If the first half of The Girlfriend Experience was about Christine’s newfound power, the second half of the season seems to be about what will happen when she loses control.
Every aspect of Christine’s life is coming undone. The $500,000 that Michael left for her in his will comes with too many strings attached. If she tries to go for it, his family will ruin her. They believe they have a case in proving she’s an escort. This forces her to sign her claim away … unless the family does reveal her profession, then they would have to give her the money. Christine’s former client, Martin, has been handling the legal intricacies of this problem. In a phone conversation with her, he condescendingly calls her “dear” in an off-handed way. Her response is the best line of the episode: “Please don’t call me ‘dear.’”
As I watched “Provocation,” I kept thinking of that line. It speaks to Christine’s essential anger and her desires to be respected and taken seriously — as every woman should — which is present throughout the episode. However, she’s realizing that she doesn’t have the power she needs to control her life. Most people don’t have as much control over their lives as they’d like to believe, but Christine seems hyper-aware of this. The exchanges she makes between clients, co-workers, and family chip away at her sense of control.
No aspect of Christine’s life is working out. At school, she’s obviously off her game. A teacher even reprimands her about her many absences, warning that if she gets another, she’ll have to take the whole course over again. That’s far from the worst thing Christine has to handle, though. Her life as an escort is bleeding into her professional situation.
Chicago is the kind of city that feels smaller and smaller as the years go by. Considering how Christine’s meetings as an escort happen in the same ritzy hotels and high-class restaurants that David would frequent, it’s surprising she hasn’t already bumped into him. Instead of finding her client sitting outside, she finds David meeting with Ben, the opposing counsel on the X.H.P. case and a buddy of his. David, of course, confronts her — he thinks she’s following him, which she quickly denies. Christine isn’t afraid of him, though, and recognizes she has leverage now that she knows he’s throwing the X.H.P. case.
David: “You need to think twice before entertaining childish conspiracy theories.”
Christine: “Is that a threat?”
One of the biggest mistakes of The Girlfriend Experience so far is that in making Christine such an opaque character, it’s hard to understand why she’s still enthralled by David. Is it because he rejected her? Does she want to regain the power and control she feels she lost? Is this just a game to her? Did she really have feelings for him? Is she actually interested in the X.H.P. case, or is she drawn to it because of David’s involvement? Without knowing the answers to these questions, it’s hard for the ever-shifting boundaries between David and Christine to be truly interesting. Instead, their relationship come across as a confounding puzzle that forms no obvious picture.
David isn’t the only thorny problem Christine has to contend with in “Provocation” — Jack reappears, too. It’s clear that Jack’s interest in Christine hasn’t waned; if anything, he’s grown more obsessed with her. He takes his stalking a step further by approached her after class, while she’s getting in her car. “I miss you,” he pleads, making himself out to be the victim.
If there is one emotion Christine doesn’t have trouble expressing, it’s anger. She’s righteously pissed off after this encounter with Jack, enough so that she decides to retaliate by meeting with Anna, Jack’s friend with whom they had a double-date with a few episodes ago. Christine may think this is a smart decision — if she expresses her fear to Jack’s actual friend, perhaps he’ll back off. But men like Jack don’t back off. They just find new ways to hurt women who refuse to be under their control.
Christine’s decision belies something I’ve felt about her since the first episode: She doesn’t consider the bigger picture of the forces she’s working between. If Jack so easily found her real name, address, and where she works, what’s stopping anyone else from doing the same?
Christine finds a way to get back at David by going to Erin and telling her what she knows. It’s a decision fueled by feeling like she’s backed into a corner. (Again: It’s still difficult to understand why she’s so hung up on him.) Unfortunately, Christine doesn’t realize that Erin is in on the plan to throw the X.H.P. case, too. Her supposed power play really just exposed her. David figures Christine hasn’t gone to the authorities with what she knows, since she doesn’t have enough to damage them. But Erin isn’t underestimating her. Could Christine be holding onto this information for leverage? “I don’t think she’s that smart,” David counters.
Just like the last episode, voyeurism is a major theme in “Provocation.” One day, Christine believes she’s being followed while jogging, and later notices a window open in her apartment when she comes home. She fast-forwards through her security footage, realizing she’s safe, but Shane Carruth’s droning score makes the episode feel as if it’s been temporarily transported into a horror movie.
The most interesting scene dealing with the boundaries of voyeurism, exhibitionism, and finding comfort through artifice comes when Christine uses Chatroulette. She flips through the various people with bemusement until she finds the creepiest-looking man, then decides to masturbate in front of him. The act of being seen in intimate positions removed from physical contact is something Christine seems to enjoy far more than sex. Is this because she has so much control over the situation? It seems like it. One click on her laptop and the exchange ends; she can go back to her life like nothing ever happened.
The sense of horror that overshadows certain moments of “Provocation” reemerges at the very end of the episode. Jack calls Christine on her work phone, seething as he asks her what she said to Anna. He even tosses in a rather cruel insult. Christine tries to keep her cool, but it’s obvious the situation with Jack has reached a fever pitch. Has she ever thought of what sort of security she would lose by going freelance? Or by becoming an escort in the first place? She has no close friends whom she can confide in. In previous recaps, I’ve mentioned that Christine’s utter disconnection from the people around her isn’t a sign of strength — it’s a sign of weakness. No one can live like that. We need interpersonal connections to survive.
At the very end of the episode, David finds an email seemingly from Christine that contains a video of her and Jack having sex. It’s clear she’s been hacked. His voice is masked and we don’t get to actually see the video — only David’s reaction as he watches it again and again. “You like getting paid for sex. It turns you on getting paid?” Jack says. “Yes, it turns me on,” Christine replies.
“Provocation” feels like the calm before the storm, as it sets up more fascinating dynamics to come. It isn’t as engaging as previous episodes, but it lays the ground for ideas that are full of promise, especially in regards to Christine’s unraveling.
The Girlfriend Experience seems to be suggesting that Christine’s cool, transactional way of life will come back to haunt her. When you have no one by your side, how could you possibly handle a crisis? This video all but guarantees tragedy. That sickly feel of horror now seems to be coming true, even if Christine doesn’t realize it quite yet.