There's No Clean Break From Poverty in 'Maid'

“Work,” one of her employers tells Alex, the heroine of Netflix’s fantastic new limited series Maid, “is the one thing you can count on. Everything else is fragile.”

It’s an apt sentiment for both Alex (Margaret Qualley) and Maid itself, a limited series about the value — financial and psychological — of hard work. After Alex leaves an abusive relationship with Sean (Nick Robinson) and finds herself and her daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), homeless, large swaths of Maid follow her as she cleans houses and fights her way through layers of government red tape just to put food on Maddy’s plate and a roof over their heads. Among the show’s stylistic flourishes is an onscreen tally of how much money she is earning versus what she’s spending, to drive home the maximum effort she puts in for the most modest reward: basic subsistence.

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It’s a slow journey for Alex that sees her moving through a domestic-violence shelter, family court, various housing situations that prove untenable — including a stay with her undiagnosed bipolar mother, Paula (played by Qualley’s real mom, Andie MacDowell) — and frequent reminders that climbing the socioeconomic ladder isn’t always a one-way journey. The chief creative forces here are Shameless alums Molly Smith Metzler, who wrote much of it, and John Wells, who directs several episodes. Their take on Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, shares a lot of the scrappy spirit of the long-running Showtime hit (while avoiding its more ridiculous comic excesses) in a way that prevents Alex’s tale from feeling like a wallow. Parts of it are deliberately difficult to get through, yet the show is surprisingly watchable given the nature of the story, and at times even light and charming.

Much of this is a credit to Qualley (The Leftovers, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood), who delivers a movie-star-level performance. Not in the sense that she’s glamorous, since Alex spends a lot of time bagging up filth, but in the way she breathes life and joy into long sequences that would be tedious without the charisma radiating off her throughout. (She also clicks wonderfully with the criminally adorable Whittet, who manages to seem like the happiest child ever put on television even in the midst of this often sad tale.)

Alex is in, and usually at the center of, every scene, and Metzler and her collaborators find ways to make their heroine feel even more present by offering periodic flashes of memory, imagination, and the various emotions she’s struggling to conceal from the world around her. This kind of subjective storytelling — say, Alex feeling so lost at a family court hearing that every word out of Sean’s lawyer’s mouth is just “legal” over and over — could have the unintended impact of breaking the realistic spell of the rest of the show. But once you adjust to its rhythms after the first or second flash, it only enhances our understanding of Alex and of how she is feeling throughout this ordeal. Late in the seventh episode, Helen Shaver does some remarkable work in filming an unexpected development involving Alex and Sean, in a way that simultaneously puts the viewer inside her head and makes objectively clear the gravity of what’s happening.

That level of nuance is present throughout. Robinson and the writers do a very effective job of conveying how Alex could be taken in by Sean, who has a Jekyll and Hyde personality tied in part to his drinking. And MacDowell (in one of the richest roles she’s ever had) shows how Paula can alternately be her daughter’s savior and her burden. The series explores all the Catch-22 headaches of the social safety net. It deftly illustrates the additional logistical hurdles Alex faces because Sean’s abuse was emotional rather than physical, even as it makes the former feel just as palpable as the latter the more we get to know Sean. And as Alex begins addressing the practical realities of life way below the poverty line, both she and Maid are aware of the psychological issues that helped lead to this mess; later episodes become as much about Alex unpacking how she got here as they are about her grinding away to provide for herself and Maddy. The season also cleverly depicts many opportunities a more formulaic show might take to get Alex out of this mess, before one by one revealing how none of the people she encounters are going to save her (for various plausible and often painful reasons), and that Alex will have to save herself. She develops a fascinatingly tumultuous relationship with Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a wealthy attorney who is her first housecleaning client and is in the process of adopting a child. A lesser show would resolve all the major problems by having Alex, who is great with Maddy and other kids, become Regina’s live-in nanny; when Alex proposes it here, Regina looks at her like a raccoon has just started talking to her in Esperanto.

No, Alex has to work hard — very hard — to escape the place we find her when Maid begins. And Metzler and Wells prove just as committed to work as Alex is. Maid is careful in how it details each step of Alex’s attempt to escape poverty, so that little things that would be forgettable elsewhere — a small job going well, a friend opening her door without judgment — land with thunderbolt force. Have tissues handy as much for the happy parts as the sad. This is a great one.

All 10 episodes of Maid premiere October 1st on Netflix. I’ve seen the whole thing.

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