From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject The Thatcherite Brutality of “Industry”
Date January 11, 2021 5:50 AM
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[Despite its relative diversity, HBOs “Industry” is peppered
with casual instances of sexism, racism, and classism.]
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Naomi Fry
January 9, 2021
The New Yorker
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_ Despite its relative diversity, HBO's “Industry” is peppered
with casual instances of sexism, racism, and classism. _

Despite its relative diversity, “Industry” is peppered with
casual instances of sexism, racism, and classism., Photograph by
Amanda Searle / HBO


Although the fourth season of “The Crown” is likely to be
remembered as “the Diana season,” it also sketches a much broader
portrait of Britain’s transformation under Margaret Thatcher’s
premiership, depicting the poisonous trickling of neoliberal policy
into the lives of ordinary citizens. One episode is based on the true
story of Michael Fagan, an out-of-work house painter who has grown
increasingly desperate in a country ravaged by unemployment. (“Oh,
fuck off! Fuck off!” he shouts, waking up in his crumbling council
flat, while the radio airs the Prime Minister’s exhortation that
“background, where you come from, doesn’t matter.” Rather, she
says, the country will be remade by “the successful people, the
people who can show they are determined to get ahead.”) Fagan,
poverty-stricken and reaching a point of crisis, manages to breach
security at Buckingham Palace, and sneaks into Queen Elizabeth II’s
bedroom, where he begs her to save Britain from Thatcher. “She’s
destroying the country!” he cries. “We’ve got more than three
million unemployed.” When the Queen suggests that “the state can
help” with Fagan’s troubles, he snaps back, “What state? The
state has gone. She’s dismantled it, along with all the other things
we thought we could count on growing up: a sense of community, a sense
of obligation to one another, a sense of kindness. It’s all
disappearing . . . the right to be frail, be human—gone.”

I kept thinking back to this scene as I watched “Industry,”
another recent British series, now available to stream on HBO Max.
Unlike the rich and vivid period setting of “The Crown,” with its
geographically and temporally varied vistas, “Industry” takes
place in the very recent past of 2020, and depicts a tightly framed
milieu: a group of entry-level employees at Pierpoint & Company, a
fictional investment bank in the City of London. Much of the plot
unfolds on the charmless trading floor, which is scattered with
plastic takeout containers and coffee cups and energy-drink cans—the
sticky, linty detritus of long days spent unblinkingly in front of
computer monitors, attempting to turn a profit. The show’s
protagonists, recent university graduates, who are the lowest on the
bank’s totem pole, have six months to prove their utility to
Pierpoint in order to receive permanent-job offers; at the end of the
trial period is an annual culling known as “_rif_” (reduction in
force). This “Survivor”-like setup, rife with lonely, sleepless
nights of feverish plotting and of alliances made and broken—all
scored to Nathan Micay’s excellent, nerve-racking electronic
soundtrack—determines the harsh tenor of the series from its
beginning. “Industry” is unsettling yet compulsively watchable.

The pilot, directed by Lena Dunham, opens with the characters at their
job interviews, in which they answer questions pertaining to their
background and career aspirations. “I play third fiddle to two
figures in my mother’s life: Jesus Christ and Margaret Thatcher,”
Gus Sackey, a smug Eton and Oxford grad (David Jonsson), says. “And
where do you stand on them?” one interviewer asks. “One’s the
reason we’re all here,” Gus answers, with a smile. “And the
other’s a carpenter.” In the world of “Industry,” the bonds of
kindness, obligation, and community that Michael Fagan longs for seem
like prehistoric relics. This is the free market, which rewards a
certain brutality of self-interest. No one cares about carpenters, or
house painters, for that matter, and no one questions whether the
Thatcherite revolution has triumphed.

Alongside Gus, others interviewing for a job at Pierpoint include
Yasmin , a pencil-skirted, pussy-bowed posh girl with a naughty side
(Marisa Abela); Robert, a working-class, party-animal Oxford graduate
(Harry Lawtey); and Harper, the show’s de-facto heroine (Myha’la
Herrold), a Black American grad with a murky past. (Early on, it is
revealed that Harper didn’t even graduate from the middling state
college that she attended, as she contemplates sending a doctored
transcript to Pierpoint’s H.R. guy.) “Mediocrity is too well
hidden by parents who hire private tutors. I am here on my own,”
Harper says to Eric, the managing director of Pierpoint’s Cross
Products Sales (the very good Ken Leung), who later becomes her boss
and mentor. “I think this is the closest thing to a meritocracy
there is,” she adds. “And I only ever want to be judged on the
strength of my abilities.” Despite her unremarkable credentials,
this declaration, which might nearly have been delivered by the Iron
Lady circa 1982, gets Harper the job.

Many directors, especially since the nineteen-eighties, have set out
to portray the precariousness and toughness of the business world,
from Oliver Stone in “Wall Street” to Martin Scorsese in “The
Wolf of Wall Street.” Recent small-screen projects like
“Billions” and “Succession” have continued this trend. But
“Industry,” which is the one show created by former
bankers—Konrad Kay and Mickey Down, who used to work in the
City—might be the grimmest offering of the bunch. The pilot
concludes with something of a ritual sacrifice: after pulling multiple
all-nighters, downing Red Bulls and popping modafinil in order to
complete a report, a young striver named Hari (Nabhaan Rizwan)
collapses and dies in an office-bathroom stall. This causes
consternation at the bank, which stems not from any true concern for
the well-being of the new hires but from an ass-covering impulse. The
death was an “unexpected tragedy,” a top manager tells the
graduates, before instructing them not to speak to the press.

