There are few TV pairings as interesting as Don Draper and Peggy Olson on Mad Men, primarily because, while Draper was a swirl of confidence and creative thunder laid atop a man who often saw the world like a child — with fear, with mischief, with selfishness — Peggy was so much more interesting. A narrative arc like a moonshot, Peggy went from Don’s quiet and unsure secretary to an eager to please junior copywriter and, eventually, Don’s tough as nails ally, foil, colleague, and, to be honest, better. Yet she had her own complexities and vulnerabilities that were also masked by her confidence and capability. I think about the ways they were the same and the ways they differed a lot. How Don was fighting to keep his grip on something he earned (and stole) and Peggy was fighting to claim her rightful place atop the food chain against a world that wanted to keep her down. I think about how I would have loved more Peggy stories and triumphs. But while that likely will never happen, I’m also thinking about how I see similarities in their story and the one just starting to unfold on Industry between Harper and Eric, another mentee/mentor relationship elevated by natural chemistry and fueled by a kind of symbiosis. The power dynamic here isn’t quite the same. In some ways, everything is coming a little bit quicker and it’s a little bit more direct. But it’s still quite interesting.
For actor Ken Leung, the role of Eric stands out for multiple reasons. For one, it felt different. As he told us when we spoke heading into the season, “it was quite frankly a really great Asian-American role. He’s not the triad boss or a computer hacker, he had some interesting stuff going on with him.” Leung has been a familiar face for a long time, most notably playing a key role in Lost‘s later seasons, but while he has seen better representation for people of Asian descent in TV and film over the years, as he perfectly put it, “that’s like saying, a glass of water in a desert is an improvement.”
Another thing is the dynamic of the cast — young in one of their first jobs, much like the veritable finance babies they’re playing in the show world. Leung indicates that he’s someone who relishes the chance to give advice to young actors when they seek him out, but this was something different. “It was very exciting to be around that,” Leung said, talking about the electricity of the young cast right at the start of their careers. “As much as it obviously seems like I’m being a mentor, I’m also being mentored by that. I’m being reminded of that fire.”
While Leung is referring to the entire cast, his rapport with Myha’la Herrold (who plays Harper) on set translates to the screen, praising her openness. Leung sees, clearly, an us against the world sort of bond between the characters at the start of the show.
“I think he recognizes that she [Harper] is an outsider. She’s an American, she’s Black, he’s Asian, they’re minorities. It’s funny now that we’re talking about it, I once heard, I don’t remember where I heard this, but I once heard that Asian man, Black woman is the perfect combination. Because they are both equally marginalized by American society. So they have this natural … they should have this natural affinity towards each other. So I think on the surface, he recognizes that.”
Herrold basically agrees with that assessment, telling us that Harper “recognizes this is the other American in the room and that he is not white. And so there’s a level of comradery there.” But she also notes the weight of Eric’s approval of Harper and the power that he has. “When he finally sees her for real, I think there is something shocking, scary, but also incredibly fulfilling to be seen, especially by someone who has maybe gone through a similar time as you. And from someone who is, as far as she is concerned, the most important person in the room and the person she wants to be. But it does make it very complicated because she’s also like scared as shit of him because he could ruin her.”
That appraisal is so key, especially to the show’s first four episodes, which is where I was at when I first spoke with Leung and Herrold, but over the course of the second half of the season, the power dynamic changes.
Spoilers ahead here, but as Harper falls flat in a task for an increasingly desperate and challenged Eric, she faces his wrath and disappointment before being dragged by an office politics riptide, begrudgingly participating in an effort to take him out of the game. A silly notion. As if showrunners Konrad Kay and Mikey Down would fail to see the power of the Harper/Eric relationship and flush the show’s most promising asset.
If you’ve seen the season finale, you know Eric finds a way back, aided by Harper’s decision to… Let’s just say it’s bold move and one that may have serious long-term repercussions amongst her peer group, but I’ve never been too sure that those relationships really matters to Harper. Or, at least, not as much as that relationship with Eric.
Kay is hesitant to dig too deep into analysis on the finale, preferring the audience to make their own assessment. But he does tease what’s to come when we ask.
“The ramifications of her choice aren’t easily brushed away, power shifts aren’t that seismic in life and the consequences of her choice don’t just follow season 1 into the past. Its residue hangs over season 2. This relationship will deepen going forward despite many new stumbling blocks. It becomes a more complex dance, as the mentor and mentee continue to circle each other and in so doing circle the thing that binds them together, getting tantalizingly close to fully realizing it. Whether they can ever verbalize it is another matter entirely. Can they both be good people? Does it matter if they have each other?”
Herrold and Leung have their own view.
“I think anything Harper ever does is ultimately about survival,” she tells us over email. “Everything she does is about business and protecting her business; no sentimental feelings at all. Harper definitely knows she’ll have leverage moving forward with Eric which is another business advantage.” Leung sees something similar, telling us, “I imagine it equalizes the dynamic. They’re partners now. They’ve taken turns saving each other’s lives, in a sense, and by the end are both in a place that on paper neither is supposed to be. Partners with a history.”
Is that right, though? Are they partners now or is Harper’s survivalist mentality going to be a problem that Eric can’t see coming? Like that Don and Peggy dynamic, it’s easy to see the mentor trying to hang on and the mentee aggressively reaching for what’s theirs despite pushback that comes when you don’t play it polite and within the rigged rules of the game. Something Harper is far more willing to embrace than Peggy ever was. And more quickly. Just because those characters parted on good terms doesn’t mean these two will.
Everything on Industry is informed by the authenticity that the show strives for. Including my gut instinct on what happens next. Because, to put a fine point on it, the world is full of people who will stab you in the back, the front, or in the side and, in what is my most cynical sentence of 2020, trust and friendship are nice notions that don’t always prove their durability in business (or in life). And so the very specific kind of will they won’t they (destroy each other) of the Harper/Eric relationship stands at the heart of why it’s so fascinating — in season one and in the future.
All episodes of ‘Industry’ season 1 are available to stream on HBO Max.