The Girlfriend Experience season 2 finale recap: Freedom, cut me loose


Photo credit: Starz/The Girlfriend Experience. Acquired from: Starz Media Room.

The Girlfriend Experience brought its sophomore season to a close with a pair of episodes that were thrilling, heartbreaking and life-affirming in equal measure.

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The finale of Erica (Anna Freil) and Anna (Louisa Krause) storyline began with Sandra (Emily Piggsford) giving Mark Novak’s assistant evidence linking Erica to foreign-sourced dark money. Due to a tip-off from Novak, the FBI began looking into Erica’s financial dealings. Erica begged Anna to come back to her and, after some hesitation, she did. Sandra sold out Erica to the head of the SuperPAC in exchange for a promotion. Erica was fired by and dumped by Anna is quick succession. During a meeting with the FBI, Erica learned that they had enough evidence to send her to prison. The episode ended with Erica sobbing in the middle of an empty conventional space and Anna having an emotionless encounter with a client.

Although the final is entitled “Free Fall,” this finale was all about the moment of impact. Writer/director Lodge Kerrigan has been building to Erica’s downfall for a while now, but watching the collapse was surprisingly painful. Despite her abusive behavior toward Anna and corruption, I kept hoping that she would save herself. Watching Erica’s shell of professional detachment slowly crumble made her feel incredibly affecting. At the end of the episode, she felt less like an overwhelmed adult and more like a child who suddenly realized they had gone too far into the deep end of a pool. Anna Freil deserves a ton of credit for bringing out the humanity in a character who deserved all the pain she brought on herself.

Louisa Krause was also fantastic in this episode in a completely different way. While Erica was coming apart, Anna put herself back together. Her lingering affection nearly pulled her back into Erica’s decaying orbit, but she ultimately found the strength to pull away. I think Anna found the resolve to move on because she finally understood that her relationship with Erica was never more than transactional. And since Erica could never really love Anna, she had no choice but to walk away. Despite that understanding, the pain and need that flash on Krause’s face throughout the episode made it clear the choice to walk away was an extremely painful one.

Photo credit: Starz/The Girlfriend Experience. Acquired from: Starz Media Room.

“Do you want to hear about me for a change?”

Bria’s (Carmen Ejogo) finale began with her returning home and retrieving all of her savings. She then set up a date with a john named Stuart (Jim Burleson) who helped her buy a rifle and brought her to a state park. There, she successfully ambushed and shot Agent Olsen (Tunde Adebimpe) in the leg. Bria was then met by her ex-husband Donald (Tad Jones) and an associate, both of whom she promptly killed. She subsequently staged the scene to make it look like Olsen killed the gangsters while protecting her. Standing near a lake covered in the blood of her enemies, Bria imagined executing her plan and claiming Donald’s fortune. But ultimately her fate was left unresolved.

Writer/director Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo really knocked it out of the park with the finale to Bria’s story. After seeing her contort herself to fit the expectations and perceptions of Agent Olsen, Donald, Paul (Harmony Korine) and Stuart, it was thrilling to see Bria truly be herself. Bria’s monolog about the kind of person she wanted to be and the kind of person she had become was fascinating. As was the focus and clarity with which she effectively wiped out her tormentors. In a year marked by revelations regarding the horrific private behavior of powerful men, Bria Jones was the avenging folk hero we needed.

While I imagine some viewers might find the ambiguity of the ending to Bria’s story being unsatisfying, I think it was totally fitting. Her entire journey this season was about whether or not she could escape the various people in her life who wanted to control her. “Relapse” was the culmination of that arc. It also saw Bria finally decide what kind of person she wanted to be, which was not a gangster’s moll, a bottling plant employee or a kept woman. She’s the kind of person who does what’s necessary to sit at the head of the table.

“I’m going to need some incentive.”

It’s interesting that while Seimetz and Kerrigan crafted two different stories about three very different protagonists, the two narratives reached remarkably similar conclusions. This season’s two girlfriend experience providers came to realize that there’s nothing in life more important than personal autonomy. To maintain her self-respect and emotional stability, Anna had to break things off with Erica. And to make a life worth living, Bria had to create a situation where she was beholden to no one. Erica was unable to find the strength to be self-reliant and she paid dearly for it. Once again, The Girlfriend Experience underlines the idea that there is nothing is more important than living life on your own terms.

There was a lot of great TV produced in 2017, but I don’t think there is a more important show on the air than The Girlfriend Experience. The series offered a bold and uncompromising vision of what it means to negotiate money, power and sex in the 21st century America. It is also a rare contemporary television show that seeks to document what it is to live in this time and this place without judgment or agenda. For that quality alone, it deserves wider recognition.

“I won’t remember you. I never remember anything that hurts me.”

The program is also one of the most purely cinematic shows on TV. Instead merely employing negative space heavy framing or long shots for effect, the series succeeded in replicating the feeling of watching a movie. Its meaningful silences, minimal exposition and viscerally intense performances gave GFE the captivating elan of an unforgettable independent film. And its closed-ended anthology format ensured that viewers’ time and attention were rewarded with two stories that had true beginnings, middles and ends.

Next: The Girlfriend Experience season 2, episode 11 and 12 recap: Out of time

In an era when the box office seems dominated by endlessly self-perpetuating sagas about gods and monsters, a show about human fragility and fallibility felt more cinematic than the movies. I suspect that as Hollywood becomes even more consolidated and commodified, more and more filmmakers who want to tell humans stories will make their way to television. And once that happens, I believe we’ll come to view The Girlfriend Experience for what it truly is. A groundbreaking cinematic work that pushed the medium forward.

The Girlfriend Experience airs on Starz Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.