Reviews · TV

‘Maid’ Empathically Shines a Light on the Harsh Realities of Poverty

The Netflix series, based on the bestselling memoir, also features a rock-solid performance by Margaret Qualley.
Maid Netflix Series
By  · Published on October 1st, 2021

Maid, the Netflix miniseries based on Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir of the same name, is an exercise in empathy. While focused on one woman’s rise out of poverty, the adaptation features multiple characters from different backgrounds and shares insight into their unique struggles. By including their missteps, too, the series allows us to consider how a non-linear path to happiness isn’t necessarily a lesser one.

Created by writer/producer Molly Smith Metzler (Shameless), the 10-part drama follows Alex (Margaret Qualley), a young mother who flees an abusive relationship along with her two-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Neveah Whittet). Without a dollar to her name and initially house-less, she embarks on a painstaking journey toward self-sufficiency while attempting to overcome grueling bureaucratic hurdles and break generational cycles of violence.

Alex begins to climb out of her situation, moving further away from her ex, Sean (Nick Robinson), and closer to being able to independently provide for Maddy. As you can guess by the series’ title, she goes to work as a house cleaner and starts to earn a steady income. But then she makes a number of bad choices. She steals, she reunites with Sean, and she even accidentally puts Maddy in harm’s way.

Yet there isn’t a moment in Maid when Alex doesn’t come across as well-intentioned. Her decision to leave Maddy alone on the highway to find her doll shows her commitment as a mother rather than someone making an unreasonable mistake. Qualley’s rock-solid performance is compassionate enough to portray such slips in judgment as a positive because they are oriented toward her main goal to build a better life for her daughter.

After Alex takes Maddy away from Sean, she is summoned to court for an emergency custody hearing. Thrown into a room with a cluster of people in suits without anyone explaining to her what exactly is going on, or how she can protect herself, she’s like a deer in the headlights. And the series does everything it can to make us perceive what she’s going through. The legal language is as incomprehensible to our ears as it is to hers. The editing speeds up to disorient us, too. And numerous close-ups on Alex make us feel like we’re trapped alongside her.

In fully showing us these arduous processes as they happen, Maid makes it so easy to connect with what Alex is experiencing. She has to visit multiple legal offices, and she has to gather testimonials from her unreliable mother (played by Qualley’s own real-life mother, Andie MacDowell) to get food stamps. We see the forms. We hear the conversations about the forms. We hate the forms. And we’re given similar insight into Alex’s job as a maid. We see her pick out cleaning supplies and scrub toilets. We’re right there with her for the ugly reality of her work.

So when the emotional moments arrive, they are all the more devastating because we’re knee-deep in Alex’s story. Her relationships play out in the series just like those scenes of her trying to acquire housing and daycare, too. When her friends say they don’t know whose side to believe, hers or Sean’s, it’s a reminder that Alex needs character witnesses in court. And when her friend Nate (Raymond Ablack), who is temporarily housing her, ultimately kicks her to the curb because she is not interested in starting a romantic relationship with him, it’s a reminder that, in her precarious state, every personal exchange is a negotiation.

Another reason Maid is so easy to connect with is Alex isn’t the only person shown struggling. The other characters around her contain their own complexities. Alex’s mother was an absent parent. And even after escaping Alex’s abusive father, Hank (Billy Burke), she’s unable to escape a continual pattern of relationships with equally bad men, including her current boyfriend, Basil (Toby Levins), who is stealing money from her. But despite everyone thinking they know what’s best for her, she finds happiness on her own through spirituality. This isn’t to say that her life is perfect, by any means. But perhaps that’s the point.

There’s also Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a lawyer whose house is the first one Alex cleans as a maid. Seemingly the polar opposite of Alex, Regina has everything: thousand-dollar cashmere sweaters, expensive wine, a decadent set of lawn furniture. Alex envies her. But once the façade of Regina’s perfect life cracks — she is on the brink of a divorce and is having a baby she’s not ready for — Alex realizes they’re both evenly dissatisfied with their lives. Their dynamic becomes the most interesting of the series, as it emphasizes the fact that there’s no right way to be a mother, and there’s no right or wrong way to struggle.

Maid even offers a deep insight into the story’s villains. Sean is a bad guy, for sure. He abuses Alex and scares their daughter. But instead of turning him into a boogeyman figure, the series suggests that Sean is struggling, too. He was also abused as a kid and is in the trenches of a drinking problem that he has no idea how to control. Hank also has a good deal of screentime, and Burke’s subtle performance reveals the pain he feels when he is rejected by his daughter and unable to see his granddaughter, as well as the remorse he feels when Alex confronts him about abusing Paula.

At the core of Maid is a scathing exposé of how difficult it is to flee an abusive relationship. Alex’s situation is borderline unsolvable: she needs a job to become financially independent, but she needs daycare to have time to show up at work, but she needs proof of residence to obtain daycare vouchers, but she can’t afford housing without a job, and so on… And, of course, she can’t even get a job without proof of residence either.

From the first episode, we see systems in place making it nearly impossible for Alex to break free from her abuser. This is unfortunately an ongoing issue in the real world for many women. By drawing us into the story of one of these survivors, and allowing us to walk beside her on her unconventional path to happiness and relative prosperity, Maid sheds a sensitive and emotional light on the problem and those affected by it.

Maid premieres on Netflix on October 1st.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.