Harper had been sympathetic to Hari when he was alive, offering him a
place to crash when she noticed him looking particularly anxious and
fatigued one night. But rather than mourning his death, she appears to
gain a renewed vigor and sense of direction in the immediate wake of
his passing. She closes her first deal with a major client—an
older-woman financier who sexually harassed her at a meeting the night
before—and goes through with sending her bogus diploma to H.R.
Harper is determined not to be a loser in this game. Unlike many of
her fellow-grads, she’s going to secure a permanent position at
Pierpoint. Unlike Hari, she is going to live.

But what does living mean, here? The series displays not just the
spoils but also the costs of the path that Harper and her peers have
chosen. (This type of exploration, mind you, is not for everyone: “I
don’t _care_ what happens to these horrible people,” my husband
would grumble every time I’d sit down to watch the show.) The spaces
in “Industry,” which are rendered in a dingy, pallid palette of
grays and whites and blues and blacks, feel deadeningly
claustrophobic, not just within the workplace but also without.
Outside the office, the grads go fast and hard—the show is one of
the dirtier, more explicit programs I’ve seen lately, even
considering HBO’s historically T. & A.-friendly standards—but
the sex and drugs they indulge in while off the clock are their own
kind of labor. Although the debauchery might appear to provide a
mindless respite from the characters’ constant jockeying for a leg
up, it is, in fact, an indissoluble part of it.

Yasmin, fed up with her low-ambition boyfriend, who lives on her dime
and, while handsome, is apparently too indolent even to have sex with
her, embarks on an amorous contest with her fellow-grad Robert,
taunting him with increasingly suggestive gestures, in what amounts to
a sexual game of chicken. In one of the more vanilla moments, the two
flirt at the company gym, with Yasmin wordlessly increasing the speed
on the treadmill that Robert is running on, as if to say, Show me how
fast and hard you’re able to go without collapsing; in a later
encounter, she ups the ante, demanding that he swallow his own
ejaculate after masturbating. For Robert, meanwhile, whose
professional strength is not in numbers or strategy but in showing
clients a good time (“This is still very much a belly-to-belly
business,” he tells his bosses), working, working out, sex, and
drugs all coalesce into one long endurance test, which must be
withstood to achieve not enlightenment, nor oblivion, nor pleasure,
even, but, rather, domination. After one wild night spent ingesting a
grab bag of ketamine, cocaine, nitrous, and MDMA, Robert arrives at
the office to represent Pierpoint at a recruitment event for
university students. Yasmin, who is also on the job, tells him, “It
feels weird to be in a position of power here.” Later, he repeats
the sentiment back to her, if not more bluntly: “I reckon I could
fuck anyone I want in here.”

Despite the relative diversity of its employees, Pierpoint is peppered
with casual instances of sexism, racism, and classism. Early on in the
series, Harper is mistaken by Yasmin for another Black graduate—a
cringey moment that is echoed in a later episode when Harper’s
ex-boyfriend Todd, visiting from America, is told by a clueless
finance bro at a club that he looks “like Travis Scott.” Gus,
meanwhile, is also Black, and, when the bank produces a brochure in
which his grinning likeness is Photoshopped next to that of an Asian
colleague, Robert is quick to point out the opportunism of this
corporate claim to wokeness. (“I doubt they’ve ever been in the
same room. Look how much they like each other!” he jokes.)

Ultimately, however, such microaggressions are worth bearing in the
face of the singular macroaggression of the market. To harness the
market, to best it, justifies almost any indignity, and this
willingness is also a sort of power—or is, at least, sold as such by
the main characters’s superiors. “People like us, born at the
bottom . . . that’s intimidating. We intimidate people here,”
Harper’s boss, Eric, explains, while the two take a cigarette break
outside the office. Reminiscing about an early mentor of his, Eric,
who is Asian-American, tells Harper that the man “knew from Day One
he could trust me, so I trusted him.” And though the mentor wasn’t
big on compliments, Eric continues, “I heard him compliment me
once.” “What did he say?” Harper wonders. “That little
Chink’s a born salesman!” Eric answers, before tossing his
cigarette and turning to reënter the building.

“Industry” is a hardhearted show about a hardhearted world, and it
can falter when it attempts to divert from this line. This is
especially true when it comes to Harper. In the course of the season,
she lies, wheedles, and plots in order to retain her place at the
bank, remaining largely cipher-like throughout, which makes for an
internally consistent, albeit disturbing and unsympathetic, character.
We are meant to understand her, I think, as something like a character
in a naturalistic novel. Harper cannot act differently; she is a
product of her socioeconomic environment. This is also why the moments
that provide glimpses of Harper’s backstory—a vanished twin
brother, a history of debilitating anxiety attacks—feel meagre and
unconvincing as explanations of her behavior. Even the other
characters seem skeptical. “You know, you play broken really well,
but, to be honest, you’re just a bit of a cunt, aren’t you?”
Yasmin tells Harper. This feels similar to a comment that Yasmin makes
to Robert at the recruitment event, earlier: “Surely you knew we
entered a career that connoted, you know . . . cuntiness.” She is
joking, but also not really. In “Industry,” the right to be frail,
to be human, is gone. Now it’s every cunt for himself.



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Naomi Fry [[link removed]] is a
staff writer at The New Yorker.

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