exit interview

‘They’re Hardwired to Something Transactional’

Industry’s creators know how the Establishment can crush their characters.

Industry creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay on set for season one. Photo: HBO
Industry creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay on set for season one. Photo: HBO

Spoilers for Industry’s season-two finale, “Jerusalem,” below.

The moral of Industry may as well be “Good luck trying to self-actualize at a bank.” In the HBO series’ second season, the young employees at London’s Pierpoint & Co. try to return to work after the pandemic as slightly better, marginally more mature people, all while doing jobs that incentivize them to be significantly worse. At the heart of it is Harper’s (Myha’la Herrold) codependent yet cutthroat relationship with her mentor, Eric (Ken Leung), and her attempts to court the business of hedge-fund billionaire Jesse (Jay Duplass). If the second-to-last episode offered the faintest hope that Harper and Eric might escape the claws of Pierpoint and launch off on their own — maybe even with Jesse as a client — the season finale lands them right back in the institution’s grasp: Harper gives Jesse a tip on a government inquiry into a health-care company he has shorted, inadvertently drawing herself into an insider-trading scheme; meanwhile, Eric turns on her, informing Pierpoint she faked her college diploma and summarily getting her fired. Also, Yasmin tries to cut off her father, Gus is forced out of politics, Robert gets caught for drug possession, and Rishi gets married!

The twists and turns of the season’s final stretch illustrate the ways the British Establishment self-perpetuates its values through the young people it employs, something creators Konrad Kay and Mickey Down know intimately — they met at Oxford and worked in finance before writing the show. In its second season, they leveled up, expanding the series’ scope while tying up season one’s loose threads and expressing their truest selves through the show’s deranged, omnipresent background dialogue.

To start with the end, Pierpoint’s discovering that Harper faked her college diploma was a threat in season one but only lingered in the background of season two. Why have Eric tip them off now?
Mickey Down: From a practical point of view, Konrad and I don’t like leaving threads not paid off. You could argue that Harper’s lack of a degree was an inciting incident for her character; it told us something about her in the pilot and was a great way to bond her and Eric so they have a secret in episode four. Then it made it harder for Harper to get rid of Eric at the end of that season. We love the idea that the audience thought we had forgotten about it until it comes back in a material way. It also felt like something Eric needed to do to her. It’s open to interpretation why. Some people will think it’s to protect her from the bigger crime she may or may not have committed, of insider trading with Jesse; some might think it was a totally calculated attempt to get rid of her, a thorn in his side, and to protect himself. It felt like a juicy twist and spoke to her relationship, which is the central point of the show.

Konrad Kay: We have no guarantee of the third season, and leaving the show on a cliffhanger does not sit well with either of us. It feels a bit tawdry, to be honest. So this is a full stop if you’ve been watching the show for Eric and Harper. It felt like the only logical next step in Eric’s journey. He’s had this relationship with this woman that has brought up all these insecurities and all these nurturing tendencies, but in nurturing her, she’s become more and more of a thorn in his side. Yes, it’s expedient to get rid of her, but it also comes from a place of care. And the fucked-up thing is that the scene in the lift between them is the one place the audience has always wanted them. They’re close. There’s physical contact. There’s Eric revealing he paid her hotel bill because he can only express it through money. It’s the light before the darkness, you know?

M.D.: And then it’s a huge climax but also anticlimactic. Harper’s done so many things in this show that she could be fired for, and the fact that it’s her original sin that brings her down — not to be highfalutin, but it feels tragic in a Greek sense.

K.K.: When we made the first season, Mickey and I were scrambling around in the dark for what the show was. When we got a second season, we thought it would retroactively make us better writers if it felt like we were speaking to season one more. We had a list of threads we didn’t want to leave behind because it would make us look amateurish.

Allies or enemies? Photo: Nick Strasburg/HBO

What else was on that list?
M.D.: We were scared of writing her brother’s scenes because they are a different wheelhouse than the rest of the show. They’re not jargon-heavy, slang-heavy people being shitty to each other. It’s not something we have experienced. It felt like we had a bit of background coloring in for Harper that she had a missing brother in season one and then we had to show the missing brother in season two. If we were going to do that, it had to make a point about Harper’s relationship to ambition and push her forward to a new version of herself in the back half of the season. The list goes on. We love talking about old characters. We brought Daria back! You make tough decisions in service to dramatic moments — and getting rid of her was a tough decision — and we loved bringing Freya Mavor back and having her get her revenge. I love that Greg is now a successful novelist and has a book that Rishi does coke off. That’s not exactly traumatic twin stuff, but it is something.

Episode seven felt very influenced by the Mad Men season-three finale, “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.,” where they organize their own mutiny from the ad agency. But Industry gets right to the fallout in episode eight. The institution grinds the characters back into place.
K.K.: If anybody knew how we constructed the budget of this show and how tied we are to the set of the Pierpoint offices, they would know we could never have left the bank. The jeopardy of it was slightly fake. But we tried to write every episode in season two with a dynamism that felt like they were all finales. We hate mid-season slumps.

