In its second episode, The Girlfriend Experience leans heavily on the idea that all relationships are just a series of transactions. This outlook has quickly become a crucial aspect of the series, though as we saw in the pilot, it fails to truly challenge expectations.
As “A Friend” begins, the writers play coy as to whether Christine will become an escort. We watch her watching Avery, studying the online profile that depicts Avery as tastefully nude. The profile never quite shows her face; it’s all about the promise of something more. Christine claims she’s just curious, but it’s pretty clear she’s trying to find the right way in.
Soon enough, Christine maneuvers her way into this new world. Avery introduces her to Jacqueline (Alexandra Castillo), the woman who runs the escort service, and the arrangement is laid out: Jacqueline will set her up with clients, and in return, she’ll get 30 percent. Actress Riley Keough’s performance is so detached that it’s hard to get a read on Christine’s feelings about this — even as she wonders aloud to Avery about rate being too pricey. In fact, it’s tough to tell how she feels about anything. Christine wears the same vaguely incredulous look at all times, whether she’s in a lecture hall, taking professional nude pictures, or putting a condom on a man after giving him a blow job. “A Friend” doesn’t have much to say about who this character is, or what attracts her to the call-girl lifestyle beyond the money.
There’s a telling moment during Christine’s first date set up by Jacqueline. She’s decided to go by the name Chelsea Frayne, and she carries herself as she often does: icy, boldly narcissistic, cunning. But here, she isn’t as practiced. When the client asks her about her older sister, she rattles off several details that don’t feel true. He knows it and says so — though he doesn’t care if she lies. He just wants the lies to seem authentic. In the world of The Girlfriend Experience, everyone lies whether using fake names or not. All that matters is how well you can make a lie feel like the truth.
With the estate lawyer from the premiere, Christine goes to another swanky, colorless hotel. They exchange pleasantries. Drink expensive alcohol. The men and settings may change, but not drastically. Christine’s interactions with men have already begun to blend into one another. But with the estate lawyer, it’s different; this is her first time having sex for money. She keeps her eyes open when she kisses him, as if she wants to catalogue every moment with cool efficiency.
So far, The Girlfriend Experience is remarkably passionless from scene to scene, whether the subject at hand is David’s problems at the firm or how Christine studies her own nude pictures, which will soon comprise her online profile. Everyone, including Christine, feels like an automaton. Is this by design? It must be. Whether a character chases sex, affection, money, or power, they all move through the world in similar ways.
“A Friend” is co-written by showrunners Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, and Kerrigan directs the episode. The shift from Seimetz’s direction of the pilot is notable, as Kerrigan chooses to focus on Christine’s face during each sex scene. It’s an inspired choice, which transforms the sexual interplay from rote exploitation into an identity-based act. As we watch Christine’s face, it’s clear that this isn’t about pleasure. Like everything else, sex is just another transaction. The Girlfriend Experience would do well to explore how Christine feels about that.
The episode’s most interesting dynamic unfurls between Christine and Avery. These women don’t really seem to be friends; they’re always sizing each other up and looking for points of weakness. Christine is no more authentic with Avery than she is with her clients. Even when the two share laughter, it’s ephemeral. Given that tension, “A Friend” cleverly positions their arcs as dramatic foils of one another. After Avery introduces Jacqueline to Christine, her own career hits a rough patch: She has to move out of the impressive home she shared with a client, and Jacqueline soon stops returning her calls. We’re not really told why this is happening, but it speaks to the uneasy ground between these two women. With nowhere else to go, Avery moves in with Christine on a temporary basis. She’s prickly about this charity, refusing to take Christine’s money and demanding to pay for an expensive meal. As Christine is on the rise, Avery is watching her career slip away.
That said, kindness doesn’t seem like something Christine would offer for free. What will she get out of helping Avery? Is this gratitude for introducing her to Jacqueline? Is Christine even capable of feeling gratitude?
As Christine comes home one night, she hears Avery having sex with someone. A little later, Avery wakes her, unable to sleep. “Can I lie down beside you?” she asks. When these two women face each other in bed, what do they see? It takes only a few moments for the tenor of the scene to change: Avery thanks Christine for being there for her, then she passionately kisses her.
“Kiss me,” Avery says. It’s the only way she knows how to show her gratitude. The only way she can understand Christine is through sex. Up to this scene, there had been no sexual tension between the characters — or even a hint of bisexuality. This sex scene isn’t about friendship or desire, though. It’s yet another transaction. In a world where everything has a price tag, can love or honesty or basic humanity even exist?
And that brings me to an important point: It’s easy to imagine how Christine’s openly manipulative nature and cold emotional state could be confused for some sort of modern feminism. It isn’t. It’s just emptiness and sexual nihilism. That’s why it’s so interesting to see how she manipulates others; it’s a behavior defined by absolutes. We’ve learned much more about Christine in those moments, as she watches people and uses what she learns to her advantage. But what will happen if she turns that incisive gaze back at herself?
There is an ugly cynicism at the heart of The Girlfriend Experience, a grim worldview that suggests uncomfortable things about what women must do to move through the world. And yet, I’m still eager to see what will come next. Seimetz and Kerrigan have set the stage for fascinating questions about identity and the limits of female sexual power.