Power is an inherent theme in The Girlfriend Experience. There’s really no way around it. A show that’s “about” the exchange of money for sex and companionship has to be about power on some level. Up until “Crossing The Line” though, the show hasn’t made much of a fuss about the dynamics of power that course through just about every single relationship on the screen. Rather, it’s been establishing its world and, in some ways, positioning the viewer as akin to Christine in that we’re learning about this world at the same time she is. Of course Christine remains an elusive and often indefinable figure, someone whose intentions and thoughts are veiled or downright hidden, but there are certainly times when she acts as a pseudo-surrogate for the audience.
So, now that this world is pretty firmly established, The Girlfriend Experience can start to tease out the nuances. Where the first three episodes largely see Christine testing the waters of her new life, split between interning at Kirkland and obtaining a number of clients as an escort, “Crossing The Line” sees her more at ease with the lifestyle and her choices. As the episode opens, Christine is having problems with Kevin, or at least Kevin is having problems keeping her. After failing to cum, he shuffles anxiously around the hotel room. Christine sits him down and they talk. He says that while he makes “okay money” he can’t afford to keep seeing Christine, an issue that has him taking out loans just to keep their schedule intact. Christine’s face almost never betrays any confidence, but it’s clear she’s thinking on the spot, especially after he asks her to lower her rate so that they can keep seeing one another. That request sets the stage for the rest of the episode, which finds a number of ways to muse on the idea of power.
The theme of power and how it’s obtained and held on to comes into play as Christine gets a visit from her sister Annabel. The two have dinner and after some gentle chiding about calling their mother and Christine’s defensive nature, Annabel asks her sister about an old flame. Christine responds by balking at the very idea of dating before justifying her reaction by saying that she can’t stand to spend time with people without accomplishing something. On the one hand it’s a throwaway comment that’s a little too on-the-nose when it comes to giving some insight into Christine’s personality and what draws her to sex work, and yet it also triggers potential problems down the road. Annabel tells Christine that such an outlook is just selfish, and later Christine worries that her sister might be right. “Am I abnormally selfish?” she asks her on the phone before Annabel leaves town. She’s not necessarily worried about being selfish, but more selfish than other people.
That thought is perhaps triggered by her night spent with David Tellis, the result of a number of tense, knotty relationships coming to light. It all starts at what seems to be a birthday party for David—as always, The Girlfriend Experience plays fast and loose with details and timelines. Amy Seimetz shoots the party as the mess of intersecting lives and intentions that it is. XHP’s Emery arrives to the party with Erin. David’s wife finds her way there, their relationship clearly rocky (at best) as they whisper-argue with one another. David tells Christine to fake a conversation with him to that he can avoid a drunk colleague. Everyone here is trying to make sense of their own life while taking into account the unknowable motivations of others. It’s in the look David gives Erin when she arrives with Emery, or the way she stares back at him through a crowd of people.
The exchange between Christine and David at this party is the key to unpacking the rest of the episode. “I’m always honest,” he says. Christine isn’t so sure. “Always?” she says. “Never,” he replies without missing a beat. In fact, so much of The Girlfriend Experience is built on veiled intentions and misleading conversations. When Erin later sleeps with Emery, essentially to secure XHP’s continued status as a client of Kirkland, leading to Erin taking control of the account, David is blindsided. He feels betrayed, or at least that things are slipping out of his control. That’s paralleled with Christine’s simultaneous assertion of and loss of power. She asserts her power over Kevin, telling him that she can’t start making exceptions for clients who can’t afford her. It’s a bold moment, one that not only underscores Christine’s privilege—surely there are many sex workers who couldn’t afford to turn down the business, who have to compromise their authority—but also serves as a contrast to the scenes with her other clients.
Namely, Christine begins to lose some control just as she’s gaining it. Yes, she puts Kevin in his place and asserts her own agency. Later though, while she’s out with Ryan, friends of his stumble upon them, revealing Christine to be less in control of her situation than perhaps she assumed. Not only does Ryan seem worried about this chance meeting, it leads to Christine getting a call from his wife, Kathleen. She offers to give her $20,000 to stay away from her husband, eventually meeting with her in a bar. It’s another example of an interaction that “accomplishes something,” but here it’s not necessarily positive for Christine. In fact, the interaction leaves her literally shaking.
What’s fascinating is the way Seimetz frames the conversation. Ryan’s wife paying Christine is, on the surface, just another instance of Christine accepting money for an action, and Seimetz frames the scene in the same way she does the others. Christine and Kathleen sit face to face, but are enclosed in a doorframe. It’s the same shot used in the opening scene with Kevin (see above), and in Christine’s bar meet-up with David. These are all interactions of some sort, with Christine navigating her needs and desires, trying to figure out what it is that she wants. She holds the power. Things are different with Kathleen though, and Christine is shaken by their conversation. Shady culpability aside—it’s certainly not Christine’s fault that Ryan is a cheater—Christine’s life is intertwined with so many others, and she’s starting to learn exactly what that means. In “Crossing The Line” she become more authoritative, more in control of her own narrative, but with that control comes adverse effects. As this season rolls on, it looks like Christine will have to reckon with those effects.
- The Girlfriend Experience does a great job of revealing the inner lives of its fringe characters. Everyone has a motivation or purpose that can be somewhat understood, if not exactly clarified.
- That’s Amy Seimetz doing double duty as director and portraying Annabelle.
- More discussions of the intersection of power and money, this time from Christine’s widower client talking about his daughter: “The only time I talk to her is when she wants money.”
- It’s interesting that when Christine and David have sex, the music cue is flamboyant and overbearing, almost as if this moment is less real than her interactions with her clients.
- “Crossing The Line” also boasts a few intriguing establishing shots. We hear Christine talking with people (Ryan, Annabel), and yet we can’t exactly pick them out of a crowd. (Images 1 and 2)
- Characters keep popping into the confined frames, as if there’s no such thing as a protective barrier. It will be invaded by reality, truth. (Images 3 and 4)