M.D.: I always like it when the penultimate episode feels the most electric. Game of Thrones always did that really well. The idea of writing eight hours of TV like an eight-hour film with an arbitrary beginning and end was something we don’t really adhere to. Every episode has to have a beginning, middle, and end — especially the last five-to-ten minutes of each episode. Whether it’s a twist or a conclusion.

K.K.: Or a needle drop!

Robert is caught for possession in the finale, but it felt like there was actually less drug use compared to season one. Maybe it’s because the characters are a bit older or coming back from the pandemic and trying to be new people. Was that an intentional shift?
M.D.: We show the consequences a bit more. At the end of season one, there are some consequences for Robert, and the last thing he’s told by Daria is that he’s a cokehead. Then he has to sit in that self-hatred for the entire pandemic. But it’s Yasmin who’s pushing Robert to get the coke, and it’s Yasmin who’s really using him. I guess the show’s saying that some people have consequences and some don’t, and usually that’s tied to the money and privilege you have.

K.K.: Especially in your 20s, your relationship to those things is evolving. It would feel like a TV trope if Robert was still always partying and Yasmin was always a wallflower. I think a lot of people got to season two, episode one and were like, Have we missed an episode? But it was our way of showing psychological change, and we’d probably do the same thing again if we get a season three. Fundamentally, ensemble dramas are often about how people change and then revert to a mean. You meet Don Draper and then how much does he change by the end of Mad Men? There’s always an underlying insecurity.

To that point, Yasmin decides to stand up to her father and become her own person. As soon as she’s cut off, she reverts back to making Robert help her.
M.D.: The first thing Yasmin says after she’s given up this money is “Maybe I’ve been a little bit rash.” She’s using the crutch of drugs and the crutch of this guy. It feels very human and very youthful to have regret and think you’ve made a mistake. These characters are in their early 20s. They’re still figuring out who they want to be in this place that doesn’t reward altruism.

K.K.: It was Mickey’s idea to have her leave the restaurant without paying the bill, and I remember clapping my hands when he pitched it. She’s gone through this huge morality play of pondering how much of her blindness of her dad she’s willing to accept to further her career. She makes this seismic decision to cut herself off from him, then there’s this beat that shows who she really is.

M.D.: The way Marisa Abela plays it, there’s this thrill on her face like, God, I’ve gotten away with it. That links her to her dad, maybe even unconsciously. They can just get away with stuff. And if she were caught, she could probably talk her way out of it. Someone like Robert would capitulate. Especially sober Robert.

Gus was cut from Pierpoint at the end of season one, but his information about the government inquiry into FastAide becomes crucial by the season-two finale. How did you decide to keep him involved in this season?
M.D.: We wanted to expand the world and show that these institutions are linked in what we would call in Britain “the Establishment,” especially banking and Tory party politics. There’s a reason why an MP like Gus’s boss, Aurore, used to work at Pierpoint and would have been given this health-care brief. It felt like a comment on how our country works.

For Gus, we wanted to tell a story about a guy who has gone from boarding schools to Oxford and Pierpoint and is then given an opportunity to not be in the institution, plays around with it for a while, and then realizes, actually, he has to get a job because the institution keeps breathing down his neck. Then he thinks, naïvely, he might actually be able to do good — and then, again, there’s the reverting-to-type thing. You’re unable to break the cycle. Bringing him back to Jesse is him reverting to the norm. This makes me sound a lot more cynical than I actually am, but there is a power to these institutions to crush any originality and hope!

There’s a lot of that in the conversation with Aurore. She’s like, “I see what you did. Incredible politicking. Obviously I have to let you go.”
M.D.: She’s just better at it than him. She’s him ten years down the line. You could read the scenes where she brings up the inquiry, even before that, as manipulative. I’m not saying that she knows he’s going to bring it up to Harper, but there’s an argument that she might. I also wanted to tell a story of Black representation that we had never seen before on British TV. The story of an institutionalized man returning to the institution that created him is a typically white story, but it felt true to life to have a Black character in that role. There are some really harsh truths that his sister tells him. That is how families like that operate sometimes, and it felt authentic.

K.K.: The show has always been interested in whether you can ever have a proper relationship with a colleague if you’re sitting under the knife of a corporate structure. In the second season, it expands to say that not only is Pierpoint a bit like government and a bit like public schooling [in the British sense of expensive private education], but the family itself can have the same kind of hierarchical structure and pressures.

Aside from actual families, there are a lot of daddy and mommy dynamics at play in season two. You have these characters who both want to be adults and have to play the child in reference to someone more powerful. Were you thinking about those generational tensions in building season two?
K.K.: We didn’t realize we were writing about intergenerational tensions in season one and then, in season two, it became very clear. Especially with a character like Venetia coming into the show who is closer to Gen Z than anyone else; when we started writing for her, it was fun because she’s just not going to stand for Yasmin’s shit. Mickey and I are obviously not Gen Z, but nor are we quite geriatric millennials. We’d written characters who are young enough to almost be Gen Z but had a millennial flavor, because we’d written them.

