It’s not a secret that Julian Kay once slept with people for money. As of the second episode, American Gigolo does not yet seem to know what it wants to do with that fact. Early on, we’re given an aggressive, explicit sex scene between Bernthal as Kay and Lizzie Brochere as Isabelle — she taunts him, shoves his face down to her genitals, flips him around so she rides his mouth, reminding him of how he once did this type of thing for work and must have forgotten how it’s done in his 15 years in prison. The scene makes sex appear about as transactional and unerotic as one could imagine it being, as though we’re witnessing one of the true lows of this type of labor. Yet as the episode progresses and Kay has more opportunities to remember and assess his career, American Gigolo shies away from anything genuinely sexual about the work at all.
In the first episode, we were offered a marathon of exposition as the show raced to draw a narrative from Julian Kay’s youth as a victim of sexual abuse to his adulthood, fresh out of prison. The second episode offers a similar sense of speed and urgency as it collects vignettes from the past and scenes from the present to create one semi-cohesive story line. A good deal of time is spent rehashing the first episode’s plot, though with some moments of greater depth. With the awful sex scene between Isabelle and Julian, we are reminded of their first introduction as a young child and a teen — we see Julian being kind and brotherly to her, able to act like a child himself, then taken away by the Queen for a lesson in pleasing women in sex. When we see that Isabelle often caught glimpses of these lessons, we begin to have some understanding of her initial position as a victim in much of this as well. Of course, intermixed with all this is the plot surrounding the original murder that Kay was locked away for, which Detective Sunday continues to try to solve. We meet the weaselly Guy, who, alongside the Queen, is murdered before the episode ends. A file containing information about a young woman Julian dated as a teenager is introduced. None of this feels particularly important.
What seems more imperative is deciphering the romantic and interpersonal dynamics of the show, particularly in light of the time spent on Julian and Michelle’s relationship. Julian can’t seem to encounter something as simple as a dog or a restaurant without falling deep into nostalgia for his time with Michelle. In one flashback of their early days of knowing each other before being romantically involved, Michelle tells Julian she’d like to hire him for a friend who has recently been left by her husband for a much younger woman. Michelle wants Julian to make this woman feel desirable, and sex is only a secondary component to this. This scene is one of the more revelatory of the show so far: It gets to the crux that often, the sex Julian provides with his job is broadly an avenue for some other feeling. Sex is a way for the women who hire him to feel wanted, relaxed, entertained, or simply just hot. But why exactly can’t Michelle be the one who wants this? Perhaps we’re meant to see Michelle as “different” from Julian’s clients, as someone who doesn’t want or need to hire an escort. But frankly, it would make her far more interesting if she did. Rather than raise any central questions about who Michelle once was and why she latched onto Julian, this episode focuses more on her current predicaments. She lives out the familiar trope of the rich woman with a cold, withholding husband and a potential pill problem, but more pressingly, her teenage son has run away with his teacher. The cold, withholding husband has hired a team of investigators to track the son down, and they seem to do this pretty much immediately, but still, Michelle is left scrambling around, swearing to do anything to get her son back. Regardless, the son is still holed up in a motel room with the teacher, who reads literature to him while he paints her toenails. They discuss a story of a woman whose husband gives her permission to run off with her lover, and the boy asks if the teacher would do the same. “I’m here, aren’t I?” she says.
Between Michelle, Isabelle, and the teacher, we’re presented with a view of women’s sexuality that is complicated, at the very least. This is a bit more than we can say of our Julian Kay, who, tortured by his past as he may be, still strikes one as a straightforward guy. The episode makes a point of highlighting that random dogs are drawn to him, as was Michelle’s dog when they first met, so naturally he must be a likable guy. Strangers may have an initial distrust, but quickly they warm up. Julian also meets up with a friend from prison, Beau, who essentially says he would do anything for Julian and arranges a job for him working back of the house in a restaurant. Altogether, we get the idea that Julian is a good dude and not all that much else. What does he think of his own sexuality and masculinity? Given so many aspects of his past, these are surely difficult questions to answer. At one point in conversation with his new landlord, Lizzi, played by Yolonda Ross (an example of a stranger who soon warms up to him), Julian explains that many women hired him because they’re like windows that haven’t been opened in far too long. If you try to force it open, it’ll break. But with some time and coaxing, they’ll ease up and the room they’re attached to will be transformed. It’s a fine metaphor, sure, but can we please get some idea of how Julian actually feels about all this?
This type of simplicity ultimately suits Jon Bernthal well. There is a sense that he is giving the role what he’s got, though it doesn’t demand much of him in the first place. Himbo with a heart of gold and a troubled past is something he does well. Jon Bernthal has a sort of “alpha” Everyman quality to him, an aspirational, bro-y masculinity, but it’s not quite at the level where he’s being used in the hustle-porn memes like Tom Hardy or the Rock. American Gigolo could be an avenue for Bernthal to give this type of role some depth and comment on masculinity and sexuality. There’s time for this yet, but episode two has kept us waiting.
• Still no freaking dick shots, but so far, all the sex has been uncomfortable and it wouldn’t have been fun to see, anyway.
• What I thought was a fun, sexy montage in the first episode to “Call Me,” by Blondie, is actually the title sequence. I forgot about those! We do not hear any more “Call Me” in this episode, but it ought to return in more ways.
• Do you expect me to believe that Julian got an apartment in Venice Beach basically just by randomly walking by and talking with the landlord?
• I appreciate that Detective Sunday delivers a little comedic relief, even if it often delivers absolutely nothing for the plot. Will there be some greater reason for her repeated quest for the Wi-Fi password? Was the gym receptionist telling her that the password was “dressforthebodyyouh&ve” an insult or genuine?