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The Misguided Ambition of Harper Stern

Ahead of the Season 2 return of HBO’s ‘Industry,’ series star Myha’la Herrold explains Harper Stern’s evolution

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

Industry, HBO’s finance drama about damaged people working long hours to fill their voids with large sums of money, doesn’t moralize, but it does make one thing explicitly clear: Money can’t fix you. However, it can enable and distract from glaring personal problems—like a Bank of England–produced Band-Aid slapped haphazardly and feebly over internal chaos.

At the start of Industry’s second season, which premieres on August 1, the talented-yet-maddening Harper Stern (Myha’la Herrold) is still living in chaos. The pandemic has allowed her to work from home, so she’s taken up residence in a hotel where she’s insulated from society. “She can do all the things that she loves to do and she’s good at doing without any of the outside pressure of maintaining any kind of relationship with actual human beings,” says Herrold, who plays Harper with a mixture of wide-eyed zeal and cold remove. For Harper, “work-life balance” means behaving as recklessly off the clock as she sometimes does on the cross product sales desk of fictional investment bank Pierpoint & Co.’s London office. After one particularly sloppy night out, she awakens, surveys the state of her room, and discovers a note from coworker and friend Robert Spearing (Harry Lawtey), which reads: “Hotel life = Not for you.” The squalor of her living conditions symbolizes her overall messy existence, success be damned.

One thing Industry’s first season spotlighted, aside from Harper’s gift at her job, was her scorched-earth approach to getting what she wants. It ended with Harper burning her line manager, Daria Greenock (Freya Mavor), along with Pierpoint London president Sara Dhadwal (Priyanga Burford), in favor of managing director Eric Tao (Ken Leung), who mentored her when it was beneficial to him. Harper didn’t trust Daria and Sara’s facile (and likely self-serving) promises to “change the culture” at Pierpoint, nor did she trust Eric, who turned adversarial whenever he felt threatened. She chose herself: Eric, a kindred spirit and walking fireable offense, was simply the evil she could best deal with.

But in Season 2, Harper, who’s become a pariah on the trading floor due to her absence as much as her actions, is forced to reckon with the fallout when she’s ordered back into the office. There, she’s met with a bigger issue upon learning of a potential merger between Pierpoint’s New York and London desks, leaving this collection of deeply insecure people questioning their job security. Heeding the message that everyone’s value to the company lies in their relationships outside of it, Harper angles to win the business of Jesse Bloom (Jay Duplass), a renowned hedge fund manager nicknamed “Mr. COVID” because he turned a $28 million trade into $6 billion during the pandemic, who also happens to be staying in the same hotel.

Harper’s grating, try-hard personality is partially the result of her lack of on-paper qualifications. Of course she’d write an 8,000-word paper about the moral case for capitalism, put her IQ on her CV, and believe that finance is the closest thing to a meritocracy—she thinks she has everything to prove. Unbeknownst to Pierpoint’s human resources department, she didn’t even graduate from the state school she attended. Now, she’s sharpened her inferiority complex into a shiv, even after displaying her value. On one level, her behavior is understandable: She faces numerous barriers and is subject to more harsh scrutiny as a Black American woman working abroad in a hypercompetitive field. (A seemingly innocuous comment or facial expression, sending an email that’s deemed too aggressive, or merely excelling at their jobs can place Black women in the pet-to-threat pipeline.) At the same time, it still isn’t justifiable—being marginalized doesn’t make Harper any less rash, selfish, or generally off-putting. Industry’s first season showed who Harper is at the core, and its second digs into why she operates as such. Even though it provides better context for her actions, it doesn’t absolve her of anything.

The sooner you learn that your coworkers generally aren’t your friends, the better. It’s even less likely to happen, let alone be genuine, in an environment like Pierpoint, where recent college graduates are forced to prove their worth the moment they set foot in the building. In the pilot, Sara tells a room of eager grads that young people are the company’s capital. In reality, they’re just fodder. Those who secure full-time employment are indoctrinated to become the next generation of apex predator capitalists fueled by an unquenchable thirst for validation by way of achievement. Naturally, there’s a degree of humanity that’s sacrificed by working in an atmosphere like this. That early-stage Faustian bargain is arguably the first trade these ambitious young people make in pursuit of their goals. From there, they learn to fuck people over, however they can, to get ahead. They learn to make allies based purely on their utility. They learn to keep enemies close, if possible, because perhaps they’ll one day be of use in a world of shifting alliances. This particular dynamic is at play in Harper’s relationship with Yasmin Kara-Hanani (Marisa Abela), her former friend and roommate turned foe who works on Pierpoint’s foreign exchange sales desk.

Harper and Yasmin’s friendship may have been torpedoed after Harper sided with Eric over Sara and Daria (who, unlike many of her male colleagues, showed actual interest in Yasmin’s ability), but it was always on unstable ground. Glimpses of a rivalry lingered, whether it was regarding respect in the office or Robert’s attention. There’s unspoken tension between them because they have different backgrounds, with Harper convinced that she’s self-made as a function of her insecurity and meritocratic philosophy, and Yasmin, the daughter of a publishing magnate, growing up with great privilege. Their fundamental differences manifest in how they behave professionally. Harper wishes she could work a room like the cosmopolitan Yasmin, who wishes she had the innate talent Harper possesses. But the things they admire about each other are also the very things they resent.

