In the first season of The Girlfriend Experience directors Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz co-wrote every episode and took turns directing the psychologically thrilling story about high-end sex workers. The central performance of the charismatic Riley Keough as Christine, a law student and secret sex worker, was mesmerising.
Kerrigan and Seimetz return to season two as showrunners, writers and directors, along with Steven Soderbergh as executive producer. But this time, both directors have developed individual storylines, delivered as separate 30-minute halves of each episode. While sex work is still the cornerstone in both projects, it now sits alongside stories that focus on power and control in politics and the criminal justice system.
Kerrigan’s story, Erica and Anna, is set in the corridors of political power in Washington, D.C. Erica Myles, played to icy, calculating perfection by Anna Friel, is a finance director for a Republican super PAC (political action committee). Anna Greenwald (Louisa Krause) is a savvy and intelligent high-end GFE provider at the top of her game. Erica and Anna embark on a scheme to blackmail one of Anna’s clients, a high-powered misogynist Republican operative. Although this plan is fraught with danger, the trouble really begins when Erica and Anna’s purely transactional relationship develops into a complicated and messy sexual relationship.
Seimetz’s story, Bria, takes us out of the isolation of big cities and into the parallel isolation of the desert of New Mexico. Former sex worker, Bria (Carmen Ejogo), has been relocated to New Mexico under the witness protection program after escaping her former uber-dangerous drug and arms dealer boyfriend. Accompanied by her reluctant step-daughter, Kayla (Morgana Davies) and the weirdly creepy and controlling US Marshall, Agent Ian Olsen (Tunde Adebimpe), who has been assigned to protect her, Bria struggles to leave her opulent life behind. When she can no longer stand the suffocation of her overly controlled new lifestyle, Bria begins to seek out the excitement and autonomy of her old life at the expense of her safety.
Where season 1 delivered a tonally consistent directorial collaboration on each episode, the season 2 episodes are very different from each other in visual style, tone and subject matter. At first glance, they don’t seem to have much in common, but they do converge thematically. While sex work is still an underlying theme, the provocative punches of this season emerge allegorically.
The sex equals power equals money equals politics equals control thematic equation is still starkly evident throughout both stories, as is the ongoing commentary on capitalism and patriarchy. The theme of government intrusion into women’s personal lives seeps through into both projects as does the question of how women can use the weapons of a capitalist, patriarchal society against itself in order to gain personal agency and power. And as per season 1, this season relentlessly reminds us that everyone has a price.
The universe created within Kerrigan’s story is deliberately and disturbingly sterile. While some of this starkness was evident in season 1, it is no longer tempered by the character-driven style of Seimetz. This makes for an over-the-top eerily chilly, colourless world where stark architecture, detached people and cold, graphic sex meet. A world devoid of a Himalayan salt lamp or an oil burner, soft furnishings and artwork – in fact, anything that has the potential to create a tinge of warmth has been removed. It’s such a deliberately and overtly minimalist world that Erica doesn’t even have pillows on her bed.
Kerrigan’s project is not only a story, it also feels like an experimental work of art. The haunting soundscape with the ever-present ominous background humming is reminiscent of all things David Lynch, as is the way the camera creeps around corners and up on characters, seemingly surveilling them. The overuse of long shots positioning the characters in their bleak world suggests they’re products of the universe they operate in – and like their surroundings, devoid of emotion – we realise we won’t be getting to know them anytime soon.
On the other hand, Seimetz’s story has much more character development and is colourful and cinematically stunning. But there is still the thematic undercurrent of a woman fighting a male-dominated system to achieve autonomy.
“The whole thing is based on the idea that we’re living in a time with a shaky foundation. It’s really hard to know what’s going to happen moving forward. The only thing you can do is take control of your own destiny, which is what Bria does. She can’t trust anyone, so she goes f**kin’ rogue”, says Seimetz.
Season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience is fearless, provocative television that will get under your skin.
The Girlfriend Experience airs on Monday nights at 10:00pm on SBS VICELAND. After they air, episodes will be available at SBS On Demand.