The Girlfriend Experience
The nature of freelance work is tenuous, no matter your career path. If you want any structure, you must create it for yourself. You’re your own boss; you’re the employee of the month every month. An enormous amount of effort, sleepless nights, responsibility, and stamina is needed to pull off a freelance life. It’s also a good idea to have been working in your field of choice for longer than two months. Despite the aloof cunning that Christine is written to have on The Girlfriend Experience, she doesn’t seem to think any of this through in “Retention.”
Why does she decide to sever ties with Jacqueline? Why is she so drawn to being a high-end call girl? She isn’t shown as needing the money for school, and her home life seems to be somewhat balanced. If anything, it’s a personal desire. It ties into Christine’s inherently selfish belief that people are a waste of time unless she can get something from them.
Near the end of “Retention,” we’re shown as much, as she has an exchange with Ryan (Shaun Benson), the first client Jacqueline introduced her to:
Ryan: What do you like to do?
Christine: Be alone.
As “Chelsea,” Christine often gives half-truths and outright lies to her clients. It’s a part of the game. But in this moment (and a few others), it seems like she’s telling Ryan the truth. Given that authenticity, it comes across as completely unbelievable that she’s so concerned for Avery. Their friendship has never felt real. At the end of the first episode, Avery pawned Christine off with Martin (Aidan Devine), the real estate lawyer; there was no emotion between them, no sense of honesty. They seem just as removed from each other as they are from their clients. And that’s one of the biggest mistakes of The Girlfriend Experience so far: It doesn’t really reflect true dynamics between women, particularly in regards to friendship. By making Christine so radically distant from the world around her, she’s too much of a cipher. Despite her disinterest in connecting with others, though, “Retention” proposes that she’d advocate on Avery’s behalf, even going as far as meeting Jacqueline to make a case for her.
When they meet up, Jacqueline gives Christine a lot of insight into who Avery really is: An “erratic and unreliable” person. She advises Christine to not get seduced by Avery, which casts the last episode’s out-of-nowhere sex scene in a completely different light. And yet, whenever Christine interacts with Avery, there’s no feeling of warmth or true concern. If Christine only looks out for herself, what does she have to gain here? If this is an act of kindness, why does their relationship still feel so easily discarded?
In spite of her apparent importance, Avery’s storyline takes a sharp turn before fizzling out. When Christine comes home, she finds the place disheveled; Avery is gone and her small safety deposit box has been emptied. This betrayal is somewhat telegraphed, both by Jacqueline’s early warning and the way Avery suggests, while drinking copious amounts of wine, that she may just go on vacation. At that point, it’s clear Avery doesn’t have any money of her own, since Jacqueline drained her bank accounts. Christine, full of righteous fury, tracks down Jacqueline to curse her out in public. This flare of emotion is a rarity for Christine, which makes me wonder: Is this just because of the money? Or does she have stronger feelings for Avery, as Jacqueline warned?
Meanwhile, the office goings-on at Kirkland & Allen are far from background noise, as the loss of a lawyer and his major client are juxtaposed against Christine and Jacqueline’s power plays. It’s mildly enjoyable to watch David sweat and beg, as he tries to outmaneuver everyone else to lure in Emery Wright (Neil Whitely). Emery is the face, so to speak, of X.H.P., the big-time client that represents five percent of firm’s billing. And David is desperate to win him back.
It’s much easier for Christine, who brings her clients with her as she makes the move to freelance — including Kevin, who is quickly becoming serious about their relationship. Although The Girlfriend Experience equates sexual politics with corporate politics, inasmuch as it frames everything as transactional, Kevin represents the human element. He’s the embodiment of the ways people can be transfixed by images, how easily someone can confuse a projection of what they want with reality. When they first meet, Christine plays “Chelsea” far more bubbly and approachable than she usually does. Watching the Chelsea persona shift to suit the needs of each client brings some unexpected layers to Riley Keough’s performance. It’s appropriate, too: Isn’t that what we’re watching Christine do? Try on personas and perform? When Kevin remarks about how honest Christine’s eyes are, I couldn’t help but laugh. Christine’s eyes aren’t honest; she’s just very good at reflecting whatever the men in her life want to see.
However, there are bits of Christine’s storyline that don’t make quite as much sense here. On a character level, her relationship with Avery feels like an odd acquaintanceship at best, which makes her sudden investment in it feel hollow. And then, there is everything with Jacqueline. Why does Jacqueline stick with her after their blowup? It only gives Christine the opportunity to poach clients and strike out on her own. The men must like her just that much, a fact that comes to light when they all follow her after she goes freelance.
But Jacqueline doesn’t appear to be done with Christine. At work, she finds an envelope on her desk with the sexualized pictures she took inside — and her face is visible in almost every one. Until now, the show hasn’t really addressed the dangers that come along with Christine’s decision to be a call girl. We still haven’t seen her consider what this new profession means. It can’t exist inside a vacuum; these photographs prove that. Still, it’s not entirely clear if Jacqueline sent the photographs — perhaps it was Avery? — and the question isn’t really addressed later.
Near the beginning of “Retention,” there’s also a curious moment where Christine meets with Craig (Kevin Claydon), her one-night stand from the first episode. In their incredibly brief exchange, she explains why she hadn’t called him back. We then see Christine having sex. Her reflection (and face) is the focus, which seems to be the common set-up for sex scenes in The Girlfriend Experience, further underscoring how images are of paramount importance to these characters. It’s easy to assume that Christine is having sex with Craig again, but she isn’t; Martin is the man underneath her. We don’t see Craig again, but their exchange is given a remarkable amount of weight. It doesn’t really fit into the rest of the episode.
In the end, the lesson to be learned from Avery’s betrayal is simple: Emotional detachment is necessary in the nihilistic world of The Girlfriend Experience. If Christine wants to survive and thrive, she must sever her connections with others. Can it really be that straightforward, though? Christine’s interaction with Jacqueline and Avery make plain how this show doesn’t capture the true value of female relationships. It’s a tremendous liability for Christine to go freelance so soon; now more than ever, she needs support.
It’s easy to think of the idea of “sisterhood” as something meant for treacly Lifetime movies or those empty modes of empowerment so often sold to women, but deep connections between women are absolutely necessary. Considering that Christine has gone freelance so quickly, it seems vital that she have someone by her side with more experience. What will happen when things go south? Who will she turn to? Who is Christine, really? The Girlfriend Experience hasn’t answered these questions yet. Will it ever bother to try?