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‘Maid’ Is a Rare, Unflinching Depiction of Poverty From Hollywood

The Netflix miniseries illustrates the endless Catch-22 poor people in America face

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Maid is filled with flights of fancy. To illustrate the plight of its heroine and the vivid imagination she uses to cope, the Netflix limited series takes an occasional turn for the surreal. When Margaret Qualley’s cash-strapped single mom shows up to the supermarket with food stamps, she hears the cashier call for “cleanup on aisle poor.” When she goes to court to fight for custody of her toddler, the judge and her ex’s lawyer simply repeat the word “legal” at each other ad nauseam. And when she hits a low point late in the series, she literally disappears into her couch, falling to the bottom of a black pit where she stays for most of the episode.

These vignettes aren’t actual depictions of what’s happening to Qualley’s Alex, a young woman who flees an abusive relationship to start a new life for herself and her daughter. Instead, they’re dreamlike reprieves from a story that’s otherwise crushingly down-to-earth. Over 10 episodes, Maid tells the kind of story that’s still rare to see from the gatekept realms of Hollywood: an unflinching look at what it means to be poor. Maid is the individual story of an overlapping set of structural problems, showing how the spiral of downward mobility is only accelerated by factors like gender, parenthood, and mental health.

Loosely adapted from Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir by playwright Molly Smith Metzler, Maid tweaks many details of Land’s true story. Metzler and her writers kept the Washington state locale, but switched the location from Port Townsend to the fictional town of Port Hampstead, near the wealthy hamlet of Fisher Island. (While there is a Fisher Island in Washington, it’s uninhabited; Maid’s version is closer to Seattle’s neighboring Bainbridge.) Some figures have their names changed, while others are omitted entirely. And to expand the story for the screen, Netflix’s Maid makes a more substantive presence of Alex’s mother, Paula. The plotline helps trace the cyclical patterns of poverty and abuse back a generation, but it also sets up a neat bit of casting: Qualley stars alongside her own mother, the actress Andie MacDowell—an odd choice for a show about a woman who lacks the kind of safety net a well-connected parent provides, but an effective one. One would think the pairing would emphasize the women’s similarities, but in practice, the opposite is true. Alex and her mother, a free-spirited artist experiencing bipolar disorder, are two very different women, with different responses to their mutual trauma. (Alex is pragmatic, Paula in denial; Alex tries to change her circumstances, Paula pretends they don’t matter.) The genetic link only underscores that shared DNA is no guarantee of shared outlook.

Still, Maid retains the most important element of Land’s writing: a hard-won knowledge of our threadbare social safety net and its gaping holes, rooted in the author’s first-hand experience. When Alex impulsively decides to leave her emotionally abusive boyfriend, she doesn’t have a plan, a mistake that proves near fatal. Almost instantly, she runs headfirst into the endless Catch-22 of American life. To qualify for food stamps or housing vouchers, she needs to prove she has a job; to get a job, she needs access to child care; to pay for child care, she needs a source of income. With no physical injuries or prior police reports, the state of Washington doesn’t consider Alex a victim of domestic violence, so she doesn’t either—making it difficult to even seek help, let alone receive it. And even the shelter she eventually turns to can do only so much.

Some of Maid’s best scenes show the sheer drudgery of navigating bureaucracy, a decidedly uncinematic enterprise Maid dresses up with the aforementioned fantasies. Many recent portraits of life below the poverty line, including Oscar darlings like Nomadland and The Florida Project, focus on the beauty to be found in the struggle for survival. Maid is just about the struggle. Montage by montage, Alex acquaints herself with a flood of acronyms, piecing together subsidies and the housecleaning gigs that give the show its name into a semblance of independent life. But without spoiling the story’s twists and turns, Alex’s path is not a linear one. Inertia is a powerful force, and there’s far more that works to keep the underclass where they are than tries to help them out.

Placed in the wrong hands, Maid could be a bootstraps fable of one (attractive, able-bodied, young, and white) woman overcoming adversity through sheer grit. But the Netflix show honors the essence of Land’s tale, which is proof that even the most strenuous of efforts can be undone by just a bit of bad luck. The life Alex builds for herself is a fragile one. A case of black mold in the only subsidized housing complex in her entire county is all that stands between her and homelessness; a single shift at the job that refuses to give her more than 30 hours a week, lest they have to pay benefits, is the difference between a positive bank balance and a negative one. For all of Maid’s fantasy sequences, its most potent visual device is a harsh reality check: a running tally of Alex’s bank account, which rarely breaks into triple digits.

Maid is not didactic, because it doesn’t have to be; the sight of Alex throwing out a fridge’s worth of good food at a wealthy client’s request has the power of a thousand Bernie Sanders stump speeches. And the show never sinks into trauma porn, despite the heavy subject matter. Given that around 40 percent of Americans couldn’t come up with $400 in case of emergency—and this was before the pandemic—Alex’s plight feels less exceptional than representative. (The introduction to Land’s book was penned by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the seminal study Nickel and Dimed.) Maid is a TV show, and eventually indulges in some Hollywood tropes to alleviate some of Alex’s misery. Still, the happy ending lands only because Maid’s already shown how many stars have to align to secure one.

When it comes to low-wage work, Maid’s empathy is unsurprising. After all, Land’s subtitle was Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. More disarming is the sympathy Maid reserves for its least sympathetic figure: Alex’s abuser, Sean, played with equal parts pathos and menace by A Teacher’s Nick Robinson. A reluctant father who resents Alex for bringing an abrupt end to his carefree youth, Sean effectively turns their home into a prison, isolating Alex and subjecting her to his drunken rage. Yet Sean, too, is held captive by his own demons, from a traumatic childhood dealing with his mother’s opioid dependency to his own obvious need for sobriety.

Maid walks a razor-thin line where Sean is concerned: condemning without villainizing, explaining without excusing. It’s a mix of sensitive writing and remarkable performance that conveys one of the hardest truths of chronic abuse. To Alex, Sean is a source of pain and also comfort, a tyrant to be followed and a sad sack to be pitied. We never question why Alex wants to leave, nor why she would keep the father of her child in her life even when she does; we see how the same person who looks hapless in one light seems fearsome in another. Sean may be weak and insecure, but it’s those who lack power who cling to it behind closed doors.

Two years ago, Netflix aired another feminist drama set in the Pacific Northwest, also a scripted version of real-life events. Unbelievable is a work of true crime, with more heightened stakes and a more established genre than Maid’s singular story. But the series share an unlikely, potent mix of institutional scope and furious feeling. Maid would never be so blunt as to explicitly advocate for a policy fix, just as Unbelievable didn’t call rape culture by its name. It simply shows us what some women have to go through, one obstacle at a time, and then dares us to suggest their troubles are on them. Maid may find novel ways to visualize its story, but it’s only asking us to notice what’s already there.