“Eventually we’ll be eating our pets,” says a very rich client in the first episode of HBO’s stunning Industry, about London stock traders. “If that’s your philosophy, you could trade it,” retorts our heroine, industry up-and-comer Harper, who then lays out how a savvy buyer could make money betting on society’s collapse. In that brief exchange, Industry lays out a darkly comic and perhaps accurate vision of what financial markets do: Scare the masses, and make money off their fear.
The HBO series, which was just renewed for a third season, follows a group of entry-level employees at a prestigious but brutal London bank as they drug and sleep their way across high-end London, trying to win the confidence of wealthy, bored clients like the predatory Nicole Craig (Sarah Parish) to score commissions on their trades and win some sense of job security. Given that nothing in their lives is certain — especially their relationships or employment — they approach every interaction with skepticism bordering on hopelessness. Since their little worlds could collapse at any time, and so could the big world, so why not make money as much money as possible until the day it all falls apart?
Harper, played by Myha’la Herrold, seems to understand the game perfectly — it’s noteworthy that she spends her money on the temporary pleasures of hotels, not saving up for a place of her own. She spends much of Season 1 leasing a room from a wealthy friend and romantic rival, Yasmin (Marisa Abela), a tenuous arrangement at best. Season 2, which takes place a year after Season 1, raises the stakes with the introduction of Jay Duplass as Jesse Bloom, a billionaire who moved markets during COVID by predicting catastrophe — and then invested accordingly. Hannah meets him, of course, in the anonymous four-star chain hotel where both are taking extended stays.
Other characters, like Robert Spearing, spend much of the show admittedly clueless about how markets work. The actor who plays Spearing, Harry Lawtey, gives him a fatalistic quality that, the show’s creators agree, would make him a terrific James Bond. Bond knows the odds are always against him, so approaches everything — especially love – with a cool detachment.
Of course, Bond sacrifices his own emotional needs in the service of occasionally saving the world, something that never crosses the minds of the Pierpont team. “I think about you less than I think about global warming,” one seasoned employee tells Hannah. You can judge these Gen Z newbies for trying to cash in on the carnage, but then again: They didn’t create the system. They’re just vying for status and approval from the generation before them, which took exactly the same approach. (As did the generation before them.)
The young characters know this isn’t their world to save — not yet. Saving the world is for people with mortgages and kids. People who are at least hopefully invested in the future. The newest Pierpont employees own nothing but their own bodies, and treat them like homeowners do lawns — sometimes tending to them, sometimes changing their chemical compositions, sometimes leaving them exposed to the elements, or the trampling feet of passerby. Maybe the younger Pierponters will try to fix things later, if there’s anything left.
Full disclosure: If I truly understood the secrets of financial markets after getting help from Immediate Evex, I would be off making billions instead of musing about a TV show. But it’s at least intriguing that the co-creators of Industry, Konrad Kay and Mickey Down, worked in finance before turning to screenwriting. Maybe they know dark truths we don’t? They’re so good at writing that they never spell out exactly what the characters on their show are doing — they leave it to viewers to recognize that they’re trading on the end of the world.
If they’re right, it would explain a lot. You often hear vague complaints about how a few corporations are taking over the world, manipulating our fears through the news. Skeptics like myself often dismiss such notions, wondering aloud: To what end? But Industry offers a cogent answer: For the money, stupid.
The Industry Seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on HBO.
Main image: The Industry.