Television

Industrial Complex

Don’t let the sex and drugs distract you from the show that’s quietly become one of the best on TV.

Three characters on Industry.
HBO

Perhaps the hottest scene in the HBO drama Industry, which ended its second season on Monday night, has no sex at all. There is famously lots and lots of sex on this show—it can feel at times like it’s really about people screwing each other’s brains out and neatly arranging lines of coke in the bathrooms of London clubs. But the heaviest moment of all comes on the trading floor, because in this show’s view, dealmaking done right is the best sex.

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Instead of intercourse, the scene depicts a spur-of-the-moment financial transaction that builds to a weirdly steamy climax of a different sort, one between two characters in cahoots: Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold) is a young analyst at Pierpoint, a fictional investment banking giant and financial services provider. Harper has landed the ear and the business of Jesse Bloom (Jay Duplass, of the Duplass brothers), a hedge-fund boss who made a killing playing the market during the pandemic and is trying to keep the gravy train rolling. Aware that staying in his good graces is a golden ticket for her career, Harper has advised Bloom to take out a massive short position against a fading brick-and-mortar British healthcare business. But Harper’s boss at Pierpoint thinks the stock is primed to go up, not down. And worse than that, the stock has become a fascination for retail investors on Reddit, who bid up its price and cause pain for the short sellers like Bloom who have bet on the stock to fail. (Sound familiar?)

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Harper’s bank knows Bloom is short the stock and, because of the mechanics of his trade, needs to buy back nearly 19 million shares to stop his bleeding. So Harper concocts a scheme. With Bloom on her headset and her colleagues surrounding her, she baits Pierpoint’s sharp-tongued market maker, Rishi Ramdani (Sagar Radia), into quoting Bloom at an extremely high price range to buy (Rishi thinks) the shares from Pierpoint to close out his short. Instead, once she has the binding verbal price offer from Rishi, Harper sells him the shares at the inflated price on Bloom’s behalf, leaving Rishi with 19 million shares of junk for which he has overpaid, and which Bloom will be driving down by having just sold so much of it. It promises to make Bloom a windfall on his short and to make Harper his banker forever.

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But after the release comes the quick regret. The trade stands to cost Harper’s employer millions of dollars and gets her suspended, and it gets worse for her when the Redditors once again send the stock price upward, leaving her future with Bloom in just as much flux as her future with the bank. It all remained uncertain entering Monday night’s season finale.

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Industry, which debuted with its first season in late 2020, follows a small group of recent graduates as they cut their teeth in high finance. As it wraps its second season, the show has established itself as an eminently watchable coming-of-age story for 20-somethings trying to make it in money—or trying to get out alive. Yasmin Kara-Hanani (Marisa Abela) is the heiress of a billionaire publisher. Gus Sackey (David Jonsson) is an Eton and Oxford grad who started at Pierpoint in large part because as a gay man, there were only so many ways he was willing to disappoint his rigidly traditional parents. Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey) is another Oxford grad, but the son of an absentee father in a working-class family. Harper forged a degree from SUNY Binghamton to get into the business and away from her own past.

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To the extent the show is about more than great sex and great deals, and where those two blur, it is most pressingly about how hard it is to be the person one wants to be while also succeeding in the most pressurized business environment there is. But that isn’t what makes Industry special. Every great series puts its characters in conflict: Cook that meth, or find another way to pay for your cancer treatment? Be loyal to your queen who’s also your cousin, or stab her to save the world? Fulfill your role as a Russian spy, or step back a bit to give your children a normal life in 1980s suburban D.C.? What sets Industry apart is what it borrows from other great shows of its era and how it mixes them into something all its own. There are shows that focus on bigger deals than this one. There are shows with better people, and shows with worse. There are shows with even more coke and more sex. But I don’t know if there is a show right now that shows moral retreat in real time like Industry does, nor one that feels so written for its moment. The result is one of the best shows currently streaming.

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When you think of Industry, HBO wants you to think of its big hits. At one point, there’s a Succession callback. (One character asks another, wearing a hat as he enters an office late at night for a clandestine meeting, why he is dressed like Kendall Roy.) The show’s Season 2 poster is very Game of Thrones, with Harper sitting and holding a baseball bat that might as well be a scepter in front of a couple of Bloomberg Terminal monitors that might as well be the Iron Throne. HBO knows that its audience greatly enjoys shows about people trying to climb over each other and into seats of power, whether they be in a boardroom, a fortress, or, if you go back far enough, a crime family. There are hints of that kind of squabbling throughout Industry. The first season builds toward “RIF Day,” when all of our young financial professionals understand that a huge chunk of their cohort will be casualties of a reduction in force. But this is where Industry makes clear that, despite its type-A resumes and setting, it’s not really a show about gaining power. Instead, it is a show about living to fight another day.

