I like them, I had them this morning, but the cult of personality that can arise around any founder of a company. The sense of like, ‘We’re going to bring you in and you’re going to be family, and you’re going to be part of this big world-changing thing.’ It’s a nice idea. It’s a seductive idea. And I like to think that sometimes it’s an earnest idea, on part of the people on top, but I think it can become this really scary, manipulative thing where the employees are the ones who are expected to give and give and give with the understanding that this is a family — you’re doing this out of love, but then that is often not returned by the employers in any kind of a substantive way. That’s where you get burnout, and that’s where you get mass depression and all this stuff. You wonder, does this have to be part of our society, or could we be doing something better?

I have to ask about the goats. Will we see more baby goats next season?

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I can’t say much, but I can’t imagine we’ve seen the last of the goats.

That satisfies me as an answer.

Good. Goats are resilient, they stick around.