‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Season 2 Review: Starz’s Dark Political Drama Returns Better Than Ever
The most noticeable difference between the superb first season of The Girlfriend Experience and its equally excellent second season is a matter of structure and collaboration. Where creators Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan worked together on directing and writing much of the first season, they cut the proverbial baby in half for the second, dividing the season into two separate yet vaguely similar storylines. In essence, Kerrigan and Seimetz have each made their own 200-minute movie, each one distinguished by these directors’ personal visual style and tone. The narratives themselves are notably divergent in setting and action but at the heart of each is the aftermath of a partnership that has dissolved over years.
In the case of the “Anna & Erica” storyline, which Kerrigan directed in its entirety, the severance in question is romantic. Behind her hardened exterior as an elite finance director for a Republican super PAC, Erica (Anna Friel) is wounded by her split from Darya (Narges Rashidi of Under the Shadow), a powerful figure in the world of D.C. marketing. In their early interactions, Darya and Erica both seem to be enveloped by the icy glaze of disappointment and hurt, but we eventually find out that the relationship hinged on an extreme imbalance of emotional power. And when Erica begins regularly seeing an escort, Anna (Louisa Krause), that dynamic returns in an unexpected, unpredictable, and unfixed way. This transfer of personal power and control, as well as the untenable ambitions that arise from her new relationship, converge with her professional life as well, just as she is securing millions of dollars from major Republican donors looking less to support a candidate than to control fiscal and social legislation without having their beliefs and personal faults judged by the public.
Kerrigan doesn’t bother getting too expository about the political realm, or at least he doesn’t seem to mind presenting Erica’s work as densely interwoven and reliant on an ever-expanding set of details that’s easy to get lost within. In this, he gives a sense of just how hard it is for Erica to find real control in her professional life, a fact that is underlined when she meets with businessmen who can throw her candidates $25 million without breaking a sweat. The imbalance she feels there is slightly evened out by her relationship with Anna, but when her concrete control over that also seems to falter, she reverts to the cold, insular veneer that is required in her work and lets herself return to a few other defaults as well.
What Kerrigan convincingly gets at here is the impossibility of being a woman in power in professional and personal life simultaneously, using the same tactics and excuses as any given high-powered man in D.C. Where Seimetz’s episodes are replete with color, tricks of light, and close-ups, Kerrigan’s world is marked most notably by a sense of alienation and detachment. His shots often place the characters far off, amidst the oppressive, bland tastefulness of modern design, whether in Erica’s luxurious apartment or the ballroom where she susses out what a billionaire donor wants from tax reform with clinical precision. The perfectly balanced aesthetic of the world Erica helps run and exists in is more important than the furies of feeling that run underneath that we only get brief glimpses of as her own need for control leads her down a catastrophic path. It’s reflective not only of the current political atmosphere, where the tarnished illusion of stability is all that Republicans can hold onto, but also of a tale of powerful women envisioned entirely by a man.
It’s when Erica reveals the brutal, misogynistic nature of one of her colleagues via a sex tape that she is marked for proverbial death, lifting the mask off of a seemingly cool and collected operative. In contrast, the very real threat of death looms over the entirety of Seimetz’s episodes, which follow Bria (Carmen Ejogo) as she enters the witness protection program after she agrees to testify against her crime-lord husband, Donald. Not unlike Erica, Bria seeks out stabilization, though her balance hinges more directly on how she relates to men on a sexual level. To this point, Seimetz makes the connection between death and sex quite literal for Bria, which is the name that Ejogo’s character is given by her handler, Ian, played by TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. When the marshal handling her intake forms asks Bria if her former husband might have killed his last wife, she answers immediately: “Probably.”
If Kerrigan suggests that an element of financial success and power in the year 2017 depends on the ability to act like a commodity and treat others as such, Seimetz’s episodes at once reiterate and complicate that point. Bria sees herself as a high-end purchase meant for a wealthy man, and she hasn’t been relocated for a full day before she begins to build a profile for herself on a site for sugar daddy-sugar baby relationships. The feeling of being liberated from a likely murderer isn’t so freeing for her, especially when she takes a job overseeing an assembly line for canning local beers. Seimetz uses each setting, each activity that Bria engages in to reveal a thread of the character’s inner life, including her interactions with a local self-help guru named Paul, played by Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine. For Bria, having to lead a life marked most notably by a dead-end blue-collar job, alcohol, and a forced, hurtful relationship with her ex’s teenaged daughter, Kayla (Morgana Davies), is like living life as a luxurious piece of designer clothing that never leaves the rack.
Seimetz is more blunt about what is asked of women by American society than Kerrigan. The day job and the bottles of wine might have worked out if the U.S. marshals hadn’t also forced her to become Kayla’s de-facto guardian despite the fact that Donald’s daughter didn’t want to leave and blames Bria for losing her privileged existence. Coming home to someone who communicates with you largely through full-throated screams and talks openly about getting her father to kill you doesn’t give much incentive for Bria to follow Ian’s instructions and act like a family. In essence, Bria is forced to live with a scarlet A on her chest, a constant reminder of her self-involved indulgences as the wife of a wealthy criminal, even as she is asked to leave that life behind. For however understanding Ian is of the bumpy transition, he can’t hide the undercurrent of male pride and sexual resentment that flows beneath his professionalism: what kind of woman is content to live alongside and regularly fuck a known killer, no matter how rich he happens to be?
Seimetz doesn’t excuse that part of Bria but she also doesn’t judge her too harshly for acting the way she does. Kayla works both as a distinct, enraged character and a reflection of Bria in the eyes of her handlers as an ungrateful and spoiled brat, much like Anna eventually comes to represent a part of Erica that she keeps hidden away. The effects of capitalism on personal identity has always been at the heart of The Girlfriend Experience, as much in the last season as in the original film by Steven Soderbergh, who continues to serve as executive producer on the series. What makes the second season of the series so much more knottier and riveting is that the struggle to maintain both an inner life and the outward image of a unique, trustworthy personality is more on the surface, not nearly as elusive as it was when Riley Keough‘s lawyer-escort was at the center. By separating their creative goals, Kerrigan and Seimetz seem to more clearly communicate their ideas in their episodes and storylines but also bounce off of each other in concert between their halves. As a result, they have molded one of the greatest seasons of television that 2017 has produced thus far.
The Girlfriend Experience Season 2 returns to Starz on Sunday, November 5th at 10 p.m.