The Girlfriend Experience
In my recap of The Girlfriend Experience’s second episode, I wondered what would happen if Christine ever turned her shrewd gaze inward. How would she change if she were as openly discerning toward herself as she is with everyone else? Who would she really see? In “Insurance,” we get finally get some answers. And they aren’t pretty.
Christine is a purposely perplexing character. Whenever I think have a handle on her, showrunners Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz add another unexpected layer through a plot turn. I’m not sure her selfish ways and emotional barriers work, but her conscious choice to avoid connections has been fodder for many interesting moments. Five episodes in, Christine’s emotional remove makes her seem like an automaton without the ability to feign human interaction or warmth, but “Insurance” takes a sharp turn in the opposite direction. Christine isn’t becoming an emotional creature for no reason; her carefully crafted façade is cracking in unexpected ways for unexpected reasons.
The show itself is confounding, too. Certain characters who seemed like important fixtures have receded into the background — or, like Avery, disappeared altogether — while many of Christine’s clients have become far more instrumental than their introductions suggested. No character typifies this shift better than Michael (Nicholas Campbell), the widower client whose name I didn’t mention in previous recaps because he felt like such a non-presence.
“Insurance” opens with Christine on a yacht with Michael, who sits nearby while she sets up a meeting with a new client. We watch Christine and Michael swim, have sex, and even discuss the opportunity for him to be her only client. A foreboding scene follows: Christine can’t find Michael, and just as the tension is stretched to its limit, he reappears. The moment foreshadows a later scene, in which Christine learns that Michael died of a heart attack. His death provides Kerrigan and Seimetz the opportunity to chip away at Christine’s image of herself. For the first time, we’re actually witnessing the complications that come with her escort work.
Until this episode, The Girlfriend Experience had curiously elided the dangers that come with being a high-end sex worker — be it physical, emotional, and social. “Retention” flirted with a storyline in which someone (presumably Jacqueline) sent Christine’s racy pictures to her office as an intimidation tactic, but it was forgotten almost as quickly as it was introduced. Michael’s death is a chance to consider these issues in a deeper way.
Christine finds out Michael left $500,000 for her in his will — but it’s under her escort pseudonym, “Chelsea.” To get the money, she needs to prove that she is Chelsea. Unfortunately, if she does that, it would become public record and would have devastating results on her life. It’s surprising that “Insurance” doesn’t sit with this problem or address its complexities, even as Christine goes to one of her clients, Martin, for legal advice. It’s one of the show’s greatest failings: By attempting to confound us, it undermines dramatic potential.
Michael’s death does give us a peek at Christine’s emotional side. In an unexpected turn, she doesn’t handle his death all that well. Her struggle is most apparent when she fails with two prospective clients — a husband and wife. He’s meant to watch them have sex, but Christine is too drunk and distraught to live up to the fantasy. As she cries in the bathroom, with her dress partially off, the sorrow is evident in her entire body. When she turns her gaze to the mirror, though, it seems like she wants to find that same blank, unreadable face. I’m not sure what to make of Christine’s mini-breakdown. The way she acted with Michael didn’t feel any more authentic than how she acts with other clients. Did he mean something to her? Or is the stress of her internship, her escort work, school, and keeping up various personas becoming too much to handle?
Though Christine ostensibly finds power through the six-figure inheritance, everything that happens at her office reveals just how little power she has. After learning about Michael’s death, she reaches out to David. The sex scene between them is different than any other we’ve seen on the show. In previous sex scene, Christine was either on top or incredibly performative, like that mastrubatory power play in the season premiere. But here, David is on top. She’s also a touch less in control, which he notices. Another detail worth noting: She has an orgasm, but he doesn’t.
“I’m not your friend,” David tells her. “Maybe I can be at some point. But not at four o’clock in the morning.” It’s an odd statement; Christine didn’t talk about anything personal or seem all that needy. Maybe he prefers her callousness. Nevertheless, their tryst gives Christine an opportunity to learn a bit more about the X.H.P. case. After David leaves, Ben Holgrem (Brad Borbridge), his friend and opposing counsel on the case, surprises Christine when she is comes out of the shower. I thought the rest of the episode would then pivot around this moment and David potential collusion with Ben. Instead, David soon becomes a managing partner and re-assigns Christine to another lawyer, Skip Hadderly (Michael Therriault). She is openly angry about the re-assignment, which all but signals the end of their affair — and that’s probably a good thing. Christine is presented as a cunning character, but she often takes dangerous risks with little forethought. It’s also obvious when Erin asks her out for lunch that she knows about the affair. Erin pointedly mentions David’s divorce with Megan, the names and ages of his children, sizing Christine up as each sensitive detail sinks in.
The story line builds toward an obvious truth: Christine has become a pawn, even if she doesn’t realize it. By the end of the episode, though, she seizes power back by doing something that will either prove to be incredibly bold or incredibly stupid. First, in a particularly flirtatious exchange, she asks David to have sex one more time.
Christine: Are you waiting for me to fuck you?
Christine: And if I don’t?
David: Then I’ll have to fire you.
At the very end of the episode, we learn Christine recorded the ensuing sex scene — as well as his equally damning conversation with Holgrem. What does Christine plan to do with these recordings?
It’s fascinating that Christine’s clients want her for the so-called “girlfriend experience” because she provides neither the empathy or warmth that the term would seem to require. With the halfway point of the season in sight, I’ve grown to enjoy how The Girlfriend Experience approaches power dynamics and the masks people construct to move through the world. Still, the show’s disinterest in emotion, empathy, and care isn’t just a thematic preoccupation. It’s a liability. Riley Keough’s performance has some nice touches in “Insurance,” especially when she digs past Christine’s bemusement and chilly intelligence. Even then, it’s still an deliberately blank performance. That’s the point, I supposed. We’re supposed to project our ideas of Christine onto her. But that isn’t enough to sustain a show like this, let alone anchor it.