Posh suits, white shirts, body-hugging skirts. Plush interiors, corridors for smoke breaks. Tech systems connecting the world economy, an occasional Friday dressing-down with the purple hoodie. Beaujolais, cabernets, terrible coffee. Shared apartments of fresh graduates, fragile egos. Relentless desires, the cadence of overstepping roles and boundaries, rigidity of hierarchies.
All these are images from the new HBO series “Industry”, in which Pierpoint, one of the top investment banks in Britain manoeuvres and weeds through the new crop of graduates from finance.
Industry escapes the ethical relativism of “SCAM 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story” and evades the judgmental moralism of Madhur Bhandarkar-industry prototype films. It sits between actions, will, and the ever-grinding and forever-growing social ladder, as it is more importantly focused on the fiction of the commodity called money in the marketplace. Only “Rocket Singh”, and the beautiful opening montage of the hospitality industry in “October” represent the Indian workplace decently enough.
Hari, an overworking South Asian, dies of a heart attack after consuming excessive Red Bulls and medicines to keep him awake. Pierpoint’s President – another South Asian – Sara Dhadwal, keeps a close eye on his black colleague, Gus, a gay black graduate from Eton and Oxford, to ensure he does not blurt out anything about the systemic failure.
However, the story’s two main protagonists are Harper Stern, a young black girl with performance anxiety, and Yasmin Kara-Hanani, the unsure bratty daughter of affluent crème-de-la-crème Lebanese parents. Initially, they support each other, and Yasmin allows Harper into her parents’ house, where she lives with her boyfriend. Soon, informality vanishes, proximity collapses, and the mind games begin.
Both girls get caught up, at times willingly, into the office’s psychodrama, beyond the usual who is sleeping with whom, when, why, and how. Workplace gossip becomes a vehicle to first milk their position as vulnerable graduates and then to enhance their social standing within closed corridors and shushed glass doors, and to enter politicking. In between the two girls swivels a pendulum called Robert. The working-class Oxford graduate drug-addict goes wherever events, people, situations lead him. Harper herself is a pendulum between the Asian Eric Tao, and Daria, the white, blonde VP.
Since figures, numbers, and fiction matter, in 9 episodes this season, we see more or less the same format as any other workplace scenario. You think you know the characters, but do you really? They play politics, flip sides, and change over time. Life lessons, inward upheavals, outward outbursts abound. Nobody fully knows anyone, and everyone is petty at some point. We can also check off deftly done sex scenes, and a scene when someone gets funny drunk and pours their heart out.
Not to mention, multiple arches within the narrative intersect, deviate, bring characters close and then pull them apart. And there are two clear halves, the fifth episode being the turning point; the first half of the season digs deep into trade lingo and explicates the world, while the second embarks on the slippery slope of personal, unreliable, and initiated intimacies.
Industry balances ethical questions with half-cooked intentionality and typical tropes of personages. This means that characters could be right and wrong at the same time. They could be completely off in their judgment about each other, yet be right, all thanks to their ever-shifting motivations. Yasmin and Harper have a conflict at the end; Harper rightly calls her a hypocrite, but we have seen enough of Yasmin to know that it’s not entirely true. Yasmin rightly calls Harper self-centred, but we also see what Harper has gone through to be where she is. This play of being righteous and terrible people simultaneously is what’s unique about Industry’s screenwriting.
Yasmin is unhappy with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, but he checks out when all the financial talk goes on and has an outsider perspective towards her banking industry job. She is blinded by her desire; in one scene, when things are going topsy-turvy as they do in her sector, she gives a hand job to Robert in the men’s bathroom and looks in the mirror at herself. There is a rare pink-yellow flush of a jouissance/drive on her face – she has embodied the excesses, the fiction, and all the contradictions of her workplace.
But such a scene is a rarity as otherwise, the Gen-Z scenario is mostly about not knowing what one wants, about how their lives are coated with layers of reality TV style appearances and looks, absolute swigs of alcohol, drugs, and ambition, passionate swings of the arms, and wagging coarse tongues. All of them are at each other’s throats. By the time we arrive at frivolous drug-fuelled nights and completely unnecessary threesomes-gone-wrong, we see how exhausting the lives of Gen-Z people are and why they suffer so much torment to get to where they are.
However, all the drama is diffused behind the facades of the series’ architecture and works in the crevices and recesses of the characters’ minds, and in their opinion/perception of each other.
Harper, Yasmin, Eric, and Daria, among others, are not willing to change their positions. Unlike Gus, who walks out of the firm, head held high; Rishi, who cheers him on while continuing to work in his no-nonsense mode; Greg, who dreams of doing creative work for which he must muster the courage to take the leap.
Yet, when you hedge bets, you never really know how they will play out. A simple conversation between middle-rung Irish boss Kenny (who suddenly opens up about his vulnerabilities), and Yasmin turns nasty over time. Dealing with internal office politics, everyone thinks in terms of linear, causal narratives, but acts in a non-linear, haphazard way, detrimental to their own positioning. The number of variables that influence the outcome is more than what the financial analysts can think of.
While it is strange that people who predict for a living cannot pre-empt what turns life is going to take, it isn’t really that far-fetched. They want the market to go up and above and then strategically fall when they can benefit from it. Positions are up for grabs, but one must go through corporate rituals, suffer, and sustain to be worthy.
In one sense, this competition for space and jobs is also a fiction of Capital. There could be enough jobs without the cut-throat competition but to pretend that talent is the only currency required to be seen by higher-ups, is the first hoax to engage young graduates. Once they are in, things do not exactly turn out the way they want, but they have to further perpetuate such stupidity around worthiness. The probabilities in life choices are mere guesswork. This uncertainty around predictions drives the neo-liberal gig nature of the contemporary political economy.
The characters here move, yet they are stuck in the (w)hole capitalist realism. There seems to be no escape because this is the fiction they want- to conjure up money, to run the market, to think that they run the world, and to feel powerful. But the next moment, like the market crash, they fall, and then they feel powerless. Little do they know that they have not caught hold of power momentarily; power has grabbed them by their necks… permanently!
Hrishikesh Arvikar is a film researcher at The School of Communication and Arts, University of Queensland. He is also a scenarist working on two screenplays, and a web series.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.