Riley Keough is a sexually fluid escort in “The Girlfriend Experience”

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*Caution: Mild spoilers ahead.”

Riley Keough‘s name is often prefaced by the fact that she is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, something that has overshadowed her acting career thus far. But with her starring role in The Girlfriend Experience, a new limited series on Starz, that could all change.

Riley plays Christine Reade, a second-year law student in Chicago who is, at first, focused on nailing an internship at one of the city’s prestigious law firms. She lands a position at Kirkland & Allen while simultaneously learning about her friend Avery’s (House of CardsKate Lyn Sheil) career as a professional escort providing what is called “the girlfriend experience.” Avery lives in a grotesquely large home that her “boyfriend” provided her, but he’s just one of her clients. Christine is impressed by the assumed ease of the job—you field phone calls when your clients are out of town, schedule time with them when they stop through, and go to dinner, drinks and bed with them, all while being paid thousands of dollars an hour. 

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This doesn’t sound like a bad gig to Christine, who enjoys casual sex and oozes sensuality. A beautiful girl with a whipsmart IQ and the ability to talk to anyone about anything, no matter how boring the subject, Christine is a dream GFE, and Avery introduces her to Jacqueline, the madam, of sorts, who beings to book Christine in between classes and time spent at the firm.

By the second episode, which is available with the rest of the season on Starz’s digital platform now but airs this weekend, Christine has found her way through the initial awkwardness of the gig, and finds she’s scarily good at lying about name, where she grew up and other details about her life. Avery ends up moving in with her and, one night, asks if she can get into bed Christine; she can’t sleep. Avery begins to caresses Christine’s hand, which leads to them kissing and then having sex until they eventually fall asleep.

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“Don’t let her seduce you,” Jacqueline warns Christine the next day, but it’s too late.

Avery does not stay around long (Jacqueline finds she’s been taking clients on the side and cuts her off completely), but she is not the only woman that Christine shares a moment with. There are two other instances in the series where Christine is hired and asked to perform with a woman. The first is with a married couple, but Christine is uncharacteristically drunk and unable to follow through after finding out one of her regular, most likable clients has suddenly passed away.

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The other is another escort in Toronto, hired by a man who pays for three women to sit around his penthouse just because he can. 

“You two look like you like each other,” he says as soon as Christine walks in and sits on the couch next to one of the other women. “You want to kiss her?”

Christine looks at her. “Yeah, she’s hot.”

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That’s as far as it goes, and the women seem grateful for it as the client is incredibly creepy and disrespectful which, thankfully, is not the case for most of the men who hire Christine. They are largely businessmen with wives and children who travel often and look for companionship as they stop through Chicago. Every one of them is taken with Christine or, as they come to know her, Chelsea Rain. 

The Girlfriend Experience, which is loosely based on a film of the same name, was largely written and directed by a woman, Amy Seimetz, and that influence can be felt in the handling of every character nuance and relationship. Riley’s performance as a confident and intelligent young woman who knows what she likes and what she wants is more feminist than most portrayals of sex workers on the big or small screens. And while there are other complications that arise (she becomes involved with one of the lawyers at the firm, one client becomes infatuated with her and threatens her safety), the story is very much about Christine’s carefully controlled calculating. People (largely men) are constantly trying to take her down, and yet, she is always able to persist, creating a 13-episode series that is not as predictable as one might expect.

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In terms of Christine’s sexual identity, she seeks out men in her personal life, and men are always the ones hiring her, even when they’re part of a couple. But her scenes with Avery were one of the only emotionally-tied moments she seems to share with anyone, even her own sister (Amy Seimetz as a DA working out of D.C.). Avery is Christine’s only real friend; the rest of the season has Christine a loner, but not necessarily lonely. (When she does feel that way, she turns on her webcam and finds some lucky guy online to benefit from her boredom.)

If The Girlfriend Experience is a love story in any way, it’s about the love Christine has for herself; the self-worth she continues to thrive on despite scenarios in which most Hollywood writers and directs would assume a woman—especially a sex worker—broken down, regretful, and ultimately finding a way to repent for her “mistakes.” But Christine isn’t afraid of sitting with her decisions, living with them, embracing them as what she’s wrought for herself and her future. Her work, like most people’s, is transactional but also, for the most part, pleasurable. Is she always happy? No, but who, in any profession, is completely satisfied at all times?

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Ultimately, Christine is an empowered, underestimated woman, and that poses a threat to the men who assume they will always have the control. She’s dangerous and unpredictable that way, which makes her so much fun to watch.

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