Photo: Simon Ridgway/HBO
Spoilers for the Industry season-two finale, “Jerusalem,” below.
I keep waiting for the moment my brain starts to process the meaning behind stock-market words. I thought maybe it’d happen during Billions with its talk of deleveraging and assets under management and capital gains like stabs to the gut — everyone sussing each other out, discussing their desires and dreams and anxieties, then bam! Something to do with high-frequency trading algorithms! At various points, I’ve assumed it would click during Succession with the constant back-and-forths about bear hugs and majority stakes and share prices, the Roys are unable to express emotion to one another except as a form of market value. Both of those styles work for their respective shows, but neither is going to be the thing that finally teaches me what an interest-rate swap is. Industry is when I realized I am never, ever going to get past the most basic understanding of a short squeeze, and its rip-roaring season-two finale is what convinced me I never, ever want to.
The HBO series’ second season pulled off the kind of punched-up escalation all second seasons aspire to and few achieve. If it had just been about the collapse of Yasmin’s ties to her father — giddy, then furious, then plaintive but resolved — that story line alone would’ve made it worth watching. And all the messy, oddly endearing business about newcomer Jesse Bloom trying to get his son into Oxford hit notes of fondness the show had lacked while playing directly into its obsessions about classism.
But the big, thrilling set-piece scene of this finale — Bloom’s sharp, stunning, not really legal market maneuvering — is Industry at its money-talkin’ finest. After spending the whole season trying to build a partnership with the megainvestor, Harper appears to have failed him. They’ve been concocting an elaborate short play that has to do with a brick-and-mortar pharmacy company called FastAide. Harper’s been advising Bloom to short the stock of this pharmacy chain on the assumption that FastAide stock is going to plummet, but she had no idea it would become a meme stock and that thousands of Reddit investors would rally to drive the stock price back up. Furthermore, it looks as if Amazon might be about to acquire FastAide, and news of that deal would make its price skyrocket.
Bloom’s short position means he’s going to lose untold millions of dollars. Harper begs him to stop out of it. Meanwhile, her attempt to get a position at a different investment firm doesn’t play out, so it looks as though she’s heading for an epic crash and burn alongside Bloom.
Until. Until! Harper tries to convince Bloom it is vitally important for him to stop out of his short position by making it clear that the one thing everyone assumed would hold back that Amazon deal — an antitrust investigation by the UK government — would not actually happen.
The next we see of Bloom, he’s on the set of a CNN finance-news show talking about how impressive his investment acumen has been. At the same time, he’s texting Harper to buy up all available stock of Rican, a telemedicine company. Harper runs down to the trading floor and starts yelling at Rishi to buy everything. Buy it all! Do what the man on the TV says! And then Bloom leans back in his chair on the TV set and says, “Anywhere else in this world, Amazon’s purchase of FastAide would be waived through. I’m just glad that in a place like Britain, they still take anti-competition rules seriously.” Harper, jaw agape, stares at two screens on a Bloomberg terminal. In one screen, the graph plummets. In the next, it soars.
Bloom held his short position on FastAide, bought a ton of Rican stock, stared into a TV camera, and talked about how great it is to have anti-competition rules, and that was enough to turn a disastrous financial position into a swift and dominant victory. He’s also completely screwed Harper, who realizes she just helped Bloom perform a stunning bit of insider trading.
All of these are details that (and I cannot emphasize this enough) I barely understood while watching the episode. What I saw instead was Bloom speaking a new reality into existence. Nothing at all has changed about the show’s physical world; nothing may ever actually change. Like magic, though, Bloom says something on TV and the graphs on Harper’s screen begin to crash. The specifics of the financial jargon itself are unimportant — or rather, my ability to immediately understand them does nothing to hinder my enjoyment of the show. The only thing that matters is Bloom used language in a way that gave him more power and Harper less.
I first remember bathing in TV jargon during endless blocks of ER on cable: The medical terminology was a fast, detailed, high-stakes thicket of information, and without years of medical procedures yet imprinted into my brain, little of it had any real meaning for me. But eventually those medical words added up to some tangible reality: The patient lives or dies. The doctors succeed or fail. Medical jargon is descriptive, and its power only extends to an immovable point where words can no longer fix whatever’s gone wrong. For the current rash of shows full of financial jargon, though, characters have a seemingly endless power to speak any circumstance into existence. If only you can find the right combination of magic words — make the exact right decisions at the exact right time — you can win or lose everything.
If Billions uses money talk like a weapon and Succession uses the language of business as a metric for love, Industry‘s financial jargon is also a form of wizardry. It’s a version of performative speech that’s also a very real form of power in our world, and the movement of financial markets does ultimately shape much of our physical reality. But within the world of Industry, it’s an addictive sweet spot between immense power and pure make-believe. Does it matter if I grasp how all of the magic works? Not particularly! All that matters is, unlike a medical drama with its pesky bodily solidity, Industry‘s financial jargon is so mysterious and nonsensical that I can never quite tell when the magic will suddenly run out. It’s why this season finale is so satisfyingly shocking: Yasmin’s key stopped working; Harper’s seated across from a human-resources employee who’s taking away her job. For Industry‘s protagonists, the magic words finally collapsed.