Maid is a layered and nuanced look at poverty, domestic violence, mental health, and American laws and systems that both help and hurt people struggling with these problems. A brilliant performance from Margaret Qualley takes the material to a level that will make the series an awards contender for 2021. The series is on Netflix.
Maid was created by Molly Smith Metzler from a memoir by Stephanie Land: Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. (Affiliate Link) It is reportedly true to the story of how Stephanie Land escaped her situation and became a writer.
The 10 episodes of the series peel back layer after layer of what it means to live in poverty, to live with domestic violence, and to live with generational trauma and mental illness.
We first meet Alex (Margaret Qualley) on the night she takes her almost 3 year old daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) and runs away from her boyfriend Sean’s (Nick Robinson) trailer. Sean is alcoholic and controls her with intimidation and emotional manipulation. On the night she runs, he knocks a hole in the wall with his fist next to where she’s standing.
Alex has a car and $18 when she leaves. She doesn’t know anything about navigating the various governmental and social networks built to help. Much of the series is her learning process. How to find a shelter where she can live. How to find a job. How to get assistance with food and child care. How to get help when Sean takes her to court for custody of Maddy.
Obstacles are everywhere. She doesn’t know the language or how to explain her problems in ways the welfare system or the courts understand.
An early conversation she has with a social worker is revealing – both of her ignorance and of the social worker’s empathy.
Alex: I’d really hate to take a bed from someone who’s abused for real.
Social worker: For real? What does that mean?
Alex: Beaten up? Hurt?
Social Worker: And what does fake abuse look like? Intimidation? Threats? Control?
Alex ends up in a domestic violence shelter run by the kind and wonderful Denise (BJ Harrison). They provide food, clothing, shelter, group therapy, and sometimes transportation. The transportation is an issue, because Alex’s car is totaled the night she leaves.
The first person she meets in the shelter is Danielle (Aimee Carrero). Danielle knows her way around the system. She gives Alex the no nonsense advice about abusers that, “before they bite they bark, before they hit you they hit near you.”
But Danielle goes back to her abuser, which gives Denise the chance to explain to Alex (and the viewers) that on average a woman goes back to her abuser 7 times before she finally leaves for good.
There are many reasons a woman goes back into a bad situation. Most of them involve poverty and lack of opportunity. Alex comes up against both of these when she gets a job as a maid and tries to work without a car and without money for cleaning supplies or day care.
Alex gets a break now and then, but just as soon as she does the rug is pulled out from under her again. She got the maid job from Yolanda (Tracy Vilar). It’s a crap job for low pay and hard work. A guy she knows named Nate (Raymond Ablack) loans her a car because he wants to be her savior (and her bed mate).
She’s sent to clean for Regina (Anika Noni Rose), who at first glance is just a rich bitch who stiffs her. But you don’t put Anika Noni Rose in a small role and she proves to be as layered and interesting as everyone else in this series.
Mom and Pop in Maid
Paula (Andie MacDowell) is Alex’s mother (the two are mother and daughter in real life, too.) Paula is bipolar and mostly manic when Alex interacts with her. Very slowly we learn the history of these two and of childhood trauma that Alex went through. Paula has a whole list of traumas in her past as well. She’s an artist and a good one, but her life is a mess.
Hank (Billy Burke) is Alex’s dad. He’s remarried, born again Christian, and has twin daughters with his new wife. He seems like he wants to help Alex, but nothing is what it seems on the surface in this family with a troubled past.
Out of high school, Alex was accepted to the University of Montana in the writing program. A good part of the series is her writing in her journals. You can tell from her journals that she is a brilliant writer. But, she had Maddy and didn’t go to college. Now she wants to try again and learns she can still be admitted. She has so much to figure out about scholarships, loans, housing, day care. It looks insurmountable but she does it. The memoir the series is based on is proof.
The performances in the series are outstanding. Margaret Qualley is simply pitch perfect. Even little Rylea Nevaeh Whittet does a wonderful job interacting with all the adults, delivering lines, and being believable.
The lessons for viewers who are empathetic to Alex’s situation are clear. Poverty holds people back from achieving their potential to contribute to society. Mental illness is a generational scourge that damages both the mentally ill and the people around them. The welfare system is impossibly difficult to use or understand. Domestic violence damages generations of people for decades and leaves them with PTSD, deep scars and wounds that are hard to heal, and often problems with substance abuse.
This isn’t a fluffy, happy series. It does have flashes of comic genius, but overall it’s a tough topic. A well-done and well-examined tough topic. It’s well-written with powerful performances from everyone. I hope you will give Alex and the situation her life dramatizes a watch.
Directors for the series included John Wells, Helen Shaver, Nzingha Stewart, Lila Neugebauer, and Quyen Tran.
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