The Girlfriend Experience
This isn’t how I expected The Girlfriend Experience to end. At all.
“Separation” is a surprisingly sedate finale. Mystifying, even. There are no major revelations or events. I wouldn’t call it a filler episode, but it feels incredibly minor. Christine barely encounters any of the characters who have been developed over course of the season. On the surface, it even seems like a simple episode, depicting Christine’s day as she navigates a life centered around escort work. But The Girlfriend Experience is all about confounding expectations. Despite its interest in slick surfaces and images, this show is so much more than what it initially appeared to be.
The episode opens with Christine’s beauty rituals. Waxing, chemical peels, getting her hair done. Her coolly unreadable face occupies the center of the frame. It’s a reminder of the contradiction at the heart of The Girlfriend Experience: Women gain power by being beautiful, but there’s a high price to retain that beauty. As “Separation” continues, it takes a minute view of Christine’s new status. She’s chauffeured from appointment to appointment. She tries to learn French. Her clothes look more impressive than ever. She obviously has more money than she’s ever had. But does that always equal autonomy and power?
She definitely seems in control when having sex with a new, unnamed client (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos). She’s on top, which seems to be the position where she feels most powerful. Pay close attention to Christine’s face as he finishes. She looks like a praying mantis, right before it rips the head off its mate.
Christine’s experiences with true pleasure usually come when she’s alone — either masturbating or watching previous recordings of herself. I wish this aspect of her character were more deeply explored, since the show becomes most interesting when it considers what it means to watch and be watched.
That dynamic is apparent even when Christine has an awkward lunch with Annabel, while a businessman at a nearby table keeps looking over. Does he recognize her from the video? Or does he just find her attractive? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: He’s just another of the many unattractive, older men that stare at Christine in expensive restaurants. They’re interchangeable. I’m much more curious about her connection to Annabel, anyway.
Christine’s relationship with women is wholly antagonistic, strained and even empty at times. I’m not sure what to make of this. At a certain point, it’s clear that Christine needs some friends — no one can survive on her own. Considering that her sister has almost no sympathy for her, Christine needs to find somebody who does. The judgment Annabel carries is palpable. She may not be as outright cruel as their mother, but it’s painful to watch them interact nonetheless. Even though they put on happy faces for a photo to send home, it’s obvious they don’t understand each other. Annabel is a step away from referring to Christine as a “whore”; Christine needles Annabel about working a job she doesn’t like. Both see the other as powerless.
“Are you happy?” Annabel asks Christine. This definitely isn’t because she cares about her sister’s well-being. If anything, the question seems like an indictment. It’s a small part of the episode, but it reflects the show’s broader concerns about desire withheld.
When Christine goes to meet another client, Gordon (John Hoogenakker), “Separation” gets a little bit bonkers, providing the finale with its largest burst of energy. There’s something off from the moment Christine walks in. Gordon and Christine seem incredibly familiar with each other, as if they’re in a relationship. For a moment I wondered if I missed a few episodes. When Gordon erupted in anger about Christine’s whereabouts, it dawned on me: Oh, this is role-play.
Gordon’s elaborate fantasy involves watching Christine with “Derrick,” a male escort, as they act out what can only be assumed to be his interpretation of a romantic failing from his past. How masochistic. It’s catharsis doubling as a cuckold fantasy. But Derrick isn’t as game as Christine is. (You’re getting paid, Derrick. Earn that money!) He punctures the fantasy with poor line readings and glances at Gordon. After a quick break, they dive right into sex. Things stumbles at first, when Derrick can’t get an erection, but eventually they get into it. Christine is in her element. She taunts Gordon with her sly gaze, sharp insults, and loud moans. Gordon watches with disgust and fascination, until he goes to the bathroom to masturbate on his own. It’s all incredibly performative and false — more so than any other sex scene in the show.
The Gordon sequence underscores several fascinating thematic undercurrents that run through the finale. Riley Keough turns in a great performance throughout, and utterly comes alive during the Gordon scenes. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough to make a stellar episode. “Separation” is a quiet way to end a season that so often built up unresolved tension.
At the end of this first season, I’m left with a lot of questions about The Girlfriend Experience. Who has Christine become after the video leak and the settlement? If she doesn’t return to college, what is her long-term plan? Will we ever see her with an actual friend? That last question is especially fertile ground. Christine doesn’t seem to have genuine friendships with anyone, but her relationships with women feel the most fraught. (Remember Avery?) If the show returns for another season, I hope that it explores that dynamic more thoroughly.
And so the finale ends with Christine alone in the hotel room. Derrick has already left. Gordon is nowhere to be found. She’s masturbating alone, unable to get off, surrounded by all the trappings of what sex and beauty have brought: money, control, and very little satisfaction.