- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Though Maid is named after the memoir it’s based on — Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive — in truth, the title hardly seems adequate. The Netflix miniseries turns out to be about much more than just its protagonist’s job, encompassing issues of parenthood, domestic violence and the precariousness of life below the poverty line. As that description would indicate, it’s hardly cheerful viewing. But it’s also surprisingly watchable viewing, saved from misery-porn glumness by a stubborn sense of hope and a light touch of humor.
The first time we meet Alex (Margaret Qualley), she’s fleeing her home in the dead of night, with just $18 in her pocket and her 2-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) in tow. Though she doesn’t know exactly where she’s headed, what’s more important in the moment is who she’s leaving behind — her boyfriend, Sean (Nick Robinson), an emotionally abusive alcoholic whose latest outburst ended with Alex picking shards of glass from Maddy’s hair. But freedom, necessary as it is, will prove almost as difficult to manage in the days, weeks and months to come.
Airdate: Friday, Oct. 1
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Tracy Vilar, Billy Burke, Andie MacDowell
Creator: Molly Smith Metzler
Based on the book by: Stephanie Land
With the help of a sympathetic social worker, Alex finds work with a ramshackle cleaning service called Value Maids. Over 10 hourlong episodes, we watch as she hops from job to job and home to home, trying to scrape together a living between her meager paychecks, government assistance and occasional favors from friends and family — all while trying to retain custody of Maddy, keep her distance from Sean, check in on her unstable mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s actual mother) and unpack some deep-rooted childhood traumas of her own.
What Maid does very well is outline how these misfortunes tend to compound each other when there isn’t enough money to serve as a buffer. Alex is never not aware of exactly how many pennies she has in her pocket, and Maid brings us into her mind-set with a pop-up tally of her expenses and income. A dollar spent on gas means a dollar less for food, and “minor” setbacks like a single lost shift have the potential to send her entire life spiraling out of control. Money can’t solve everything, as Alex comes to realize from her glimpses into her clients’ private lives, but it does tends to change the shape and size of your problems: A rich dude’s unhappiness isn’t any less valid because he owns a Peloton, but his is a different kind of burden than the one Alex deals with every day as she struggles to put food on the table for Maddy.
Qualley is blessed with an expressive face that makes Alex an open book. Even as she fights to maintain her composure in the face of unbearable pressure, a twitching lip, a fluttering eyelash or a flaring nostril gives the game away. MacDowell, on the other hand, is arresting and aggravating in equal measure as Paula, who tears in and out of Alex’s life with the irresistible chaos of a tornado. And Robinson plays Sean’s sweetness with as much earnestness as he does his menace — he’s a man whose painful history explains but doesn’t excuse the pain he himself inflicts in the present.
Everyone in the cast benefits from scripts (by showrunner Molly Smith Metzler, Marcus Gardley, Bekah Brunstetter, Colin McKenna and Michelle Denise Jackson) that refuse to reduce Alex or those around her to the sum of their troubles. Compassion can be found even in the prickliest of hearts, and moments of levity or lust or bravado crop up even on the worst of days. Alex may be having a hard time, but she’s still human enough to notice that Paula’s obelisk statue looks awfully phallic, or that the friendly fellow putting her up for the night looks pretty great without his shirt — and she never fails to find some measure of joy or comfort in Maddy, even when exhaustion or depression get the best of her.
Alex is an easy hero to root for, and all the more so because the odds seem so stacked against her. For viewers lucky enough to be unfamiliar with life in the lower class, Maid provides a wrenching demonstration of just how hard it can be to pull oneself up by the bootstraps in a world littered with bureaucratic catch-22s, unsympathetic employers and no shortage of bad luck — not to mention, in Alex’s case, a relationship so toxic that it threatens to drown out her entire sense of self. In one particularly crushing detail, Alex can barely name her favorite color when she’s asked by a shelter working helping her pick out clothes.
But if Alex’s easy appeal is one of Maid‘s strongest selling points, it can also become a limitation. As a smart, pretty, young white American woman who never fails to work hard or put her kid first, Alex does little to challenge the usual assumptions about who does or doesn’t “deserve” to be poor. Maid spares little thought for people who might be even worse off than Alex is, even within the same line of work, and as a result, its critiques of the systems that keep Alex down can run only so deep. It’s all too possible to walk away from Maid without any sense of just how ordinary or extraordinary Alex’s journey really is, and therefore without any sense of just how broken the social safety net really is.
Still, there’s value in the story of a single person, and Maid, in fairness, never purports to speak for anyone but its protagonist. (To the contrary, it’s so embedded in Alex’s personal perspective that we’re often treated to fantastical flourishes, like Alex getting swallowed up by a couch while in the depths of her depression, that prioritize her subjective experience over objective reality.) Maid may fall short as a cultural study, but regarded as an intimate personal story, it’s a triumph — a sensitively written, superbly performed drama that finds the humanity even in the coldest of days, and keeps you hooked until the very last minutes.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day