The Steely Drama of Industry's Naked Office Politics

The HBO series takes the ecosystem of a drab, grayscale office and punches up—paper sharks swim in the water: cannibalistic, unpredictable, and claustrophobic.

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The Steely Drama of <i>Industry</i>'s Naked Office Politics

Investment bankers carry a certain rock n’ roll notoriety, but above all else, as young people with an ungodly amount of money. HBO’s Industry doesn’t neglect this stereotype. Instead, it couples the known lasciviousness of the job against its lesser-known opposite: the sterility of its corporate politics. Like the name of the show suggests, the London-set Industry familarizes itself with the bland as well as the hazards that loom within seemingly innocuous workplace environments. Banking becomes nearly background chatter for this show—almost any high-pressure profession could sub in for the center of business. Instead, Industry sets its sights on the granular of office life. The age-old adage of “Are you working to live or living to work?” becomes complicated under Industry’s gaze. What is the substance of survival, let alone success?

The show understands that the answers to these questions vary by degrees. With a diverse freshmen class of actors playing the title characters, Industry leans on identity politics to slot out consequences for its cast. The central crucible for all the characters remains RiF; a “Reduction in Force” day, where only a fraction of the intern class secures employment after a probationary period. Each character must employ different tactics to navigate her way to security—and the reward’s sweetness varies by a wide margin. The title lead, Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold), a scrappy New Yorker with dubious credentials that she makes up for in sheer willpower, faces opposition for her Americanness in London and being Black against the whiteness of the finance world. Her closest friend, Yasmin (Marisa Abela), finds herself sidelined as the “salad girl,” while ensconced by family money and a Notting Hill townhouse that other interns hope to secure instead of maintain. Gus (David Jonsson), resents his corporate siloing after his fellow deskmate dies at the desk. Robert (Harry Lawtey) carries the hallmarks of an Oxbridge degree and white male privilege, but carries the weight of his class into the boardroom.

If Industry were a less ambitious show, it would harp on the unfairness of its characters’ particular disenfranchisement. And while the series does have a knack for massaging every microaggression out within every uncomfortable scene, it’s uninterested in devising purity tests for its villains and heroes—those categories blend anyways. Harper, a prototypical underdog, doesn’t hesitate to sink her teeth into friends’ ankles for a leg up. Yasmin’s salad-girl-submissiveness dissolves when she leverages her sexuality against Rob. This tactical maneuvering seen by all the characters also deflates cheap ways to build audience likeability points. Industry plays realpolitik with race and gender where other office shows like Freeform’s The Bold Type cling to a white feminism security blanket to proceed. Its central story is power.

Industry’s writing sparkles when characters jockey to consolidate this power. For Yasmin and Harper, negotiating the post #MeToo corporate liabilities versus ingratiating themselves into old boys’ club’s graces requires a calculus and a long term vision. Alliances and alignments add another kind of work on top of the work itself; and Industry suggests it’s the central one. For all the stress seeping into office, though, Industry flashes its HBO status with explicit sex scenes—after all, these interns need some valve for release. With half the main cast queer and rest at least homoflexible, the everyone has a shot to fuck or be fucked over by a peer, literally and meteraphorically.

Zooming out, there’s a final population who gets screwed but goes unannounced: the average consumer. From threats manifesting within the glamour of nightlife to the stress-sweat soaked 9-to-5, the cast seems to take every hard knock. But with murmurings of the subprime housing crisis, will this show unveil its last ambiguous villain as the industry of Industry? For a show that makes its title both foreground and background, when will it come out of relief? For making its setting a set piece itself, Industry runs a risk—but it knows its characters keep it in the black.

Industry airs Monday nights on HBO and has been renewed for Season 2.


Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea

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