Spoilers ahead for Season 1 of Industry.
An exceptionally bleak finance drama is not necessarily what many of us, myself included, may be itching to consume in 2020, the Year of Bleak. HBO’s Industry follows a group of young grads competing to prove they are the “right fit” for permanent positions at the fictional London bank Pierpoint & Co., and in the premiere episode one of those grads literally works himself to death, succumbing in an office bathroom stall after staying up for days and taking a lot of drugs to complete a project.
His demise looms over the entire eight-episode season, now streaming on HBO Max, and the writers are not at all subtle in conveying the significant moral (and mental health) compromises each character makes. In between all of the befriending, flirting, hooking up, snorting coke, backstabbing and sucking up to bosses, this sprawling bunch of hot overachievers wrestles frequently with the selling of their souls.
But what ultimately makes creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay’s series so arresting is one bought soul in particular: Harper (Myha’la Herrold), a young woman who is every bit an outsider amongst her peers – a Black American who went to a “s*** uni[versity],” as one grad puts it. Harper is the embodiment of the old adage handed down to generations of Black youth everywhere, “You must be twice as good as any white person in order to succeed,” and she knows it. This creates an inherent chip on her shoulder, a personal arc she must contend with while fighting through this high-stakes program, not unlike, say, the brilliant, real-life Black women depicted in the 2016 biopic Hidden Figures.
The thing about Industry, though, is that it dares to call into question whether or not this protagonist (or anti-hero?) is actually underestimated unjustifiably. What if she’s not really as good as the others, much less twice as good? Harper’s default mode is guarded and wary, and from the very first episode, it’s clear she has at least one glaring skeleton in her closet – she didn’t exactly graduate from that “s*** uni” – for personal reasons only partially explained in a later episode – and so she summons an ex to create a fake transcript for Pierpoint & Co. She can be timid and hesitant, stammering and shaking when dealing with shrewd, high-powered clients (and potential clients), giving off the impression she has no idea what she’s doing. Her uber bro-y boss and mentor Eric (Ken Leung), who also happens to be an American, chastises her for being too “quiet and nice.”
She takes this criticism to heart. Harper can also be dangerously impulsive, flouting workplace etiquette and going behind managers’ backs with risky moves which threaten the bank’s longstanding accounts. She spends the fourth episode a jittery mess, attempting to cover up an error that could puts Pierpoint & Co. at a significant loss. (As someone whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of dividends and short-selling, I won’t even pretend to understand the details of how this happens, but the extreme close-ups on Harper’s frightened face and the desperation in her voice effectively translate the DRAMA.)
It’s a rookie move, but it’s what Harper does next that transports her from the realm of relatively innocent precocious go-getter to a baby Annalise Keating – messy, conniving, and brutal in her quest for survival. Trying to buy time to fix it before Eric finds out, she bribes the older, white lower-level employee who discovered her mistake with an offer to help him move to the front office, in exchange for his keeping quiet for just a few hours more. “You’re offering me a job?” he scoffs, insulted by her hubris. “Do you even know how long I’ve worked here?”
As he begins to walk away, she blurts out, “Just f****** help me!” And then, she switches gears and gets vulnerable, begging him to save a young person who is only four months into her career. He reluctantly agrees to hold off on informing Eric.
It’s a brilliantly staged power play on the part of the script, one of many scenes in which Harper oscillates between seemingly internalizing her imposter syndrome and showing off the calculated confidence of Succession‘s Shiv Roy. She possesses a keen ability to exhaust every possible tactic in order to keep her head above water. She knows how to subvert and manipulate others’ expectations of her, even if the execution is haphazard and erratic.
Such faux pas and dastardly tactics would in all likelihood be career suicide for a real Black woman at her level within the corporate space; as Harper tells a white colleague in her program, “I’m not allowed to make any mistakes, people like you are allowed to make mistakes.” Yet curiously, she stays afloat, scolded by whichever boss or mentor uncovers her latest rash act of deception, and then sent on her way to woo the next client. The things she’s able to get away with might require some suspension of disbelief, but this is an office drama set firmly in the present, where the managers and executives tacitly acknowledge the media’s reporting in recent years on hostile work environments for women, people of color and queer people. They are, for the most part, fully aware of optics and afraid of negative press, and this certainly plays a part in their repeatedly giving Harper the benefit of the doubt.
This tension lives fascinatingly at the center of Harper’s narrative. With every higher-up she encounters, she asks some version of the same question: “Do you think I deserve to be here?” The responses are telling – in most cases, they evade the question; once, the editing does the evading for them, letting it linger ominously by ending the scene soon after it’s asked.
But both the question and non-answers are moot points. “Deserve” is a loaded term, one that’s too easily leveraged against people who look like Harper, to imply that the only reason they’ve made it into these lily-white spaces is because of a hand-out as a diversity hire. It ignores the fact that every other person in Harper’s program got there for a reason other than just talent or hard work; they have connections, they went to top schools, they come from wealth, or some combination of all three.
To have a Black woman find her own way there by pluck and deceit, and not necessarily by being the “best” or the “brightest” is a bold move, and challenges the viewer’s allegiance to her. She’s a risk-taker and unrelenting salesperson, the kind of individual who corners clients in the bathroom or in the audience during their niece’s school play in order to show initiative. It’s the kind of behavior usually celebrated and admired in the Old Boys Club corners of business, and the same mindset Eric ascribes to.
But in 2020, in a post-#MeToo and so-called racial reckoning era, corporations have to at least seem like they care about changing the culture. Daria (Freya Mavor), the vice president of consumer portfolio sales, just might actually be the real deal on this front, and attempts to take Harper under her wing so as to convince her she can succeed without being underhanded and resorting to “text-book narcissism.”
It’s easy to imagine a script where Harper chooses to align herself with Daria and learns to rise in the ranks via more ethical and equitable manners than Eric’s tactics. But Daria’s motivations aren’t so clear-cut, either, and some of her actions done under the pretense of “protecting” Harper seem more self-serving than genuine.
Harper can sense this and resists Daria’s tutelage, even as Eric makes her uncomfortable with his abusive language and disturbing outbursts. He gets her in a way Daria never can: together they are two American minority outsiders at a London bank, who both “come from nothing” and have beaten the odds.
In episode four, Eric is unfazed upon learning about Harper’s fake transcript. Merely by being at Pierpoint, he boasts, outsiders like them “intimidate people.” “Hunger is not a birthright,” he adds.
Is Harper good at what she does? Well, she’s definitely hungry. And selfish, cagey, enigmatic, precocious, insecure, rash, inexperienced, astute, analytical, strong-willed. She’s a Black female TV character who’s not easy to love or easy to categorize, yet is compelling because each of her actions are at least understandable, if destructive. Annalise Keating would be proud.