How A Person Becomes A Business: The Girlfriend Experience

Evan McGarvey takes a look at this year's best sexual and psychological drama.
By    August 17, 2016

Evan McGarvey used Bank of America long before Chingy  

In 2011, on Take Care, that totem of a quarter life crisis, Drake raps: “Maybe I should walk up the street and try and get a job at the bank?”  

When the album came out, the line felt like a throwaway. Now, years later, as the bulk of Drake’s listeners have either aged into that same fear, or aged out of it into the concerns of middle age, it feels like the album’s centerpiece.  

What is the young working person to do? What do they have to do? How does all that square with who they want to be?

Two years before that song (“Look What You’ve Done”), Steven Soderbergh made a film about another millennial measuring life with a job.

The Girlfriend Experience, released 2009, offered viewers a glimpse of the life and times of a high-end Manhattan sex worker. ‘Chelsea’ (played by former adult film star Sasha Grey) wore sheath dresses, shared tasting menus at four-star restaurants, and witnessed the final throes of the hedge fund era. She relayed each episode of her day, each client quirk, each passing fact, in cool, monotone voiceover.  If Jane Fonda in 1971 Klute stood in for post-Watergate paranoia & the ‘average’ (white, male, suburban) American’s unmooring, The Girlfriend Experience’s Chelsea gave us a face for an era in which heaps of capital flickered just out of reach.

Seven years later, and Drake’s hypothetical bank job is most certainly gone. In 2009 we thought that only the money was disappearing for a while. Now, in 2016, it feels like the idea of a job has departed too. The percentage of Americans freelancing is at an all time high. Each segment of the labor market has tightened. Many of Chelsea’s former clients might just be the ones calling you on behalf your local Wells Fargo. The labor ladder continues to throw up perpetual obstacles to anyone not white, not male, and not already middle class.

When Starz’s TV adaptation of The Girlfriend Experience dropped this April, the show’s creative team placed the concept’s (or, shudder, “IP’s”) knot of intimacy, sex, power, gender, and money all under the unwavering truncheon of work.  Each of the first season’s thirteen half-hour episodes resembles a rigorous, sense-driven interrogation of the ways in which work works us.

Riley Keough plays Christine, a law student in Chicago. One afternoon, Christine visits her law school friend in a hotel room. Her pal, a ‘GFE escort,’ relaxes in the room, stealing an off-hour while her client, presumably, slogs through meetings. As soon as Christine enters the room, she peppers her friend with questions: Where’s the guy? Were you wearing that when you arrived? Can we order room service? Within 30 seconds, it’s Christine in repose on the bed, ordering the hotel’s most expensive bottles of wine and champagne (she checks), wrapped in a robe.

But Keough’s Christine isn’t a rote millennial shark. Show runners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan—respected independent filmmakers and writers, and, in Seimetz’s case, actor—let Christine’s desires impel the camera’s movements.

 

Watch how the pilot reflects Christine interview process for an internship at a top Chicago firm. In the stockyard-like hall where she has first-round interview, the camera refuses to settle, showing Christine slightly askew as she meets someone, anxiously tracking her as she paces, rehearsing her script for the next interview. When she’s working at the firm, the show’s eye has a terrible stillness. Christine scans the glass office like a kestrel. When she dives into the world of high-end escorting, the camera work and staging mirror each session and each client ‘Chelsea’ (Christine’s GFE name) takes on.

This decision to focus on Christine’s emotions—both performed and private—pays huge dividends as the show swerves in and out of genre across the 13 half-hour episodes. For a few episodes it’s a 21st century legal drama. For a few episodes it’s sexual / psychological thriller, then maybe a bildungsroman. Even the penultimate episode, a wan, Baumbach-ish trip back home, works because of the camera’s constant loyalty to Christine.

The set of supporting characters is small and efficient: A madam. A sister. A senior partner at the firm (House of Cards’s Paul Sparks). Characters dip in for a few episodes, then vanish, then reappear. There’s no easy surrogate for the audience, no Donald Sutherland in Klute. As the season ends and the ostensible plot threads combine, we’re not left with an office drama or even a mere character study, but the story of how a person becomes a business.

The last four episodes resonate in particular. They frame an economically libertarian, ‘disruptive,’ birth-of-a-permalancer, triumphant narrative (Christine sits down with a financial planner who advises her to incorporate a shell company) around the risks and power of performing intimacy for money—listening, sex, emoting. They blend the competence montages of Mike on Breaking Bad with a psychological—Gatsby-making lists, Biggie-naming shirts—sense of self-refinement.

Her trip to Toronto—where the show is filmed, with all of its all cold, stylized steel edges emphasized—in Episode 10, “Available,” is a particular standout in exploring how Christine cultivates the emotions to act as ‘Chelsea’ while monitoring her own ‘real’ ones.

Released this spring, the show got lost among the buzzy excellence of the NBA Playoffs, Game of Thrones and The People v. O.J. Simpson.  But the show’s distinction sparked necessary discussions. Vulture hired writer and sex educator Lux Alptraum to write companion pieces—in which GFE escorts were interviewed to verify the show’s accuracy and to discuss the emotional realities of their work in general —for each of their recaps.

In May, halfway through the season, Seimetz gave an interview to the LA Times in which she offered the idea that Keough’s Christine was a needed response to Hollywood’s “oversimplification of the female psyche.” Later in the interview, Seimetz uses the word “compartmentalization” to describe Christine.

 

That modern-day craft of dividing yourself into compartments seems to me to be at the core of the show. Each one of the show’s thrills—the corporate intrigue, the power-dynamic-shifting sex scenes, the emerging psychological corners of Christine—comes from the way that one ‘compartment’ spill over into the next. You should binge the season’s six-and-a-half-hour mosaic of desire, money, and sex to experience just how each twist of Christine’s professional life shakes or bolsters those compartments.

Last week the show was renewed for a second season. The press release confirmed that viewers will witness new “GFE, clients, and relationships” in Season 2. If this was the only glimpse we’ll have of Keough’s Christine, fair enough. The finale of The Girlfriend’s Experience is bravura: it’s “Chelsea” at her professional apex and Christine at her most pointed. The revelations about what’s a performance and what’s not, what’s under her control and what she’s let go, haunt.

Keough’s imbues Christine with mystery that reminds me of, and may even surpass, two other workers at the core of 2015-2016’s other superb shows: Bokeem Woodbine’s gangster-philosopher-made-company-man Mike Milligan in Fargo, and Courtney B. Vance’s imperiously present, code-switching, relentless Johnny Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson.

You get the sense that these characters are, as the cliché advice goes, doing what they love, and loving what they do.