A scrappy young woman makes her way into the world of finance through less-than-legitimate means, finding would-be mentors, romance, and ultimately, success. In 1988, that woman was Tess McGill and the production was Mike Nichols’ Working Girl. In 2020, she’s Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold), one of the leads in HBO’s finance drama Industry. The series, from first-time creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, isn’t actually an adaptation of the Melanie Griffith-led romantic comedy, but Harper’s story certainly mirrors Tess’. This Gen Z banker also has a head for business, a bod for sin, and a working-class background that forces her to dissemble in front of the “masters of the universe.”
Though Industry is much more of an ensemble drama, Harper is at the forefront for the first half of season one. She’s both our entry-point character and a cipher. In the pilot, her soon-to-be boss Eric (Ken Leung) notes that her state-school education puts her at a disadvantage next to all the Oxford and Cambridge grads vying for a spot at Pierpoint & Co., one of the most prestigious banks in London. Harper is unfazed, insisting that the world of finance is “the closest thing we have to a meritocracy.” You’d think that kind of wildly optimistic statement would mean she is promptly eaten alive once she starts working under Eric’s supervision. But Harper’s willing to do just about anything to succeed, and so are her fellow Pierpoint novitiates Yasmin Kara-Hanani (Marisa Abela), Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey), and Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan.)
Lena Dunham directs the premiere, cultivating her knack for stories centered on a group of horny, searching, and self-centered twentysomethings. The Girls creator captures the intoxicating energy of your first “real” job, and the impulse to let that work define or otherwise validate you. This is truer of Yasmin, an already-wealthy grad trying to get out from her family’s shadow, and Harper than it is of the middle-class Robert, who might as well have walked in off the street one day, for all the insight he has to offer. Hari is more committed—or obsessed—than all the rest, napping in toilet stalls between projects rather than heading home to his efficiency apartment. Mid-level and senior employees fill out the rest of Industry’s world, but the series’ focus is on this batch of new recruits, whose employment status at Pierpoint is only temporary. In order to snag one of the permanent spots, Harper, Hari, Yasmin, and Robert must endure cracks about their appearances and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as show greater ingenuity than entrenched employees who pitched their last good idea in the 1990s.
The story of proving yourself is a timeless one, but Industry grounds its narrative in our current, confounding times, where political chasms are the norm and romance (which, in Industry, is near-anonymous sex) is facilitated by apps. Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and their failures in leadership are name-checked, along with a string of 21st-century financial crises. Greed is still good, as far as Eric and the rest of the Pierpoint staff are concerned, but those capitalizing on it are no longer just white men. That latter point helps set Industry apart from similar series about the world of finance and high-stress workplaces. Down and Kay, who wrote half of season one’s episodes, do consider what the capitalist rat race looks like for those who have historically brought up the rear, including women of color like Harper and Yasmin. When a (white, male) potential roommate tells Harper it’s “gauche to judge success with money,” she responds, “Not if you never had any.”
But Harper’s goals and her drive to succeed aren’t treated as sacred, or even admirable; they’re just a part of who she is, which underscores one of the problems with the character. Though Harper features prominently in each of the four episodes screened for critics, we don’t learn much about her outside of her aspirations. Her objectives, even the quirkier ones like seeing an uncircumcised penis, fuel the story. But Harper’s backstory is one of the most vaguely sketched of the group—she’s canny, ambitious, and personable, but there’s little sense of why she’s so driven to succeed. Down and Kay could be banking these revelations for the second half of the season, but their absence is felt early on.
Herrold’s character isn’t hampered by these missing pieces, or even the dense banking jargon that renders most of the workplace interactions in a foreign language. It’ll take at least an episode or two before most viewers realize that FX refers not to the network but to “foreign exchange,” and that all the riff talk is actually talk of “RIF,” a reduction in force, i.e., judgment day for these recruits. But it’s kind of beside the point—the young cast imbues the financialese with its meaning, not the other way around. Herrold and Abela are the two most exciting performers, and they frequently play off each other as Harper’s and Yasmin’s storylines intertwine. Lawtey is capable of great charm, even if he does represent the many mediocre men who just happen to find themselves at the center of all the action. Jonsson’s Gus is sandwiched between tragedy and disappointment for much of the first half, which leaves him little room to look more than frustrated or morose. The more established actors keep up with their younger cohort, particularly Leung, who gives off a brash, Glengarry Glen Ross vibe but seems fearful of shifting fortunes. Eric and Harper’s dynamic is one of the most compelling—he quickly steps into the role of mentor, but there are signs he’s on the decline, which could affect just how well he looks after his mentee.
Their relationship is among the more refreshing elements in Industry, which mostly plays as a workplace drama. There are moments of genuine insight about how much said workplace has changed, from the make-up of employees to rise-and-grind culture to mixed messages from executives about “slowing down” while also “not letting up.” They’re too far and few between the bacchanalian scenes and familiar storytelling beats about succeeding at all cost, which sets Industry squarely in mid-cap territory.