The Girlfriend Experience
Since its first episode, The Girlfriend Experience has watched its characters’ cool machinations from a distance. It’s often difficult to read the reasons and emotions behind any act. “Access” pushes the show to an even further remove, as voyeurism becomes a central theme.
Early in the episode, Christine tells her boss Skip, “I’ve got it under control.” But at this point, it is very clear she’s losing hold over everything she once thought she mastered. “Access” begins just where the previous episode ends: Christine firmly tells Jack she doesn’t want him in her life, and that he shouldn’t contact her again. Then the episode smartly twists our expectations about the fallout of this relationship to deliver several surprises.
Christine’s scorned client, Jack, isn’t seen, but his ominous presence is felt — it’s obvious he’s stalking her. He sends flowers to her home, forcing her to ask the doorman to come up as she methodically turns on all the lights in her apartment. Later, she has a recording system professionally installed in almost every room. To heighten the voyeuristic threat, director Lodge Kerrigan places the camera as if to suggest we, the audience, are intruding on these characters’ lives. And the main plot of the episode, which introduces a private investigator named Simon Burcher (Paulino Nunes) who carefully follows and documents Christine’s life, puts the theme of voyeurism at the forefront.
In a surprising wrinkle, Simon doesn’t come across as emotionally detached. When a plan falters, his anger is palpable. He also seems to enjoy having power over others, a befitting trait for a private investigator. We’re first introduced to Simon when he’s shown spying on a date between Christine and Alex. The exact nature of his work becomes clear later, when Simon, hiding in another building, takes pictures of Christine and Alex in their hotel room as she gives him a blow job and, even more explicitly, sits on his face. (The Girlfriend Experience is definitely one of the most sexually explicit shows on television, and this is a high-water mark.) Once Simon blackmails Alex into helping him pose as a client, it’s clear that isn’t simply a by-product of Jack’s anger.
It’s easy to think that Simon’s investigation into Christine has to do with Jack, given the events of the last episode. Showrunners Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz use this expectation against us. After Simon poses as a client, he meets with Christine again — this time in a hotel room. He pays her up-front in cash, and they sit down on the couch. He’s curious about her process, feigning naïveté as he asks questions about how the night will play out. She touches his face and arms, but he’s unsatisfied. “What else? I want to hear you say it. What are my choices?” he asks. There’s an insistent edge to his voice that betrays him. He isn’t interested in sex with Christine.
Christine can be a good judge of character (Avery being an exception) and quickly notices something is amiss. She ends up giving him back his money and leaving the hotel. Afterward, her suspicion is proven correct; we see Simon replaying a recording of their conversation. He didn’t get any incriminating information that proves her to be an escort. The tension in the story line mounts when he calls none other than Jacqueline.
We haven’t seen Jacqueline since Christine angrily left her employ, taking her clients with her on a freelance basis. But Jacqueline’s involvement belies what’s going on — Simon’s investigation runs much deeper than just a jealous ex-client. It’s also interesting to note that Simon gets angry at Jacqueline, warning her that if she doesn’t cave, he’ll come after her, too. It’s only at the very end of the episode, when he approaches Christine as she’s getting out of work, that we find out who Simon really works for.
Christine was smart to ignore Simon’s phone call to set up another meeting, but she can’t escape the terrible position he’s put her in. Simon reveals that he’s been hired to make sure she doesn’t go after the $500,000 left to her by Michael. (Presumably, he’s working for Michael’s family.) If she tries to get the money, he will out her as an escort. Her entire life will change once her friends, family, and employers know about her work. This is the second time we’ve seen Christine’s obvious fear in “Access,” the first being when the doorman told her about the flowers Jack sent. Watching Christine struggle with the repercussions of being an escort — repercussions that Kerrigan and Seimetz seemed to bypass in earlier episodes — has definitely added some dimension to her character. But Christine still continues to be a confounding protagonist. Is it because she doesn’t embody the expectations we attach to women in these situations? Or is it because, despite Kerrigan and Seimetz’s strong writing, Christine just doesn’t feel like a fully formed character? At times, she feels like an empty projection, yet another portrayal of a millennial woman as selfish and self-centered.
The most fascinating moments in this episode tend to be more subtle. The way “Access” reckons with the ideas of voyeurism — both in how it affects the characters and what it may say about us as viewers — works best when it’s centered on Christine exclusively outside of her work as an escort. We watch her at the gynecologist getting a checkup. Later, an extended sequence finds Christine using the bathroom after getting home, seeing blood on her toilet tissue and putting in a tampon. When I watched this, I wondered if it was an attempt to humanize Christine. Emotionally, she seems to be at such a distance, but that has been shifting in recent episodes.
We don’t get too much development involving Christine’s work life, except for her interactions with the intern who is now assigned to David, Kayla Boden (Sabryn Rock). After some resistance, Christine is able to use Kayla to her advantage and get her password, so she can access certain files related to the XHP account (several of which are mysteriously missing). The moment Kayla cedes control, it’s clear she likely won’t be one of the interns hired. Time will tell how these office politics play out.
The Girlfriend Experience often dovetails into questions about how we think of ourselves, and how we really are. In a brief scene, Christine plays back a recording of herself (from the surveillance set up earlier) when she masturbates wearing only a pair of underwear. She sits on the edge of the bed at a perfect angle for the camera to catch everything. Is she purposely putting on a show for herself? She turns up the volume, enraptured by her own image. When it comes to sex with her clients, I don’t think she’s actually enjoying it. Compare that stoicism to scenes where she’s masturbating — she seems far more vocal, joyful even. When it comes to these selfish, image-orientated ways Christine gets pleasure, I wish Kerrigan and Seimetz would delve a bit deeper. The ways women find control and satisfaction — both personally and professionally — is ripe territory, given the subject matter of the show. So far, they haven’t dug beyond the surface. In the chilly universe of The Girlfriend Experience, female pleasure only seems to happen when a woman touches herself. What does that say? Isn’t that worth exploring?