In a crowded year for TV miniseries, Industry is a niche joint US/UK production that will leave most of the population - both critics and the general public alike - indifferent at best. Unless you're a young professional living in a major city and working in either finance or tech - in which case, get ready to get blown away by Industry's masterful twists, understated thrill and instantly recognizable character arcs. If you're part of the industry, you'll love Industry.
Industry's standalone, single season is just 8 episodes long. It loosely follows the (life) paths of a bunch of ambitious and devilishly driven graduates as they jostle through an internship at prestigious trading desk Pierpoint&Co (a fictitious version of investment banking juggernaut J.P. Morgan).
Some of Industry's protagonists come from an underprivileged background, some are dirty rich, some are part of a minority group, and some are patented a**holes. All are smart, ambitious, and vying for the few coveted full-time jobs Pierpoint can provide at the end of their internship.
If this all sounds too drab, too boring, too millenial, or in bad taste during the second once-in-a-generation recession that hits us in less of a decade, then Industry is probably not the right series to fill your lockdown days. If, on the other hand, you can recognize an earlier (or current?) version of yourself in the description of the Pierpoint graduates you just read through, then I'd recommend spending some time watching the first couple episodes of Industry. Chances are you'll be hooked in no time on this remarkable collection of small-screen character studies.
To talk more about Industry's pivotal points and the reasons why I personally appreciated it, it's worth noting that there's significant spoilers incoming. Industry starts out slow, but really picks up pace towards the end of the season - with a couple masterful character turns that will leave you gasping for air. The stakes are low and the tone subdued - after all, this isn't Game of Thrones, and Pierpoint's war is one played in posh restaurants and behind Dell monitors. But the show does get quite high on drama, especially with the complex, multi-faceted decisions that characters take towards the end of the show.
As much as this is a dramatized version of investment banking, there's three themes to Industry which you'll most definitely recognize if you've worked in either finance or either of the adjacent sectors, which I'll : opportunities and chances, the sense of one's worth, and the structure. So let's talk about those.
Identity and opportunity
The first theme that resonated with me - especially after having spent the better part of the year spinning up a very diverse team at work - was how every single character in the series struggled in reframing their own identity within the reality of the system. Some characters, like spoiled single child Yasmin or rich-and-minority Gus Sackey, have a cushy safety net to count on. Others, like working class Robert or the smart but underprivileged Harper, know that their first job will most likely define the rest of their career. "I don't know what I'm gonna do if they fire me. What have I got to go to, eh?" tells Robert to his line manager Clement after the latter gets uncerimoniously fired after years of service.
And of course he's right: Pierpoint claims - in this fictional portrait as in real life - that "this is the closest thing to a meritocracy there is", but as the show unravels throughout its 8 episodes run, a much more nuanced truth emerges: the meritocracy is there, but it does play second fiddle to everyone's interests and agendas. People get hired or fired because they are 'a team player' or because 'the CEO liked them', and everyone gets tangled in this game - with unexpected, and usually unpleasant, results.
The defining scene for this is a confrontation between Gus, a promising Eton-Oxford graduate, and head honcho Sara Dhadwal. Guilty over the untimely death of one of the graduates in one of Industry's early episodes, Sara is trying to buy Gus' silence by offering him a shortcut to a full-time job at Pierpoint. Gus pushes back: "I wasn't given a mentor. The desk's politics meant I was effectively invisible".
Gus later leaves Pierpoint&Co by, quite literally, dropping the mic on his final interview for the full time job he no longer wants. It's a luxury he can afford because of his upbringing - and of what Sara calls 'upward mobility that you take for granted'. Confronted with the same choice, Harper instead sacrifices her integrity, her friendships and ultimately her identity to pay for the right opportunity. This isn't a meritocracy - no matter how hard Sara tries to spin it.
Work and self-worth
The second point of reflection from Industry's storyline that really hits close to home, is how much the show's protagonist become invested into purely arbitrary deadlines - such as finishing a report, pitching a sale, or, indeed, showing their worth before RIF (reduction in force) - the crucial day that will determine whether they get to stay at Pierpoint, or re-evaluate their entire life in light of this failure.
I've always struggled to find a good balance between my job and my life. And more recently, I've seen others - especially in my teams - struggle to find this balance as well. Work can be fun and rewarding, and the work that the fictional team at Pierpoint does is ultimately a reflection of the real environment tech, services and innovation industry players perform in. In his 2008 book 'Bullshit jobs', David Graeber talks about the unhealthy dynamic of linking small tasks that a graduate typically perform with a work ethic associating success on the workplace with personal success and self-worth. Not much has changed since then.
The scene that really drives this home is the final elevator exchange between Daria and Robert. 'You don't have a future on my desk' says Daria coldly 'because you've never displayed any value. To me, you're worthless'. Robert, usually sharp and witty, is left at a loss for words.
The scene is a culmination of a culture of abuse that gets perpetuated at the fictional Pierpoint&Co (as well as, unfortunately, many other real places). I've always felt it is our role as mentors, as we grow into the organization, to help our colleagues completely separate work and worth. Work is (or at least should be) one of the many facets that define a person and his or her worth. Trying to force people to perform at a higher level by associating work with one's identity or sense of self worth is a cheap trick that companies will too often pull on their workers - especially junior, ambitious, clueless fresh hires. Industry shows very well what the consequences of this are, and hits very close to home.
The final point of discussion is one of the core questions of the modern (finance) world: why are the characters in Industry working crazy hours at a job that is seemingly unfulfilling; constantly one-upping their overly ambitious, backstabbing colleagues? There's two answers to this question.
The first answer is, of course, that Industry is an HBO series - and as such, needs to be high on drama to entertain viewers. It is, at its core, a fictional exaggeration of the sector.
The second answer is the structure of the job itself. Aging account manager Clement Cowan, which gets fired in one of Industry's final episodes, crawl to his MD asking to be re-instated. "Don't make me beg" he says, "I need the structure". Later, in a poignant exchange with his mentee Robert, Clement makes the point we've been waiting for all along: "I don't want to be small in my life, Rob".
The structure Clement is talking about is one that is utterly familiar to anyone working in the vertical service sectors. There's a lot of innovation happening on a daily basis; the jobs we do are truly challenging and fun, and the short term goals (that one late-night deck) are always framed as part of something bigger. "I was big, Rob. You should have seen me!" says Clement - and we instantly know what he's talking about.
Is this structure of innovation and personal growth worth the daily grind and the sometimes unhealthy personal situations? I've talked about the need for perspective on the blog before, but I've never talked about the need for this structure. I'm sure there's a lot of positive impact that can be had in the sector - and as the credit rolled I tried to imagine the graduates of Industry growing up to be truly remarkable people - those that make a dent in the world, and truly change things. Hopefully for the better.
How that story ends - both in real life and in Industry - is really up to the individual viewer. And on that front, Industry ultimately succeeds by fostering this type of deep reflections that are often absent in our sector. If you're part of the industry, you'll know what I'm talking about. Industry, thanks for bringing us home.