Television

HBO’s office drama Industry shows that capitalism is a game nobody wins. By Michelle Wang.

Industry

Myha’la Herrold as Harper Stern and Ken Leung as Eric Tao in a scene from Industry.
Myha’la Herrold as Harper Stern and Ken Leung as Eric Tao in a scene from Industry.
Credit: HBO / Binge

“Isn’t it lucky that no one is ever satisfied?” says Eric, a cutthroat managing director (played by Ken Leung) at Pierpoint bank, the centre of HBO’s Industry. It’s an entertaining reminder that the key to capitalism is, ahem, human nature.   

A few dozen youthful graduates, at least two-thirds of whom are fresh from Oxbridge, walk through the sleek glass doors of Pierpoint & Co, ready to put it all on the line for a permanent position. Industry is on the office-core pulse: a sexy white-collar shitstorm of workplace bullying, discrimination and hook-ups. It’s little wonder that Industry has been described as the hybrid offspring of Euphoria, Succession and Skins.

After 2020’s successful debut, the show has returned with a second season. Industry creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay – who had worked in banking themselves – have doubled down on the corporate theatrics, brought to life vividly by a new young cast who are thrown into characters well endowed with baggage. Regulars across both seasons include the stony-faced American expat Harper (Myha’la Herrold), the extraordinarily wealthy, multilingual Yasmin (Marisa Abela), the cocky yet deeply insecure Robert (Harry Lawtey) and the disenchanted Ghanian–British Etonian who studied classics at Oxford, Gus Sackey (David Jonsson).

Their constant soundtrack is the rise and fall of thousands of jagged lines and percentages on trading floor screens. To this beat, they begin their intoxicating – in as many ways as you can imagine – induction into the Pierpoint cult: monstrous managers and panic attacks, bathroom stall fixes and quickies, boozy client dinners and after-work “Pier pints”. It’s relentlessly entertaining, exhausting and very often degrading. And it’s a picture we’re depressingly familiar with.

Pierpoint serves as a contemporary battlefield, where moral standing is defined by how good or bad you are at your job. Output at work exceeds personal values. When Harper prices her first option successfully, Eric tells her: “Do not forget how this feels … now I see you.” The allure of this view is that it also exceeds social status, origin and any other social baggage. “I think this is the closest thing to a meritocracy there is,” Harper says in her entry interview.

While the promise of meritocracy removes obvious barriers for representing race, gender and class diversity in hiring, actual prejudices and exploitative attitudes are far more insidious and systemic. Such instances are casually scattered throughout Industry. The boys banter that Rob’s suit is a “gauche billboard” that makes him look like “regional nightclub security”. Yasmin’s line manager Kenny (Conor MacNeill) forces her to pitch without warning to the rest of her desk and then mocks her ideas or gaslights her about the salad lunch he ordered, which she is required to collect for the team every day. And there’s the tense, threatening manner with which graduate Hari’s (Nabhaan Rizwan) traumatic death from overwork is hushed up by Pierpoint’s president, Sara (Priyanga Burford), when Gus tries to bring up his concerns about it.

At times, female characters attempt to challenge this toxic, male-dominated industry, with unsettling outcomes. Daria (Freya Mavor), a younger manager who seems to have rejected the macho playbook of most of her peers, initially appears protective of Harper and helps her to speak out about Eric’s bullying. However, when Harper reveals she has been sexually assaulted by Daria’s client, Daria silences her because the timing is inconvenient – she is on the cusp of a promotion, after getting Eric fired for his abusive behaviour towards Harper.

Sara has put increasing pressure on Harper to out Eric – does she really care about changing the culture or does she also want Eric to leave to secure her own position? Their moral crusade has become an opportunistic power grab. Is their bad behaviour – scapegoating and strategic virtue signalling, denying another more disempowered woman her voice – a necessary evil in the greater struggle?  Industry gives a cynical portrayal of feminism in practice – women supporting women but only when it is self-serving.

These incidents are characteristic of the uneven force of season one, an often confronting hard sell. It is exciting to see how the writing in season two has evolved. There remain exhilarating hard edges but here the show dwells on each character’s personal history. Brief insights into their experiences of life and work through lockdown effectively allow for some character development.

Harper, comfortably confined to a hotel near Pierpoint, is severely anxious about returning to the office. That fishbowl of high-performing, quick-witted corporate personas emphasises their artifice. It’s an environment that Harper – embarrassed and quick to anger – struggles to reintegrate into. Meanwhile, Yasmin, who lived alone through lockdown and developed a cocaine habit, describes it as the best summer of her life. Totally uncomplicated and removed from office and family politics, she says all she’s had to worry about is ordering the perfect set of pyjamas. Robert has become sober, after careening through the first season on a drunken high.

In these vignettes of a group of ambitious, insecure 20-somethings getting on and getting through the pandemic, Industry hits the right balance of earnest and plausible. It might be the first piece of fiction that recognises this period of recent history in a genuine, contemporary way from Generation Z and Millennial points of view.

There’s a cutting playfulness to how season two pans out, with thrilling and disturbing power reversals. Yasmin bullies the new graduate in her team in the same way that she was bullied by her line manager. The new Yasmin is more assertive, as well as more brittle and jaded. Harper, in a series of cunning manoeuvres, becomes the most valuable source of revenue on her desk and overpowers Eric. Her successes are increasingly at the expense of others and her own mental health. Like Yasmin, she starts to echo her senior manager, Eric – a narcissistic careerist. Is this what success looks like and is it worth it? The graduates’ increased power over their terrorising bosses is ironically because they have started to internalise those same behaviours.

Somehow these depressing contemporary truths provide more and more fun viewing, as Industry waltzes effortlessly into our cultural lexicon. “Any reason you’re dressed as Kendall Roy?” Eric quips at one point, when the trader Rishi (Sagar Radia) comes to the office in a black baseball cap for a clandestine mission. A comic echo of Succession also appears at an investors’ shooting retreat in Wales, as people shoot birds and prey on other investors’ stakes. “Life is gamified,” Jesse Bloom (Jay Duplass of The Chair), who made his billions during the pandemic, says to Harper.

So much of this giant corporate prison is basically a game. Later in the season several of the main characters put together a covert plan to move Pierpoint’s Cross Product Services desk team to another bank. The vibes are anarchic, storm-the-Capitol-style. What prize are they playing for? More money and more power. What else?

The industry of Industry is an overt capitalist simulacra. The reward appears to matter, but once you get it you’ll want more. And that’s the problem with the industry – it’s an addictive, endless game that no one wins.

Industry is streaming on Binge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Industrial relations".

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