“Harper wants so desperately to be able to have the personality that makes her enjoyable, because that is a part of the business,” Herrold explains. “People often say to her: ‘You’re not nice to be around.’ And I don’t necessarily think she’s proud of that, but what’s more important to her is that she’s making money, so she thinks she can let that fall to the wayside.”

“Yasmin has this effortless ability to get people onside, and Harper really does admire that in her and wants it for herself,” Herrold adds. “And then, of course, when they’re at odds, it’s what pisses her off the most. And for Yasmin, I can assume—and Marisa has said this—that she can talk your ear off at a dinner table, but when it’s time to put the money down on the tape, it’s not as easy for her. That’s the thing—this unabashed confidence in her work—that Yasmin respects, and then when they’re at odds, she’s like, ‘You’re not even a human being.’”

Although Harper is prone to a singularly focused type of workaholism that can make her quite unlikable, the new season of Industry aims to flesh out more of who she is away from the CPS desk. Roughly two years have passed since the events of the first season, so she has considerably more money than she did at the beginning of the series. Although she lacks Yasmin’s fashion sense, she’s more inclined to partake in retail therapy these days. “There’s still a sense of, ‘These are clothes and they go on my body,’ but now she has a fat paycheck,” Herrold says. “So maybe she does do a little shopping: ‘Maybe I wouldn’t mind a little Alexander McQueen boot.’ She might not really know anything about it, but she’s got the bag now.” But given that she’s not a child of means, Harper never needed money to entertain herself.

Industry is known for copious, sometimes graphic, amounts of drug use and sex. The latter represents something different for each character. Rob, who still feels hampered by his working-class upbringing, is a sub—professionally and sexually. Sex empowers Yasmin, providing the control she doesn’t have in other areas of her life. And for Harper, who is a clenched fist much of the time, it’s purely cathartic. Even with more experience, the only coping mechanism she’s learned for dealing with job-related stress is engaging in increasingly depraved activities—specifically, more drugs, drinking, and sex for the sake of release. “It’s always like, ‘I picked up this guy in a bar at the end of a long day. We’re doing lines, we’re having sex, and then I need him to get out,’” Herrold says. Harper prefers to keep things transactional in nearly every aspect of life due to her lack of interpersonal skills. Still, after-hours hedonism isn’t the only way in which Harper shows she isn’t buttoned up, even if she’s often wound too tight.

The audience sees more of Harper’s tattoos this season, all of which are Herrold’s. She says that she and the writers discussed the story behind them, determining that Harper randomly met some tattoo artist during the pandemic who’d come to her hotel room on a weekly basis. They’re a representation of her edge, but there’s irony in the number of mom-related tattoos Herrold has: The actress adores her mother, but Harper’s relationship with her mother is extremely fraught. Previously, Harper’s mother was introduced as a detached, unsympathetic voice on the other end of the phone. The first season revealed that Harper and her twin brother, a former tennis star who goes by “JD” and has since gone AWOL, were raised by their mother. Season 2 offers a deeper exploration of her impact, even in absentia, as Harper’s upbringing is established as a major influence over her conduct. Many of her problems started at home.

Harper spends part of the season trying to locate JD, a spectral figure who initially appears only as a hand tagged in an Instagram photo. In searching for her twin, she’s searching for the part of herself that’s missing. They shared a womb, now they share a disdain for the mother who pushed them so hard that she alienated them. “We know that she’s kind of an eccentric, but she also doubles down on forcing her children to find some kind of success,” Herrold says of Harper’s mother. “The way that affects Harper is interesting, because she says: ‘OK, I’ll be enough of a success to get away from you.’” Harper put an entire ocean between her and her mother not only as a testament to her prowess and fortitude, but as a protective measure. Harper believes her stunts are necessary acts of self-preservation from someone without a support system.

This might make Harper more understandable, but it doesn’t excuse her erratic ways. She’s made choices that she has to own, and regardless of whether she realizes it, has bought into her mother’s high-achiever credo of success at all costs. It primed her to transition from her family’s poisoned well to another: Pierpoint. Hardly any company has a truly “family-like atmosphere”—and any mention of that should be a red flag—but families and companies can cultivate toxic ambition just alike. And whether it’s Pierpoint, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, or most companies across industries, “good” or “bad” only matter with respect to how you do your job. High finance rewards Harper’s worst impulses. “I think for Harper, it’s just gonna be whether or not this behavior continues to work in her favor,” Herrold says. “Because as soon as it doesn’t, then she’ll make new choices. But they would still be based on whether or not she can get the thing that she wants.”

Industry’s second season forces Harper to take stock of her humanity at a critical point in her life. The faster she rises within her profession, the further she plummets as a person. That considered, the new layers of her character add to her complexity because the things that make her insufferable also make her fascinating.

Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.