Black Monday begins at the end: on October 19, 1987, which, according to a title card, marked the “worst stock market crash in the history of Wall Street.” (In reality, it was and remains the largest one-day percentage decline in the Dow Jones Industrial Average; if you’re able to accurately interpret the Wikipedia page for the crash, please send your translations my way.) The premiere opens on a gray-haired man in a suit, sobbing on the curb of a ticker tape-littered New York street, while two punks spray-paint on the building behind him, “Yuppies Lost.” A red Lamborghini stretch limo pulls up to the curb, at which point an unidentified man drops, with a thud, onto its roof from a window above — dead on impact.
No one knows what caused the crash, the title card continues — “Or who.” Presumably, we’ll have to wait until the end of the season to find out which character creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan will attribute it to.
The series opens to the sound of synth-heavy ’80s pop, which we’ll get used to by the end of the episode (and, hopefully, not totally sick of by the end of the series). Three characters get ready to face the day: Maurice “Mo” Monroe (Don Cheadle), the CEO of a midsize trading company and the owner of that limo, who wakes up on his 39th birthday in a pair of tiny purple underpants and snorts a line of cocaine alongside his robot butler; Blair Pfaff (Andrew Rannells), a recent Wharton graduate psyching himself up for his first day on the job; and Dawn Darcy (Regina Hall), a trader who works for Mo, whom we meet as she performs her morning aerobics routine while smoking a cigarette.
At work, Mo informs his staff of his latest goal: to acquire a company called Georgina Jeans, which owns warehouse property that’s worth twice the value of the company itself. Dawn, who, judging by the first episode, is going to be the series’ voice of reason, tells him that’s impossible — the Lehman Brothers own 30 percent of the stock and there’s no way they’ll sell it.
At this point Mo launches into his origin story, claiming he was born in a toilet and left on the streets of a church. “… ’s Chicken,” Dawn corrects him. (Clearly these two have known each other a long time; she seems to be the only person who speaks to Mo without quivering.) In a sudden fit of rage, Mo declares that their company needs to think bigger: “It’s been the same Monopoly-man-looking motherfuckers at the top of Wall Street for a thousand years,” he says, attempting to persuade his team that his plan can work — and setting up a David-and-Goliath story that sets the tone for the season.
Before Mo heads out to visit the Lehman brothers (who are, incidentally, twins played by Ken Marino, an echo of James Franco’s double act on The Deuce), one of his traders, Keith (Paul Scheer), gives him his birthday present: a comically large bag of cocaine. (“What do you get the guy who has everything?” Keith muses. “More coke!”) The brothers eventually agree to sell Mo their shares, for a price that Dawn later complains is far too high.
Meanwhile, Blair, who developed an extremely promising trading algorithm for his MBA thesis, has been fielding offers from several companies. Until, well, he’s not. Calling his wife from the trading room floor on a mobile phone (“I’m walking and talking!” he marvels), he tells her to get ready to buy something expensive. Then he bangs smack into Mo, sending a mushroom cloud of cocaine dust into the air. Recognizing Mo (but apparently not cocaine; “God, what is this, Parmesan?” he puzzles), Blair apologizes. But the damage is done: Mo announces to the floor that if anyone hires Blair, he’ll destroy them.
Blair mopes back to his apartment, where his girlfriend, Tiff (Casey Wilson), is furious to learn that not only did he not get a job, but he probably never will. In between sniffing cocaine residue off Blair’s jacket, Tiff demands that he go get his job back. “What is this, a dick or a vagina?” she snarls, grabbing him by the crotch.
It’s a weird moment, one that directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and writers Caspe and Cahan, clearly want to play for comedy. We get a bit of insight into why Blair puts up with Tiff’s abuse when he marches into Mo’s office. In an echo of Mo recounting his traumatic birth story, he delivers an impassioned outburst in front of everyone: “You think you scare me? My dad beat me every day of my life until he died, and he literally died of a heart attack while beating me!”
The show swings wildly between this kind of startling admission and its more frequent mode, a warped, comic absurdity with the frat-boy humor that’s come to be synonymous with stories of retro Wall Street excess, most memorably in The Wolf of Wall Street. So far, the show doesn’t seem to know quite how to move coherently between the two registers.
But Blair’s tantrum works, sort of. Mo makes Blair a deal: If Blair can double $50,000 by the close of day using his algorithm, Mo will give him a job. Otherwise, Blair has to give him his car.
While Dawn gets Blair set up, Mo delivers a buy order for the Georgina shares to the Lehman brothers. They sign, and as he gloats, they drop a bomb: “Georgina is the white whale of Wall Street.” It started out as a slave-trading company, they explain, until they stopped selling slaves in the 1860s and started selling pants. Anyone who’s tried to acquire it has ended up either bankrupt, suicidal, or, one brother intones, “even worse — middle-class.” The Georgina family retains 51 percent of the company, stashed away here and there, and keeps it a secret so that anyone who attempts a takeover gets burned — like their grandfather, whose own attempt instigated the crash of ’29. See where this is going?
Just when you think Mo’s flown too close to the sun, though, the writers throw in a twist. Blair has all but lost Mo’s 50 grand. Returning from his visit with the twins, Mo sees a dejected Blair toying with an engagement ring outside the building. He encourages Blair to propose to his girlfriend, then tells him he’s giving him a job, after all — although he still insists on taking his car.
No, Mo isn’t bipolar, or prone to sudden bouts of empathy — although judging by the look he gives Dawn when he pulls up to his birthday party and sees her canoodling with her neurosurgeon boyfriend, he’s not totally empty inside. Rather, he’s playing a long game: while Blair goes home and proposes to Tiff, Mo goes home with a bag of Church’s Chicken. That’s when the camera lingers on a photo of Blair on Mo’s coffee table, annotated to indicate that his girlfriend is actually Tiff Georgina. We return to the scene on the trading room floor, where we see Mo stuff that giant bag of cocaine into his front pocket, leaving it open, and intentionally bump into Blair. Then we’re back in Mo’s apartment, where he ends his birthday by snorting coke and high-fiving his robot butler. Not bad for a day’s work.