The Girlfriend Experience
At the end of this episode, I realized what bothers me about The Girlfriend Experience. It isn’t so much disinterested in emotional connection and honesty between people, as it is actively repulsed by it. It doesn’t just present Christine’s selfish, emotionally shuttered worldview; it agrees with her.
Every character who shows a streak of emotion or non-transactional desire is framed in a frankly condescending manner, from Christine’s lovelorn client, Kevin, to the scorned wives that flutter in and out of the narrative. Prestige television often centers shows around outright moral depravity, whether it be criminals like Walter White, wounded men like Don Draper, or the warring romantic factions on The Affair. There is nothing wrong with depicting the uglier parts of humanity, as long as you have something to say. In its first three episodes, The Girlfriend Experience has been an incredibly handsome, remarkably sterile show with a fascinating central performance and mere flashes of its own perspective. In “Crossing the Line,” the show jumps to the next level by digging deeper into Christine’s moral quandaries and taking a closer look at the power plays within her world.
We begin with Kevin, who has devolved into a completely pathetic character. He’s now taking out loans just to see Christine. In the same breath he asks her to lower her rate, he tells her he’s in love with her. She says she’ll try to figure something out that works for both of them. But it isn’t surprising that, toward the end of the episode, she decides to cut him loose. As she bluntly tells him, she can’t make an exception.
The most powerful scene in “Crossing the Line” — and perhaps the whole show so far — takes place after Christine goes out to lunch with another client, Ryan. As she and Ryan are eating lunch, his friend Bill suddenly approaches with his wife, Lynn. He plays things cool, making chit-chat while Bill peers over to Christine with mild curiosity. With more than a hint of anger, Lynn pointedly asks that he send their regards to his wife, Kathleen (Sabrina Grdevich). Ryan keeps smiling through his teeth up until they leave. It’s clear this will have repercussions.
Later, Christine thinks she’s getting a call from Ryan about his proposed trip to New York — but instead, it’s his wife. Christine’s face doesn’t betray even the slightest hint of emotion, and she remains silent. Kathleen mentions her family, her disgust with Christine. To keep her away from Ryan, she offers $10,000, then quickly doubles it. The only thing that Christine says? “I don’t accept checks.”
When Kathleen meets with Christine, the dynamic is hard to fully grasp because it’s filmed from a distance. Grdevich plays Kathleen with a sharpness in both voice and body; she’s hanging on to her anger, lest she fall apart. Christine looks bemused, at best. We don’t get to completely see their faces, as if the camera is some voyeuristic patron of the restaurant, watching this tense moment play out with mild curiosity. Though the scene’s distance initially seems to work against it, the choice serves a greater purpose: to underscore Christine’s emotional remove as she works her way through the world.
Christine doesn’t count the money because she “trusts” all $20,000 of it is there. Then, she softens after Kathleen leaves. Does she feel guilty or uncomfortable with her actions? It’s hard to say. To be honest, Christine doesn’t owe Kathleen a thing. What troubles me is how little nuance the writers provide for the scorned wives who crop up through the episode. Kathleen is foolish to think paying off Christine will stop Ryan’s infidelity. She’s portrayed as shrill, angry, and protective of her family. I get The Girlfriend Experience is creating a world where its characters are incredibly selfish and more interested in power than emotional relationships. But that’s no reason to discount the nuanced ways women can relate to each other — even if that impedes the drama. I’m not expecting some grand feminist moment, and I’m certainly not asking for some deep connection between Christine and the wives of her clients. But this scene is trading in clichés: It’s the scorned older wife against the beautiful young woman. Still, the scenes involving Kathleen reveal how we’re supposed to see Christine. She’s starting to worry about the consequences of her extremely selfish, self-centered attitude.
Unfortunately, Avery’s disappearance leaves the show with few other opportunities for meaningful contact between Christine and other women. Yes, her older sister, Annabelle Reade (played by showrunner Amy Seimetz), comes into town. But that dynamic demands a sense of falsehood in ways that others don’t. Annabelle doesn’t know about Christine’s escort work. As they interacted, I wondered how well she really knew her sister at all. There are allusions to Christine’s strained dynamic with their mother, and the distance she’s created between herself and her family. There seems to be no traumatic event at the heart of this, or at least one isn’t hinted at. Christine’s desire to be dramatically separated from the world isn’t about protection. It’s a ruthless sort of efficiency.
Over dinner with her sister, Christine lays it out: She simply doesn’t like people, broke up with her previous boyfriend because he was “too available,” and won’t care about anyone unless she gets something tangible from a relationship. She reassures Annabelle that she makes the cut, though. But why? The show doesn’t provide an answer.
Meanwhile, the day players at Kirkland & Allen cast Christine’s world in a different light. Though this side of the show originally seems like background noise, co-creators Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan are using the corporate climate to draw contrasts. Christine feels like she exists in a series of different vignettes, but the narrative concerning David and his wayward client, X.H.P., has a definitive arc.
When Emery makes an appearance at an office party David hosts at his home, the lawyer probably thinks his hustling is paying off. But it does nothing to assuage the tension between David and his wife, Megan (Olivia Jones). Emery and X.H.P. come back to Kirkland & Allen, but unbeknownst to David, the decision has little to do with him. It’s revealed with surprisingly little buildup that Erin had sex with Emery; her dealings cement X.H.P.’s return, as well as her usurping David’s position as lead on the case.
Between Christine revealing to Ryan that she never had a serious relationship and Erin having a fling with Emery to further her career, The Girlfriend Experience is saying some uncomfortable, fascinating things about what women must do to succeed. Finding power as a woman, especially in a sexual way, means making a series of compromises. Erin doesn’t seem fully comfortable with the choice she’s made — but Christine seems more conflicted. Selfishness and manipulation seems to be the only way she knows how to relate, which leads to an awfully hollow existence. It isn’t all that honest, either. Everyone needs people to survive. Emotional connections provide not only warmth, but also support when we need it. If she were stripped of her beauty and youth, would Christine still be so selfish?
And then, David and Christine finally begin the affair that’s been foreshadowed since episode one. “Crossing the Line” is a definite turning point for the show — after all, it’s a big decision to have these characters sleep together. What starts off as a friendly, work-related conversation turns to one drink, then two. Before long, they’re back at David’s pied-à-terre, an apartment he got when problems began to arise between him and Megan. He notes that detail in such a casual way, the sex between him and Christine feels almost inevitable. It starts off tentatively enough, with the score swelling, then grows more heated after they make it onto the couch. It seems like Christine is more into having sex with him than anyone else we’ve seen. But when he asks her to spend the night, she hesitates. He eventually convinces her, but she says she’s only staying because it is so late. I’m not sure that’s entirely true.
At the end of “Crossing the Line,” Christine’s internal struggle comes to a head. On the phone with Annabelle, she asks, “Am I abnormally selfish?” Recent events have left her to wonder if she’s an outright sociopath. As a public defender, Annabelle has come into contact with plenty of sociopaths, and reassures her sister she’s just fine. That’s not entirely true, either. Though I don’t think Christine is a sociopath, she definitely isn’t “just fine.” The Girlfriend Experience argues that emotional remove is necessary for Christine’s survival. But it may very well be unsustainable.