‘The Girlfriend Experience’ Trades Innovative Voyeurism for Split Drama Analysis

The second season of Starz’s Golden Globe nominated series “The Girlfriend Experience” expands on its high-priced voyeurism as much as it spreads the legwork of the sex worker backwash. Co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz divided the stories in half. Each write and direct the separate, self-contained plotlines. The first season, based on the film by “The Girlfriend Experience” by Steven Soderbergh, escorted us through the high-end of Chicago. For the reinvented sophomore season, Kerrigan and Seimetz each made their own 200-minute movie. Kerrigan’s is subtitled “Erica & Anna,” and is set in the swamps of Washington, D.C.  Seimetz’s arc is called “Bria,” and takes place in a desert town in New Mexico.

“The Girlfriend Experience” season 2 follows two arcs, both riding the downward slide of the most vulnerable subset of the sex industry, solo sex workers catering to wealthy and powerful clientele. Anna Garner (Louise Krause) blackmails DC bigwigs for dark money. Bria Jones (Carmen Ejogo) goes dark after sleeping with a public enemy.

Bria dropped dime on her homicidal crime lord husband Donald and is getting ready to testify. She takes refuge in the witness protection program, which moves her to nowhere-land with her step-daughter Kayla (Morgana Davies), who is so reluctant to go it looks like she’s in full throes of a wide range of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. It is enough to create a split personality. Donald’s daughter screams threats that her father will kill her stepmom as a kind of nightly lullaby. The threat of death is a consistent undercurrent.

Bria takes solace by scoping out the possibilities of the local SugarbabyxpressXchange.com. She’s not above feeling the pressure, during a phone job, when she mimics the sounds of pleasure it is with the heavy breathing of overwhelming stress. U.S. Marshal Ian Olsen (Tunde Adebimpe) promises that will all be better after he gets her ready for relocation to a safe-house. After he teaches her to lie with her eyes, the supermodel-proportioned beauty will be able to sell her new identity and find appropriate employment. As what, a mannequin in the local Mandee’s? Bria goes with what she knows, and blames it all on female troubles to her boss at the assembly line that cans local beers.

Big-money Republican super PAC financier Erica Myles (Anna Friel) starts seeing the escort Erica in an attempt to get over her breakup with D.C. marketing marvel Darya (Narges Rashidi). While the relationship made Erica feel small, her professional life is writ large, peppered with $25 million candidacy castoffs, with little strings attached. Anna knows how to tug strings and where to mine for gold. She and Erica target a major Beltway player she knows intimately below the belt. Director Kerrigan doesn’t get as deep into the political side of politics as in the financial side. Political players play for pay, not for the greater good of their constituents. It is a lonely world, and Kerrigan captures that isolation with detached camera work and ultra-mundane modern sets.

Seimetz studies Bria in full color, as dark as her hidden desires and as bright as the lights she has to stare into while learning to control her subconscious reactions to simple questions. Ian, her guardian angel, regardless of how objective he tries to be, still judges Bria. He officiously asks if the ex-call girl thinks her ex-husband killed his last wife, she says “probably” without a second thought. That evolves into moral arrogance as he wonders how she could have sex with a known killer. His undertone insinuates she did it for the money.  As part of the witness protection agreement, Bria is forbidden from doing anything that might call attention to her, including going back to the job she had before she got married. As she becomes more of a prisoner to the marshal, she breaks the rules as a way to take some control over her life. The egotistical self-help guru Paul (Harmony Korine) doesn’t offer much motivation to change her ways.

The Anna and Erica segment is more detached emotionally but has the most explicit sex scenes. These aren’t as much sensual as they are a way to build a kind of divided suspense. This culminates when Anna makes a sex tape with a client to turn Erica on. The tape itself becomes a dangerous and possibly lethal sex toy.

The series dares to question what America asks of women and what their value is. Sex is a kind of currency on “The Girlfriend Experience,” but it is by no means the most kind. In the first season, Riley Keough‘s character was already successful as a lawyer but found more job satisfaction as an escort. She enjoyed a power she would never find in the halls of economic justice. Power is dangerous and fulfilling. Erica gets choked in a boardroom by a privileged executive in full view of anyone bothering to look. By the end of the scene, she’s the one on top. Based on past experience, though, the girlfriend stays there by going down.

The Girlfriend Experience” Season 2 premieres Nov. 5 and airs Sundays on Starz.