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HBO’s ‘Industry’ Is So Much More Than Horny Coked-Up Bankers Going Down on Each Other

For those of us who don’t work in finance and don’t earn anything near the average financier’s income, the characters on Industry, the new HBO drama about ambitious young grads vying for permanent roles at an investment bank, might seem like exactly the kind of people we’d like to avoid in real life, much less follow in our spare time—especially in the current employment climate.

Commenters on the series’ underwhelming trailer, shared to YouTube in October, said as much.

“Oh great, a show about the worst people in the world,” sneered one.

“Yeah good luck trying to humanise parasitic financiers,” wrote another.

And yet, anyone who bothers to tune into the show will learn that this is exactly what writers Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, both former bankers, have done.

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Season 1 of Industry

Industry’s main players are some of the most complex characters I’ve seen depicted on TV in some time, with even the most repugnant of them never being completely unlikable (thanks in no small part to the wondrous cast of largely unknown actors). There’s only one character who it is hard to connect deeply with, not because he’s unsympathetic, but because we only know him so briefly. The series offers thrilling insight into the rarefied, cutthroat world of forex trading—we don’t understand exactly what’s going on most of the time, but the tension is palpable—and these aspiring young bankers are compelling for all of the reasons they are different to us, and for the ways in which they are unexpectedly similar.

The lead character is American transplant Harper Stern, played with a deft balance of hubris and fragility by Myha’la Herrold. She faked her college transcript to land the trial at Pierpoint & Co. but atones for any inferiority, real or imagined, with a ruthless, risk-filled approach to doing business, encouraged by her combustible boss, Eric (the brilliant Ken Leung), who tells her, “I don’t need quiet and nice on my desk.”

The only Black woman on the floor (as far as we can see), Harper knows that some of her fellow recruits see her as a token hire, but this makes her doubly determined to impress, and Eric, an Asian American, sees something of himself in her. “Hunger is not a birthright,” he tells Harper when she finally admits to what could have been a career-ending mistake, saved by her own shamelessness, while he in turn reveals that he knows she never graduated from college (something to do with a mysterious incident related to her estranged twin brother).

When Eric is fired after Harper lets it slip that he locked her in a meeting room while giving her a brutal dressing down, it leads to the series’ most shocking turn of events in the finale, where Eric is reinstated after Harper tells her superiors that her VP on the desk, Daria (Freya Mavor of Skins), put her up to reporting the incident for Daria’s own gain.

To Daria and senior executive Sara (Priyanga Burford), who saw Eric’s departure as an opportunity to change the culture at the bank and replace “invisible men” with “visible women,” Harper’s decision to bring Eric back, granted to her after she is offered a permanent role at Pierpoint, is a betrayal of the sisterhood.

But the beauty of Industry is that gender politics, along with other “big issues” such as race, class and sexuality, are never dealt with in a predictable or clear-cut fashion, and Harper ultimately sides with the man she can relate to over the women who see her as a victim.

Yasmin (the magnetic Marisa Abela) is another delicious mess of contradictions. A well-to-do multilingual vixen, her treatment of her lovers is borderline masochistic while in the office she’s timid and submissive, spending the first few weeks on the job doing little more than collecting lunch for her odious line manager Kenny (Conor MacNeill, excellent) and other colleagues.

She and Harper form an unlikely friendship after Harper sticks up for Yasmin during a particularly vile outburst from Kenny, and end up living together when Harper takes the spare room at Yasmin’s mother’s plush pad in Notting Hill.

Yasmin is a lot kinder to Harper than she is to her love interests, but her generosity is never fully appreciated by Harper, who sees Yasmin as a threat when it comes to work and romance. Yasmin is appalled when Harper knifes Daria in the finale, but Harper calls her out on her own weakness—her reluctance to report Kenny’s abusive behavior lest Yasmin’s direct manager decide she’s not a “team player” (never mind the fact that Harper grovels with a female client who sexually assaulted her to save her bacon from a botched deal).

…the sex in the show serves as a vehicle to better understand its characters—as well as being refreshingly graphic in its portrayal of gay sex and cunnilingus.

For all the hoo-ha around Industry’s “sordid” sex scenes, the sex in the show serves as a vehicle to better understand its characters—as well as being refreshingly graphic in its portrayal of gay sex and cunnilingus (on Industry, this happens far more frequently than blowjobs). It’s fascinating to see Yasmin humiliated by a lap dance ordered by Kenny on a night out with a prospective client in one scene, and in another, to watch her order her infatuated colleague Robert to eat his own semen after masturbating him in the office bathroom. Harper’s similarly dominant “me first” approach to sex mirrors her unapologetically self-serving MO in the office. As she says to Yasmin of the latter, “No one’s going to give you agency, you have to take it for yourself.”

The show’s male characters are no less intriguing and complex. Robert (the terrific Harry Lawtey), a hard-partying playboy from a working-class background, is also the show’s biggest softie. An unfailingly loyal mate who really just wants to take a girl to dinner, he trades on his charm rather than his competency at work and sometimes feels insecure about it.

Pompous Etonian and Oxford graduate Gus (a great David Jonsson) is tortured by his secret love affair with Theo (Will Tudor), who has a girlfriend, and by the death of his deskmate and fellow grad Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan), who collapsed in a bathroom stall in the first episode from overwork while trying to compensate for his less prestigious education.

Clement (Derek Riddell), Robert’s line manager, is a closeted addict and aging relic from a bygone era who exploits Robert’s daddy issues, while Kenny is occasionally contrite and candid with Yasmin, blaming his foul behavior on his drinking and his distaste for people who “haven’t had to work for anything.”

Even Eric, who loses a client after saying something offensive in front of the client’s wife (we never learn exactly what), has a dysfunctional, vulgar repartee with his own wife, and is prone to excoriating colleagues on the office floor, is also shown as a tender, playful father to his daughters, a quality that might have factored into Harper’s decision to bring him back to the bank. The depth and complexity of these characters makes our feelings toward them fluctuate as unpredictably as the stock market.

Like the sex depicted in the show, the drug-taking in Industry is wanton. It also feels remarkably true to life, in the way that for cashed-up young professionals, drugs are both status symbol and stress release (used recreationally and to enhance performance in the office) and in how convincingly the actors convey the rapture and physicality of intoxication, from their saucer-like pupils to unfettered gurning.

It helps that the music that accompanies these scenes and throughout the entire series is spot-on—both Nathan Micay’s gorgeous, earworm score and the tastemaking, cool kids soundtrack, chosen with finesse by music supervisor Oliver White.

By the finale of the series, which packs all of the above and more into eight remarkably tight episodes, investment banking comes off as a rather unappealing career, in spite of the paychecks and bonuses. One grad works himself to death, another is the casualty of his drug-fueled escapism, the days are long and stressful, and workplace harassment and abuse are the norm.

For most viewers, this won’t come as a revelation, but Industry’s greatest achievement is turning a bunch of people it would be easy to hate into characters we can relate to (emotionally, at least) and even root for as they grapple with occasional conflict about their chosen profession. “Are we all cunts?” Robert asks Yasmin at an open day where they are assailed by precocious university students. “You have to have a certain level of cuntishness to go into this line of work,” says Yasmin. It’s these moments of self-awareness, and watching the grads navigate the messy business of being a young adult that marks Industry’s greatest achievement—imbuing these bankers with surprising humanity. Turns out that parasitic financiers have feelings too.

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