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‘Industry’ Can’t Decide Whether It Loves or Hates Capitalism

Gus Sackey (David Jonsson), Greg Grayson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey), Rishi Ramdani (Sagar Radia), Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold) in HBO's 'Industry.'
Gus Sackey (David Jonsson), Greg Grayson (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey), Rishi Ramdani (Sagar Radia), Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold) in HBO's 'Industry.' By Courtesy of Amanda Searle/HBO
By Isabella B. Cho, Contributing Writer

At first glance, you might think HBO’s new series, “Industry,” is about a Harvard blocking group. While this is not the case, the show does follow an eclectic group of five recent grads gunning for positions at the London investment bank Pierpoint & Co., posing questions about the morality of capitalism. The show aptly begins in the impersonal gloom of a corporate office, and follows the aspiring careerists through their first six months at Pierpoint as they slowly uncover the darker side of corporate life. Rather than sit with the unease of these ambiguities, however, “Industry” frequently averts its gaze, glamorizing the very culture it aims to call into question.

Despite its occasional inconsistencies, “Industry” features an impressive set of actors who — for the most part — successfully portray the nuanced conflicts of their characters. Rising actor Harry Lawtey deftly captures the smugness and charismatic swagger of Oxford jock Robert. Nabhaan Rizwan displays the deep-seated insecurities of Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan) while David Jonsson embodies the quiet intelligence of Oxford and Eton grad Augustus “Gus.” The show’s sets, which alternate between Pierpoint and the hires’ cramped apartments, also underscore the double lives that the characters lead.

Days into their careers, breathless young hires pile into a conference room where managing director Eric (Ken Leung) and executive Sara (Priyanga Burford) facilitate initiation. Moments after congratulating them on surviving a grueling application process, the executives emphasize that in half a year’s time, one in two hires will be let go. “So look at the guy or gal next to you — really look. Do you think you’re better than them? Maybe you are. But half of you won’t be here in six months,” Eric admonishes. His recurrent emphasis on competition and exclusivity demand the question: How can genuine collaboration occur when employees are conditioned to believe their worth hinges on the inferiority of their teammates? Pierpoint — sleek with panoramic glass walls, spiraling staircases, and obscure postmodern art — quickly begins to resemble a fashionable prison.

“Industry” extends its most incisive commentary on the lucrative seductiveness of finance during shots that illuminate the granular miseries of corporate life. Robert reckons with an apathetic, taciturn superior while Hari, buckling under the insecurity of failing to attend an elite university, chugs Red Bulls as he fumbles over financial models until dawn. At one point, Harper (Myha’la Herrold) even endures the sexual advances of a drunken client in a cab. Moments of genuine distress briefly shatter the proud façades of the show’s burgeoning careerists: In the first episode, a drunken Hari confides to Harper, “I went to state school, and they even talk to me differently.” It is in these moments — when the propulsive exhilaration of money-making is replaced with slow, contemplative vulnerability — that the show realizes its fullest potential.

The characters’ competing interests are flattened, however, by unrealistic audacity and stiff dialogue that borders on didactic. After her ugly encounter with an abrasive boss at a team dinner, Harper comforts a dejected Yasmin (Marisa Abela). “No one’s gonna give you agency,” the former philosophizes, taking a hit of a Juul. “You have to take it. Try not to think about all the different ways that you can be wrong.” Harper’s abrupt pep talk seems patronizing — not to mention woefully contrived — in the face of the verbal abuse Yasmin experiences at the hands of her superiors. In another scene, Harper cusses at a senior employee, begging him to help her with a botched trade deal. Her clear disregard for authority is neither admirable nor empowering: It simply makes the show less believable. Despite her brazen irreverence, Harper is somehow miraculously exempt from being fired, a prospect that drives her fellow competitors into a state of perpetual anxiety.

Aesthetically and morally compelling sequences partially redeem the exasperating two-dimensionality of Harper’s character. Scenes of Yasmin, Hari, and Gus trailing after harping executives and finicky clients are interspersed with mesmerizing sequences in which the young hires — nervous, disoriented, and giddy with the promise of an ascendent future — sway, drunk and high, in gorgeous vintage bars. The vapid materialism of “Mad Men” meets the shimmering, psychedelic abandon and brooding angst of “Euphoria.”

For all its pomp and drama, “Industry,” at least in its first four episodes, fails to deliver a coherent argument about the ethics of climbing the hierarchy in a workplace so suffocatingly competitive. Through juxtaposed sequences of fist-pumping sales victories and bathroom meltdowns, the show can’t seem to decide between romanticizing wealth or condemning its dehumanizing power.

The characters’ unresolved ambivalence toward their work is more aggravating than poignant. Though they lament the dubious ethics of embracing capitalism, they do so while reveling in the very lifestyle — one of fancy steak dinners, coveted social status, and a seemingly endless supply of coke and bubbly — they purport to take issue with. Sure, the protagonists’ conflicted agony between personal fulfillment and money is understandable, perhaps even inevitable. That doesn’t negate the fact that their woes are dwarfed by those of people who aren’t gunning for six-figure salaries months after graduation. Though “Industry” extends a rich moral conundrum, it lacks the observational teeth to sink into the nuanced complexities of its own prompt.

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