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The Season 2 poster for Industry, a la Game of Thrones.
The Season 2 poster wears its influence on its sleeve. HBO

The characters in Industry are not trying to get to the top of any particular pyramid as much as they’re trying to be the masters of their own fates. The young protagonists all have widely variable personal hells to run from, and their banking and financial careers are where they hope to find safe ground. Yasmin’s existential crisis is whether she can prove to herself that she’s something more than a rich womanizer’s powerless daughter. “Do you ever wonder where you’d be without money?” she asks Harper in this second season, coming to grips with how a luxury pajama shopping habit absorbed so much of her attention during COVID lockdowns. “I know exactly where I would be without money,” Harper tells her, leaving it to us to wonder about an answer that surely leads nowhere good. Robert, who spends the first season under the influence of a great many substances, realizes in the second season that he needs to stay on the straight and narrow to both keep his job and avoid becoming like his own father. Gus quit Pierpoint in a blaze of glory to cap the first season, and the second shows his effort to find something, anything, that might fulfill him without alienating his family to the maximum.

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There is big money on the line in Industry, and the main characters would all like to get some of it—OK, a lot of it. But they fundamentally do it to survive rather than to dominate. Ahead of the finale, four Pierpointers (Harper, Rishi, and Harper’s two most recent bosses) were plotting to jump to a different bank with company secrets in tow. But even now, they’re doing it because their current employer either suspended them, demoted them, or kept passing them over, and there is no way to tread water in a world this cutthroat.

In the course of surviving, almost everyone in Industry does some dirt. Here, too, it differs from something like Succession, which is practically a satire of bad people doing bad things to each other. In Succession, we do not see what corrupts people. We don’t need to. We are made to understand from the beginning—from the theme montage, even—that Logan Roy’s children were rotten from childhood, that their parents never took an interest in them, and the only thing they could ever aspire to was beating the other for Logan’s chair. Their family corrupted them, and a thirst for power made them monsters.

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Where Industry zigs is in showing how just trying to make a career for oneself, in a hostile enough environment, can corrupt someone in real time. Harper has had a difficult life, we come to understand, with an abusive mother, a father who wasn’t around, and a brother who blames her for the family’s past. As she says, she knows where she’d be without the job she faked her way into getting. At one point, a lucrative client with a taste for manipulating people who work for her sexually assaults her. At another, her own boss, an older man, locks her in a conference room and shuts the blinds. Later, at the behest of a much bigger boss, she pins that on a senior woman in the office so that her own abusive boss can return to the bank and bring another big client back into the fold along with him. (She also gets amnesty for having forged her degree.) Gus leaves Pierpoint and goes into constituent services for a member of parliament, work he quite enjoys. By the end of this season, he is moving into a more political role that will satiate his family, and he’s using his new job and his Oxford connections to bribe a professor into opening up a spot for Bloom’s son, with whom he is carrying on. Robert lets the client who assaulted Harper coerce him into a sexual relationship, and then he lets a more junior grad remain at a fancy dinner alone with the same assailing client. Robert has only gone from the restaurant for a few minutes when he returns in a huff to see that they are gone, too. The client assaults the grad, whom Robert had seen himself as mentoring as part of his project to be a kinder, more sober colleague. The head honcho at the bank advises underlings not to act on any of it.

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Some shows tell you from the jump that their protagonists start out rotten. Others show them descending into it over a longer arc. Industry posits that people are products of their environments, and that it’s much harder to run from demons than it is to time the stock market. The show also emphasizes how often people do bad things to each other as a defensive mechanism rather than out of bloodlust. On the one hand, that doesn’t make a given act any less harmful. On another, it makes the characters easier to identify with as they leave their own trails of destruction behind them. Even Bloom, the hedge funder nicknamed “Mr. Covid” for how he profiteered through the pandemic, is going through stuff. It’s a strength of Industry that even so, you sort of care about Bloom’s effort to find some connection with his son, even though his actions would be more than enough to justify his kid never talking to him again.

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To get those themes across, Industry keeps itself very much of this world. It is the only show I have watched that somehow turned the pandemic into a storytelling asset that ties characters together, rather than something to be clumsily written around. Harper starts the second season working from home, late to return to the office after going remote during the pandemic. That costs her popularity among her colleagues, but she gains it back by landing Bloom, who became famous for his COVID-era investing. And their Reddit short squeeze adventure together is, of course, set against the most pandemic of all trading stories. I enjoy a show that lets me get lost in its world, but Industry saves a lot of time by eschewing world-building and choosing to place itself at the center of a universe that already exists.

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The new season of Industry was just as awash in thrilling sex, bad sex, overeager substance decisions, and young people generally spending as much time in their clothes as out of them. Its hedonistic flash may actually have hidden how good it is from some. As in the real world, Industry doesn’t promise a happily ever after. Its characters are riding a hamster wheel that might as well electrocute them if they stop, and they all know it. The series drives that point home in its first episode, when a newly minted grad works himself to literal death in the Pierpoint office. It nods back to it time and again, including with characters in much higher stations. In the penultimate episode of the second season, Bloom sits in the great hall of his London mansion. He has a basketball hoop set up, but there is nobody to play with him, and nothing else in the room but 12 monitors that allow him to watch the markets. What else is he to do? Relax? With whom? Industry is a chronicle of ambitious people who are mostly in the primes of their careers. And yet at every moment, they’re all primed to go to zero faster than a heavily shorted British healthcare stock.

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