The title for HBO’s Industry is deceptively simple. It’s a catch-all term, after all. If I’m in Hollywood and I talk about “the industry,” people know what I’m talking about, whereas that likely gets read differently if I’m, say, in Silicon Valley. But that kind of shorthand (in the show’s case we’re talking about stock trading) is one of the things that made the first season of this Mickey Down and Konrad Kay-created series so transfixing. Unlike other workplace dramas—and boy are we experiencing a renaissance of that once familiar genre—Industry felt intentionally insular. As a narrative strategy, the show continuously opted to place audience members as flies on the walls of Pierpont & Co. If there were conversations you didn’t understand while the characters spoke about investments or futures or stocks that was almost by design. Here was a show that didn’t hand hold you through its run. It expected you to catch up—or, barring that, to realize that the emotional beats you were following could overcome any confusion about what the cutthroat players at Pierpont were gabbing on about.
The opening moments of season two of this HBO/BBC Two co-production similarly plunge you into a new normal with little fanfare. With the efficiency that characterized season one, there’s little guidance as to where (or when!) we are. It’s only through sheer circuitous repetition that we gather what we’re watching: the last year or so at Pierpont where the likes of Yas (Marisa Abela), Harper (Myha’la Herrold), and Robert (Harry Lawtey) have been going about their days now as Pierpont employees—all through a pandemic nonetheless.
As someone who binged the entirety of Industry during the winter lockdown part of COVID’s first year, it was, at first, a tad disorienting watch the show deal head-on with how this “industry” handled what’s been branded a “return to normal.” Unsurprisingly, it’s Harper who remains the sole holdout in going back to business as usual. Not only has she always done her own thing, but after the events of season one, it’s understandable she’d want to keep some distance from friends and foes alike at the firm. And so, instead of being yet another person warming a seat at the office, she’s spent the better part of the year in a hotel, swimming in an empty pool, avoiding people, and staying safe. Oh, and casing that other American she keeps running into: Jay Duplass’ Jesse Bloom (a.k.a. Mr. COVID, a hedge-fund manager who made bank during the early days of the pandemic, a.k.a. a perfect mark for Harper/Pierpont). It’s Jesse who delivers the line of the episode, quoting Jean-Paul Sartre of all people, while passing Harper one morning as she exits the pool: “Hell is other people.”
The line, from Sartre’s famous play, No Exit, wherein four strangers slowly realize they’re trapped together in a room for eternity in what’s surely the simplest if most effective kind of torture ever designed, could and does very well speak to the capitalist hell that Industry is intent on capturing. For while we may talk about “toxic work environments” and “structural inequities”—alongside gender, class, and race, say—there’s no escaping the fact that such systemic issues begin with people. Other people.
Take Yas. Through her first few months at Pierpont, she had to suffer many baked-in indignities as the newbie in her cohort. She wholly abhorred the hazing she was subjected to (like getting everyone lunches) and objected to the way she was rarely taken seriously (being put on the spot and demeaned was a rite of initiation she grew to hate). And yet, in seeing a younger colleague push back against these institutional bullying practices, she finds herself emboldened to perpetuate them. It’s an easy case of “I had to suffer, so must you” mentality that often characterizes a capitalistic ethos. Why would I throw you a ladder down when I had to climb this wall all by myself? This is how these cycles of abuse get reinforced; and it’s telling Yas would later opt to try and move up in the world (or, up the building) than grapple with her own team and her own newfound position in her team. She’s always been a canny operator and, as with everyone else in her field (in her industry, more like), she’s not one to waste an opportunity.
Similarly, the toxicity that permeates Pierpont and every other legacy institution like it makes itself felt in someone like Rishi (Sagar Radia), who cannot stand the way Harper has operated at her hotel room un-surveilled by co-workers and managers alike. She proves, at least, that she’s still making moves to benefit the firm—or, at the very least, herself. She’s not about to let Jesse Bloom go anywhere, even if it means pissing off Eric and continuing to ignore his pleas for her to go to the third floor and seek some guidance, which she keenly points out reads more like a way for him to cover his ass than any genuine concern. Does this cutthroat industry allow for such a thing? Is there room for kindness, friendship, or even compassion when bosses, co-workers, and friends are being pit against one another on any given day? Inquiring minds would like to know.
- Yas mistaking a Pierpont higher up for a, “um, is it sex worker?” may well be the subplot of the season. It so speaks to her moneyed privilege and the blinkered image of those around her she cannot seem to ever shake off, even when she has the best of intentions. Once an heiress, always an heiress.
- The writing in Industry season one always tickled me for the way it managed to sketch out whole characters with the sparsest of dialogue. And getting Rishi’s podcasting fiancée to talk about how much she loves Roxane Gay was such a perfect character-defining trait that I felt like I immediately knew who she was.
- If “Inner Light” by Elderbrook & Bob Moses isn’t already in constant rotation, here’s hoping hearing it during this episode forces you to seek it out and replay it as often as I do on any given day.
- I keep growing fonder of Robert, but even I have to admit that “risible” is a rather pompous word to use on a work call.
- As much as season one hinged on Harper keeping her secret from Eric and the firm, it seems we’re leaving that bit of backstory behind (though it may become Harper’s own recurring Dick Whitman revelation, bubbling up every once in a while when narratively needed).
- We’ll likely have more time to unpack this, but I submit here in writing the following thesis: Few shows out there are as insightful as Industry is when it comes to depicting the “sex is power” equation that so often gets touted about. In a world where everything is a transaction, it makes sense that even those moments of close intimacy would always be tinged with the specter of capitalistic reciprocity.
- “You’re taking our spare room.” Sometimes you don’t want to see the narrative gears grinding so loudly in front of you, but I guess this is as solid a way of folding Harper back into the world of the office as any other, right?