Season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience (which debuted its first four episodes at TIFF) dives into the lives of two very different women with ties to the sex industry. Michel Ghanem discusses intimacy, vulnerability and sex work in the show’s second (and most polarizing) season.
The second season of The Girlfriend Experience hopes to be polarizing. “The beauty of what’s happened in season two is that it annihilates everything that was done in season one — a scorched earth approach, that was the idea,” Executive Producer Steven Soderbergh told the audience at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere. The season’s efforts at polarizing viewers (which Soderbergh believes will draw viewers in rather than alienate them) echoes its internal ethos. The second season will delve into dualities and binaries, confronting morality, control, and identity by way of two parallel storylines — a retired sex worker forced into witness protection in New Mexico, and a woman caught in political corruption in Washington, D.C.
The anthology-nature of the series (loosely based on Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name) means we won’t be seeing Christine Reade (Riley Keough) — the law student and intern who dips her toe in sex work as a high-end escort, and becomes fully engrossed by the end of the first season — return in November. Directed collaboratively by Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, Vulture called The Girlfriend Experience “one of the best shows of the year,” praising Golden Globe nominee Keough for her “internalized performance” and detached demeanor. Not all critics sung the first season’s praises, however. The show was quickly identified as potentially problematic for its idealization of sex work, and The New Yorker declared the show “not an experience,” criticizing its impersonality. In its second season, The Girlfriend Experience widens its scope to explore fresh, nuanced ground.
In the four episodes of season two presented at TIFF, we follow parallel storylines with two female protagonists. The first two episodes, directed solely by Seimetz, follow Bria Jones (Carmen Ejogo) as she begins a new life in New Mexico as part of the witness protection program. She’s given a run-down apartment, a gaudy wardrobe, an assembly line factory job, and is forced to live with a stepdaughter she barely connects with. Seimetz relates the precarity of Bria’s situation to that of women more generally, noting that “We’re living in a time where there’s such unsure footing — as a woman, not really understanding where I stand in the world.”
Season one focused on building the world of a successful ‘high end’ sex worker as an outsider to the sex industry, but the second season eschews a romanticized perspective on sex work. Having retired from sex work to marry her now-estranged husband (a corrupt politician named Donald), everything has come crashing down in Bria’s post-escort life. She struggles to find balance, unable to even have sex as she disobeys the boundaries of her living agreement to find a sugar daddy — both her new client and witness protection officer turn down her best attempts at seduction.
Compared to Keough, who often came off as cold and intriguingly indifferent, Ejogo is stunning in her ability to push her deeply emotive states to the surface. Despite New Mexico’s relatively barren setting, the cinematography is overwhelmingly lush; sunshine comes through the window as a lens flare, shots are cluttered with objects, and we can hear the continuous buzzing of low-quality light bulbs in her apartment. We feel claustrophobic with Bria as she searches for anything that might make her feel good again; as she’s called a “stupid, spoiled bitch” by her watchdog, or lying about “feminine issues” to her boss to avoid staying at work.
While the scope of the first two episodes is relatively narrow, the third and fourth episodes of the second season, directed by Kerrigan and filmed in Toronto, are expansive. These episodes focus on Erica Myles (Anna Friel) as she falls for sex worker and extortionist Anna Greenwald (Louisa Krause). Fans of the first season will notice distinct similarities in this story’s visual composition. Actors inhabit stripped, minimal spaces — empty restaurants, lobbies, hotel rooms, and offices. Kerrigan mentioned his disdain for background actors and props at TIFF, but these mise-en-scene choices also speak to the intersections of vulnerability, performativity, and space.
The real ‘clutter’ of life comes through in the political corruption that bubbles to the surface during the 2018 midterm elections — a decision Kerrigan made in a re-write after Trump’s election. Murky and confusing political plot aside, all is revealed through character intimacy. A politician’s violent bedroom misogyny is used against him in a blackmailing scheme. His violent displays of patriarchal masculinity are juxtaposed immediately with Anna’s other clients, mostly women. They surprise her with gifts of jewellery, and sex is tender rather than aggressive or commanding.
“I was interested in the power dynamics in a relationship and how they shift, and [the point at which] people become vulnerable to each other,” Kerrigan explained. Erica’s budding relationship with Anna promises to be one of the more riveting developments of the series. Anna refuses to let Erica pay for her company out of genuine (or is it?) romantic interest, and their sex is some of the most explicit and intimate I’ve seen between women on television.
At TIFF, Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience a “clinic in what a director does” with minimal-to-no production or network interferences. There were certainly moments I considered whether or not Seimetz and Kerrigan should have created such distinct stories running parallel to each other, but it becomes an open invitation to question how far apart their worlds really are. As Ejogo said after watching herself at TIFF, the show and creators have “an appreciation for messy women — complicated, deep, dirty, misunderstood, complicated personalities. It’s not just Girlfriend Experience women, it’s most of us, and we’re rarely given the space on screen to be all of those things.” A rarity in fall 2017’s landscape of declining female leads on television, the women of The Girlfriend Experience and the show’s polarity offers a rich opportunity for viewers to consider their own dualities.
Michel Ghanem is a Toronto-based graduate student researching fashion and television, and a writer. He recently interviewed an intimacy choreographer for Slutever, and wrote about costume designers for Fashionista.