“Retention,” the third episode of Starz’s new series The Girlfriend Experience, opens on Christine sitting alone in the expanse of a building. Then the camera tracks Jacqueline all the way from the front door to where Christine is standing, moving from a wide frame to something tighter. It’s an indicative opening shot because it visually sets up the themes of the episode, and the themes of the series in general, while also bringing Christine and Jacqueline face to face. It’s a sign of things to come. Christine spends much of “Retention” moving from large, overwhelming spaces to more cramped and intimate ones, and a confrontation between her and her employer is soon to come.
The overarching feeling of intimacy that courses through “Retention” comes from a lot of different places. There’s the obvious, which is the physical intimacy of Christine’s new job as a high-end escort. She’s seen taking on new clients, like Kevin, a married man who comes to town every month or so, and continuing to grow closer to her other, more established clients. Here, she meets with the widower once again, and it’s the only scene where we get a clue as to the passage of time. When Christine mentions that she might be ditching Jacqueline’s service and setting out on her own, the client assures her that he’d follow her, as they’ve been seeing one another for “nearly two months” and he really likes her. That’s the other part of the intimacy, and perhaps the less obvious one: Christine is getting more comfortable and more familiar with this job.
The Girlfriend Experience loves to play with time like in the scene mentioned above. This is a show that often withholds all sorts of information, and it’s thrilling. From glances to time jumps to dialogue, we’re often left to parse the messy territory of character intentions and plot movement. So, when Christine confronts Jacqueline in a restaurant and throws food on her, quitting the service while also standing up for Avery, who insists Jacqueline stole her money and forced her clients to disengage with her, it’s a moment that admittedly feels rushed. There’s no real buildup, no episodes-long teasing of a confrontation. There’s just the confrontation, and we’re left to determine all the reasons why it took place. It’s an intriguing way to tell a story, as it puts a lot of faith in the audience. Ultimately it works for The Girlfriend Experience. Ripping through plenty of plot and time is part of its appeal. There’s momentum, and it’s undeniably addictive.
In contrast to the controlled intimate nature and framing of Christine’s life as an escort—notice how the sex scenes are often obscured before the camera focuses solely on Christine’s face, typically shot from a lower angle as she’s on top of a client—there’s a chaos to her life at Kirkland & Allen. She’s often overwhelmed, as when she’s crammed into the elevator, or when photos from her escort shoot show up on her desk in a sealed envelope with no hint of who put them there. Christine seems to be in control of her life outside of Kirkland, perhaps because she’s playing as “Chelsea,” but things are less steady at the law office, especially now that she’s left Jacqueline, and the firm is fighting to keep their biggest client, XHP.
Then again, “Retention” sees Christine setting out on her own with confidence, but there’s the possibility that it’s going to be harder than she knows. Sure, her clients have agreed to go with her—“just tell me where to send the money” says one before the episode cuts to black—but things are already getting complicated. Kevin basically professes his love for her, and it’s a strange, uncomfortable scene. Again, it’s shot in a way that underscores where Christine is mentally. Nearly the entire scene unfolds as Kevin’s back is to the camera, the back of his head prominent, and Christine’s face sits to the left. We see a brief moment of discomfort as Kevin begins his profession of feelings, but she quickly recovers and becomes “Chelsea” again, inviting and seductive. It’s a fascinating, small moment that leaves the whole scene, and Christine’s larger intentions, up to interpretation.
The same can be said of the scene where Avery confronts Christine about Jacqueline. This time, it’s Christine’s back to the camera as the scene begins, with Avery’s face positioned to the left. That turns out to be significant because it’s Avery’s reaction that’s necessary. We know Christine is lying when she tells her friend that her and Jacqueline didn’t talk about her, so it’s Avery we need to see. The problem is, Avery is unpredictable and often unreadable. She mostly keeps a straight face, but her dialogue is filled with potential hostility. She seems upset that Christine has found some success in the business while her life is crumbling, and there seems to be tension in regards to the fact that Avery essentially got her this gig. I get the sense that Avery perhaps sees Christine as some sort of poser, but the intricacies of their relationship and the dynamic between the two remains to be truly seen.
“Retention” sees The Girlfriend Experience start to pull at the loose threads left dangling in the first two episodes. More and more is being revealed about Christine, Avery, and the inner-workings of the firm. Remarkably, “Retention” is filled with plot and yet never feels hurried or unfocused. Instead, director Lodge Kerrigan, who rotates directing episodes along with Amy Seimetz, uses quick cuts to move from point A to point B, making “Retention” a thrilling and sometimes revealing 30 minutes. The Girlfriend Experience certainly has a lot more to offer, but “Retention” firmly establishes the aesthetic and storytelling style formed in the first two episodes.
- Welcome to weekly reviews of The Girlfriend Experience! After watching the first three episodes, I felt compelled to dig into this show and explore what it’s doing every week. A quick note: yes, all 13 episodes of this season are available on demand and on the Starz streaming app, but I’ll be doing one review a week when the episodes air on Sunday, and I won’t be watching ahead. I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts as the season progresses.
- I think David is going to be an interesting character going forward. There’s more to him, and really everyone else, than what we see.
- The scene where Christine first meets with Kevin is beautifully shot in purple light, which makes the cut to the barely-lit, hazy green and yellow bedroom all the more evocative.
- So, do we believe that Jacqueline cleared out Avery’s bank accounts? Or is there more to this story? After all, Christine is missing some money from her drawer as well.
- Another great shot: the camera, slightly shaky, backing up as Christine walks towards it/Jacqueline, before following her back out after she dumps the food in her lap. It’s a stirring take that embodies the anger and impulsiveness Christine feels in that moment. The building hum of the score, provided by Shane Carruth, certainly helps to get that feeling across.