The lone wolves of Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience and AMC’s Better Call Saul will probably never find the occasion to share a drink, but if they did, they might be surprised by the communion they’d forge. Firstly, like most of us, the former’s Christine (Riley Keough) and the latter’s Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) both need money. Like many creative, eccentric people with unorthodox social skills, they have a difficult time playing by the rules of conventional American society, distrusting success and the networking and dues-paying that attend it while wanting it desperately nevertheless. This conflict of resentment and ambition filters through their intelligence, yielding pragmatic rebellion. Though they might loathe to identify themselves as such, Christine and Jimmy are the ultimate practitioners of the sort of “free enterprise” that’s embraced by many of their antagonists: Recognizing that society’s rules don’t favor them, they invent their own.
Imagine what frustrations they might vent over that drink. Christine’s a high-priced prostitute, by way of a law school that bores her and a rarefied legal office that wastes her abilities on gofer jobs—a taken-for-granted process of condescension in professional life, which falls under the rubric of “paying our dues.” We do whatever anyone tells us for no discernably logical reasons for years, until we’ve forgotten what we wanted. Jimmy knows something about thanklessness too. He’s an attorney, having schooled himself on the side while working a hopeless job in the mailroom of a legal office. But, after attaining the proper, if socially frowned upon schooling, Jimmy hits a brick wall.
Both shows follow their heroes as they wrestle with an issue that’s coming to define American life with increasing urgency. Do Christine and Jimmy sweat it out and play by the rules, hoping that corporations will take care of them with good salaries, benefits, and upward momentum, or do they strike out on their own for greater control or glory? The Girlfriend Experience and Better Call Saul share a strand of dark wit, utilizing socially disreputable occupations (prostitute, attorney) as metaphors for the strain of attempting to work in a society with increasingly inhospitable, inflexible hiring standards, that requires more and more people to live by their own abilities to market, promote, and forge their own trade—a “brand.”
Quietly, a conservative ideal of every person for themselves has become status quo. Unionization is slipping into the realm of myth, as is the idea of a generation of families that once lived on a single income, earned working stable, unambiguously defined shifts. Today, you’re routinely expected to accrue as much educational debt as possible, for the potentiality of an entry-level job at a corporation that will work you incessantly by cannily co-opting the gizmos you hold dear. Namely, your phones. If you’re a successful corporate whirligig, odds are you’re never not checking your email on your phone. These developments have led to the rise of a culture of freelancers, who strike out to work for themselves for greater financial rewards or, in an increasingly impossible economic climate, merely to have any job at all. Such striking out comes, of course, at considerably greater economic peril.
Christine and Jimmy never directly give voice to these concerns, and they both have opportunities that many of us would envy, but their actions are always palpably informed by these anxieties. In the first episode of The Girlfriend Experience, we see Christine at a hiring fair in uptown Manhattan as she tries to land an internship at a variety of posh law offices. Christine casually remarks to a friend that what one says to these hiring managers “doesn’t matter, they just want to hear their own words repeated back to them.” She’s young but already savvy and brutally insightful, recognizing the hypocrisy of a corporate culture that often congratulates itself on “thinking outside of the box” while encouraging a kind of peppy conformity that’s packaged in superficial self-initiative.
Initiative of the actual variety routinely lands both Christine and Jimmy in hot water. Christine is chastised for writing her own form letters for her law firm’s clients. “Just cut and paste”, her superior tells her, in as snide a tone as possible. Jimmy, who lands a good job at a law practice in Better Call Saul’s second season, only to quickly self-sabotage it, is nearly fired for producing his own public service advertisement, which proves greatly effective in the case it’s meant to serve. (Far more effective than the dull ads produced by the firm for past cases.) A recurring metaphor embodies Jimmy’s attempts to make this job work: He’s always trying to jam his big coffee mug in the cup holder of his company car. But it won’t fit. That cup, like its owner, is too big, brash, and ostentatious for traditional storage.
The Girlfriend Experience and Better Call Saul are different in many ways. Most broadly, the latter, a spin-off of Breaking Bad, is warmer and funnier than the former, a similarly chilly re-contextualization of the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film of the same name. But they share remarkable similarities. For instance, Christine and Jimmy both have siblings who embody conventionally attained success that openly shames their own inability to get with the program and settle down. Christine’s sister, Annabel (played by co-creator Amy Seimetz) is a DA who minds their parents and attends “team building” activities at work that Christine clearly holds in contempt. Jimmy’s brother, Chuck (Michael McKean), is a legendary Albuquerque attorney who’s discovered, in the first season, to be actively working against Jimmy’s attempts to forge a legit career, because of a long list of familial resentments that grow thornier and more resonant in the second season.
Both shows elaborately pivot on their protagonists’ scamming of the corporations they dislike, enacting revenge-of-the-repressed scenarios that channel our own frustrations in an age in which phrases like “one percent” are now bandied about regularly. Christine blackmails her boss, who is, in turn, rigging a high-profile legal showdown, and sets herself up to receive a huge buyout that fully enables her transformation into Chelsea, escort of the rich and powerful. Jimmy forces his employer to fire him, which might financially enable him to open his own office, which will eventually complete his transformation into his own alter ego, Saul Goodman, the quicksilver shyster attorney of Breaking Bad.
Christine is harder to like than Jimmy, because she’s less readily available to us as an everyperson. She’s gorgeous and she doesn’t give herself willingly over to people. When she affects “warmth” for clients, she’s often creepily insincere, which her clients usually can’t discern from behind the shields of their own loneliness, self-absorption, and animal intoxication with her sexiness. (And the clients who can discern this contrivance get off on it, on the open obviousness of commercializing intimacy.) Jimmy’s not a bad-looking guy, but he looks more like us—like a guy who enjoys a drive-thru burger and who has spent his share of nights on a couch or in the back of a car parked on the side of a dusty, deserted road. Jimmy’s brilliance, his art, his instrument of sensuality, resides in the sort of charm that eludes Christine.
Both are amazing schemers because they share a prodigious capacity for empathy, as both are lonely and capable of smelling this loneliness on others. Anabel and Chuck, square pegs successfully slotted in a square world, can’t key into people the way that their misfit siblings can. Christine and Jimmy are both literal and figurative freelancers, round pegs looking for the Man’s patronage without his attending confinements, but they are also symbolic artists blowing in the wind, looking for a home that suits them. They are creatives who can’t play by others’ pre-established rules of engagement. Christine in her art of style, sex, and accommodation, Jimmy in his art of flamboyant flimflam, in engaging marks with his force of will. The shows aren’t sentimental about these characters, who aren’t any more honest than their antagonists. But Christine and Jimmy are honest about their need for dishonesty, embodying the struggle to survive and flourish in this world while somehow coming to know and preserve those ineffable textures that comprise our souls. Meet the freelancer anxiety. It is to the 2010s what the atomic anxiety was to the 1950s—a fear over the sustainability of our society.