The sex in season two of “The Girlfriend Experience” is even less sexy than the sex in its first, if you can believe it. It’s not supposed to be sexy, of course, or titillating. It’s provocative, as graphically staged sex scenes should be, but showrunners Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan put up a barrier between the audience and its steamier sequences. We aren’t participants. We’re observers on the sidelines. Qualifying the viewer as a voyeur would be false. Voyeurism implies a level of sexual gratification that “The Girlfriend Experience” denies us. Here, sex is multifaceted, sometimes an implement of control, others a cathartic release, others still an act of desperation. If you describe the series as “dirty,” you wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s dirty for reasons beyond the obvious.
All the same, “The Girlfriend Experience” remains one of the most exciting shows on television. Credit for that goes to Seimetz and Kerrigan, naturally, who decided to follow up their bravura work from last season by giving their creative Etch-a-Sketch a vigorous shake; season two starts off from scratch with separate dual narratives, one about political skulduggery, the other about a woman on the run from her frankly terrifying ex. Displaced from the Chicago backdrop that gave the first season texture, we alternate between Washington D.C., where Eric Myles (Anna Friel), a finance director for a scummy Republican super PAC, pulls strings and blackmails dark money fundraiser scumbags, and New Mexico, where Bria (Carmen Ejogo) hides out from her former hubbie along with her step daughter (Morgana Davies).
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Seimetz and Kerrigan are in a contest of a sort, it seems; she is both writer and director on Bria’s episodes, while he performs the same duties for Erica’s. Maybe not incidentally, Kerrigan’s story hews closest to what we expect from “The Girlfriend Experience,” as Erica connects with an escort, Anna Greenwald (Louisa Krause), who she employs first to secure leverage against her piggish opponent, and later for sexual services; as their storyline progresses, they fall in what may pass as love in the high-end escort world. Anna, for her part, reads as sincerely smitten by Erica, who is herself still infatuated with her monstrous ex, Darya (Narges Rashidi).
Theirs is a story peppered with some of the most explicit sex you’ll see on screens either large or small this year, and as such it feels the most familiar, even conventional. Of course, the segment that strongly mirrors the content of season one would also be the segment that contains the bulk of season two’s sexual encounters; that’s just logical. By contrast, Bria’s segment sees her adrift, having loosed her moorings to her wealthy but obviously criminal beau, fearing for both her life and the life of her teenage charge (who, unsurprisingly, hates Bria’s guts and doesn’t hesitate to remind her). A former escort herself, Bria is forbidden from any kind of activity that might draw unwanted attention to her, including taking clients; she’s so bored by her new life that she can’t help but return to the escort biz and getting close to Paul (Harmony Korine), a man of means and an unattractive ego.
Both threads of “The Girlfriend Experience” touch on similar themes whether in writing or via their shared aesthetic. Distance and dead space are key: They help maintain the impersonality of the show’s sex, even when sex is front and center. The more the camera keeps us at arm’s length from the characters when they’re wearing clothes, the more emotionally remote we grow from them. A sequence where Anna makes a sex tape with her client as an aphrodisiac for Erica in the bedroom puts us right in the client’s perspective, and yet we still see the act performed primarily through the screen on his camcorder. Kerrigan wants us to acknowledge carnality, but he wants to keep us from getting involved.
His episodes are about power as a noose. Erica’s efforts at manipulating midterm elections (yes, those midterm elections) edge her closer to the gallows as her world slowly collapses around her. Seimetz’s episodes, on the other hand, are about power as a means of securing self-agency. Bria is dogged by her discontent; though free from her husband, she finds herself prisoner of the U.S. Marshal assigned to protect her, Ian (Tunde Adebimpe). She defies his orders and breaks his rules, constantly searching for an avenue to tip the scales in her favor and reclaim her dominion of her own existence back from men who insist on what’s best for her, condescend to her, take advantage of her, or, maybe worst of all, refuse to listen to her. Neither Seimetz nor Kerrigan try to sanctify their protagonists, each of them being guilty of various misdeeds and moral lapses, but “The Girlfriend Experience” positions them in power structures that demand their unfailing subservience to manhood.
This is as true of Anna and Bria, the show’s two GFE providers, as it is of Erica, who operates at the whim of her male peers. It’s a good thing, then, that Seimetz and Kerrigan landed on a trio of dynamic, self-possessed actresses capable of projecting cool confidence even when they’re under the heel of misogyny. Erica’s rival attacks her, viciously, suddenly, after she extorts him, choking her without a thought to the glass walls of the boardroom they’re convened in; any passerby can see the assault plain as day (including those of us at home in the cheap seats). But Erica doesn’t falter. She gets her breath back. She composes herself. She reminds the son of a bitch that she’s holding the cards, not him. It’s as satisfying a beat as we’re likely to get from a series that hinges on detachment.
Friel and Krause have fewer lifelines to lean on than Ejogo; good as they are, as sovereign and as gripping as they are, she’s spellbinding. We can’t take our eyes off of her. Maybe that’s partly the effect of Seimetz’s approach to her side of “The Girlfriend Experience,” which differs so radically from Riley Keough’s plot in season one that at times we feel like we’re watching another show. This might not sound complimentary, but in fact the ways in which Kerrigan and Seimetz have not only expanded on but reinvented “The Girlfriend Experience” are what make this season so exquisitely captivating. It’s the same show on a molecular level, right down to its escorts, but its bones have changed and its surface is altogether new. [A]