Why Netflix’s Maid should be your next box set
James R | On 03, Jan 2022
“I just want to thank you for going through so much with me.” Those are the words of 23-year-old Alex (Margaret Qualley) near the end of Maid Season 1, and it’s no understatement – we watch her go through a lot over the drama’s 10 intensely moving episodes.
Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, the fictionalised series turns Land’s experiences into a television arc. With that comes a lot of contrivance and cliché, as things are heightened and sanitised for the screen, but what’s impressive is just how raw and honest the series feels. It tackles such weighty topics as domestic abuse, homelessness and living in poverty, each one captured with an emotional honesty.
We join Alex as she leaves her partner, Sean (Nick Robinson), with their two-year-of daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), in tow. But that step away from their abusive relationship is just the first down a long road to piecing her life back together, and it’s a road that takes her from shelters and cash-in-hand cleaning work to job interviews and court dates, interspersed with nerve-wracking trips to the supermarket – accompanied by on-screen text that counts down Alex’s available money from not very much to even less.
The moments when her budget goes into minus digits are heart-wrenching in their simplicity, and Margaret Qualley is sensational at conveying the inner fear and resilience that keeps powering Alex forward, moving from vulnerable and tragic to strong and determined in the blink of an eye. At every milestone on her road to independence, she finds herself having to navigate the brick wall of bureaucracy that surrounds the welfare state, and the series’ impact lays bare the impossible labyrinth of actually getting help from the authorities who are meant to do just that.
That, in itself, is reason enough to tune in, but it’s the tip of an iceberg that proves surprisingly complex and engaging nuanced. That’s partly thanks to Andie MacDowell (Qualley’s real-life mother) as Alex’s mum, Paula, who has her own issues that leave Alex having to look after her more than the other way round. Together, they dynamic is at once compassionate and toxic, and MacDowell’s larger-than-life turn highlights the way that Paula repeatedly attempts to make herself the centre of Alex’s life, regardless of what her daughter’s going through. Between them, Nick Robinson is excellent understated as Sean, managing to capture the intimidation, fear and trauma of being in a relationship that’s abusive emotionally rather than physically, while still finding room to humanise his gaslighting spouse.
Showrunner Molly Smith Metzler leads a writing team that consistently delves into the shades of grey that surround these characters, while the directors repeatedly make sure we’re in Alex’s headspace – one sequence that sees her imagine a possible love interest topless in a cowboy hat is at once funny, unnerving and desperately sweet.
But Maid also finds uplifting and inspiring successes amid the trials – by the time we’re watching Alex in a writing support group encouraging others to voice their experiences, it’s impossible not to cheer the way that she’s moved beyond the label of “victim” and not only reclaimed her story but is also looking for ways to help others do the same.
The result is a nerve-shredding portrait of life on the precarious fringe of stability. It’s drawn out for too many episodes – six would do – but even when the pacing slows, we know to expect some glimmer of positivity by the end of Season 1. It’s a fictionalised narrative arc, not a documentary, but it’s one of pure catharsis – and you’ll be glad you made it through.