M.D.: We’re bang in the middle.

K.K.: Eric’s relationship to Harper is definitely a generational one because she’s a constant reminder of his mortality and the fact that he’s yesterday’s man. In the writers’ room, we talked a lot about the analog of a cowboy who’s seen it all and a young gunslinger. The relationship’s healthy, but obviously it’s about succession and the usurpation of power. If we do get a third season, there might be an even younger cohort with even more different political sensibilities and value systems.

There’s this parental sort of love triangle between Jesse and Eric over Harper. When you were coming up with his character, what did you want to make appealing about him that could lure her into, well, insider trading?
K.K.: When we wrote Jesse on the page, we were trying to write away from an archetypal hedge-fund billionaire. There was a Lost in Translation moment where they met in the hotel and he was in the twilight of his career. But casting Jay Duplass gave him an affability and empathy. We found it interesting to think about what motivates someone who has already had all this material gain. We talked about it in the writers’ room as two people who meet in recovery, and their thing is the thrill of winning or making money — it doesn’t matter by which terms. She’s going to, eventually, lead him to the point where he starts using again. When she gives him that tidbit of information in episode eight, it’s like she’s given him the best heroin. Of course he’s going to go on CNN and use it to his advantage.

M.D.: There’s a bit of ambiguity about her plan too. Eric picks up on that. She goes to Jesse and says that this thing is not happening anymore and he should stop out, and she claims she thinks that’s where their relationship is going to end. But Eric thinks she intentionally led him to water and he drank. Harper, as Myha’la plays it, does a very good game of saying she did not know. But Eric doesn’t quite believe her at that moment.

K.K.: That hug Jay gives her in episode eight was not scripted. It’s the heart of the show in some way, because it’s tender and then immediately undercut by the thing of, Are you trying to get something from me? The show is about people struggling to be kind and then realizing they’re hardwired to something transactional. It’s fucked them up.

M.D.: The thing that actually allows Jesse to have a generational relationship with Harper is that he has total power over her because he pays her. Eric tries to have a mentor-mentee relationship until she turns into a threat. We wanted to dramatize the buy-side, sell-side relationship, because if that person calls, you’re totally at their whims. Nicole says it to Robert as well, in a horrible way: I decide when I’m bored of you because I pay you. That’s why, as DVD says, it’s difficult for Venetia’s complaint to go anywhere. It’s not a peer-to-peer issue; this is a client that actually gives us money.

As someone who went to Yale, DVD reminded me way too much of people I knew who went into banking. Poor guy is just too bland to make it through.
M.D.: People on Twitter were like, “Is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” And to us, he’s just the archetypal finance bro.

K.K.: The journey is realizing how much of a corporate blandness he has to him: He’s got a Black-at-Wharton group chat; he suggests all the worst bars in London; he wears a fucking pocket square. He makes jokes about Harry Potter! He also makes the fatal flaw of trusting Bill Adler to make good on any promise to anyone with less power. Bill Adler feels like the Sauron, the true big bad, of the show. We have some good ideas for Eric’s relationship to him.

M.D.: He’s the most senior person we’ve seen on the show. What has he had to do to get to that level? How has he had to be dehumanized? And what is he willing to do to stay there?

K.K.: Harper says to DVD in episode seven that it’s his loyalty that cost him. When we wrote that, we were laughing. It’s such a fucked-up thing to say, but in the rationale of the world, it’s 100 percent true.

After learning so much about Rishi’s fiancée and his wedding planning in background dialogue throughout the season, I’m very glad we got to see their wedding.
M.D.: We always had the bookend of his engagement party in the first episode and his wedding in the last episode. His fiancée felt like someone we know [laughs], and we loved this thread — that he’s marrying into this upper-class, quite Brexit-y family who may or may not be racist. There are references that slip through. You meet her and she’s immediately talking to Harper about how Roxane Gay’s great at writing the other. She’s the most unobvious and yet obvious person for Rishi to marry.

K.K.: I could watch a Fleabag on steroids about her character.

How do you write the chatter that pops up in the background of scenes on the trading floor? A lot of it comes from Rishi about her absurd family.
M.D.: It’s me and Konrad at our most unfiltered. We write the scripts and we film it all, and then there are these little bits where Rishi could say something funny in ADR, and then we literally go through an Excel spreadsheet with all the time codes and go, for instance, “We have six seconds where Rishi could say something outrageous.” There’s no gatekeeping of what goes there because there’s so much pressure to finish the episodes.

K.K.: What you might notice is that as we get deeper into production, our sense of sanity and reality starts to recede. Rishi’s lines get chronologically weirder and more perverse. By the time we’re on his ADR for episode eight, he’s saying some unhinged shit.

‘They’re Hardwired to Something Transactional’