Being poor is incredibly stressful. A lot of films and TV shows have told and shown us that. But Maid, a new Netflix limited series inspired by the memoir by Stephanie Land, makes that pressure palpable during practically every minute spent watching it.
In the first episode, Alex (Margaret Qualley), a young mother in Washington State without a job or a college degree, makes the difficult decision to leave her boyfriend, Sean (Nick Robinson of A Teacher and Love, Simon), an emotionally abusive alcoholic. She tucks their 3-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), into her car seat, then drives away from the trailer she shared with Sean and toward a life that involves scrubbing scummy toilets, having next to no money in her bank account, scrambling to find child care, staying in domestic-violence shelters or subsidized apartments crawling with black mold, battling over custody of Maddy, and filling out form after form (after form, after form) to get the federal assistance she desperately needs and that often helps by only the smallest of degrees. It’s an exhausting and demoralizing experience, and Maid, steered by showrunner Molly Smith Metzler, does an exceptional job of capturing every detail, as well as the intensity of knowing every tiny setback can legitimately become a major emergency. Around every corner, for Alex, there is always another setback and always another emergency.
A different series might have turned Alex’s story into an inspiring tale of persistence, a sort of This Is Us, Housekeeper Edition. Certainly, there are moments of uplift in Maid, as well as some humor and levity; as nerve-racking as the series can be, it is never too unsettling to watch. Still, Metzler, the writers, and the directors, including TV veteran John Wells, who handles four of the seven episodes that drop on Netflix today, refuse to sugarcoat anything. They commit to showing the nuances in their characters and the complexities all of them face, including Alex’s erratic artist mother, Paula, played by Qualley’s actual mom, Andie MacDowell. Even Sean is not a straight up-and-down villain, one of the reasons it’s so hard for Alex to initially see herself as an abuse victim and to convince others to acknowledge she’s been mistreated.
Qualley, who has had memorable supporting roles in The Leftovers, Fosse/Verdon, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, anchors the series with a lead performance filled with vulnerability and open-heartedness, but undergirded by a stubbornness that refuses to be eroded. It is crucial that viewers empathize with Alex, and Qualley makes that easy. Even though she sometimes does misguided things — career advice: Don’t kinda-sorta kidnap a client’s dog, even if they did stiff you on a payment — you’ll praise the universe every time it cuts Alex the smallest of breaks. Qualley’s performance is as locked-in, hard-working, and determined as the woman she plays.
Maid makes some creative choices that go a long way toward capturing the feelings that come with struggle. Scenes occasionally snap in and out of fantasy as a way to convey what Alex is thinking. “So you’re looking for a big fat government handout because you are a jobless, white trash piece of shit, am I right?” says the first social worker Alex meets. Of course, what the social worker actually does is ask Alex to hand her a form. But the series lets us see this exchange, through the prism of Alex’s imagination, where what’s happening is drenched in her own sense of shame.
In scenes throughout the series, numbers appear on the screen to signify the budgetary calculus Alex must do every time she earns a couple bucks, then realizes she must immediately spend it. In one sequence, she walks happily out of a house she’s just cleaned with $50 in hand, that dollar amount listed in the lefthand corner of the screen. Then Alex sees a delivery guy with a box that says Boots for Maddy on it; the $50 gets crossed out and turns into $35.01. She notices that the back of the delivery guy’s jacket says tampons — that $35.01 turns into $26.01. This process continues until her immediate expenses have put her at a deficit of $93.98. It’s a stark, efficient way to illustrate the math that can’t be ignored when you’re, at best, paycheck to paycheck.
But Maid isn’t just focused on financial concerns or the drudgery of cleaning bathrooms and kitchens. It’s about how hard it is to get help and to build upon the help one has already received, whether you’re a person with an addiction, an abused partner, or someone with a mental illness. Like another Netflix series, the exceptional Unbelievable, it is also a study of women being there for other women.
Not every woman Alex encounters is nice to her, but when she is shown grace, it comes from people like Regina (the excellent Anika Noni Rose), a seemingly frosty client who thaws enough to become a friend; Danielle (a tenacious Aimee Carrero), another young mom at the domestic violence shelter who quite literally gets Alex back on her feet; and Denise, the head of that shelter who, in the hands of actor BJ Harrison, is the exact mix of tough love and gentle spirit that you’d hope to meet if you needed to be rescued.
But the real heart of the series lies in the relationship between Alex and Paula, who is in denial about her mental illness and flits frequently between boyfriends, living situations, and moods. MacDowell — whose silver-tinged dark curls are supposed to be untamed and unruly, but still look fabulous — delivers the kind of let-it-all-hang-out performance that some of her best-known work has not enabled her to give. She’s joyful and unfiltered, but deftly turns sentences into daggers when she wants to cut her daughter and watch her bleed a little.
As actual child and parent, Qualley and MacDowell tap right into the marrow of the relationship between Alex and Paula with seemingly no effort. They are each other’s worst enemies and greatest advocates, and watching them dance through their complicated love for one another is one of the most enriching experiences of the fall TV season. Like so much in Maid, you don’t just observe what’s happening to them. You feel like you’re in it right along with them.