When a single mom’s life in America resembles a “Chutes and Ladders” game of juggling ineffective government programs and dodging abusive relationships, her struggle to survive represents societal shame, not personal failure.
Life can change on a dime—or be defined by it. In Netflix’s affecting miniseries Maid, this granular type of cost benefit analysis dominates the consciousness. With little calculations churning on the upper right hand corner, each quarter counts. But missing a dollar? Young mother Alex Langley (Margaret Qualley) masters a momentary worried furrowed brow over money before springing on a smile for her daughter, Maddy (Rylah Nevaeh Whittet)—her tightrope walk must be executed flawlessly, lest she panic her daughter about how dire their stakes truly are.
A story cast across 10 hourlong episodes, Maid honors its source material, Stephanie Land’s New York Times best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, through Molly Smith Metzler’s keen direction. There’s a cheap way to cover poverty in America that’s all shock value stills and cliches, but Maid goes for the gradual build up, a Tetris-like operation of stacking roadblock after roadblock, sprinkled with generational trauma that implicitly informs characters’ decisions before they even realize it. Disasters are written and wrought from years in the making. For Alex, her freedom from doom requires not only a mastery of explicit survival measures (housing, food, gas, childcare, government programs, safety from abuse, flexible work hours), but also a deep understanding of self.
In unspooling Alex’s own story, Maid makes an exercise of looking back. Alex’s mother, Paula (Angie MacDowell) splashes against our screens in her extravagant bad decision making. With a series of consecutive good-for-nothing boyfriends dating back to Alex’s childhood, codependency, addiction, and denial all make homes in the Langley bloodline. Seeing Alex ensnared with Maddy’s father (Nick Robinson), an abusive alcoholic himself, not far removed from her own father (Billy Burke), Maid takes note of cycles. The ghost of toxicity dances in every character’s backstory, calling cues for future decisions. Doubles also serve to make a motif over the course of the entire series: Alex and Paula, Alex and Maddy, Alex and another woman in the DV center, Alex and the women of whom houses she cleans.
There’s tremendous grit demonstrated throughout Alex’s entire arc. But Maid troubles the waters of American bootstrapping narratives, emphasizing time and time again how one individual’s survival depends upon a network of support. Beyond just rapport, Maid calls for honest clarity on the state of living in this country while poor—a game of stringing together impossible victories until your body breaks or you catch a lucky break. This fragility permeates the show in the same way as the Lenny Abrahamson-style natural light: painfully beautiful. But like the show itself, this light only illuminates Alex safely when she’s ensconced in the homes of the wealthy. Visibility and beauty comes with a price. With Alex’s face constantly crunching the calculus of survival, Maid never lets the audience forget it. At that point, the ugly mess of poverty becomes the viewer’s responsibility to witness—and a group imperative to scrub such a blot from the American narrative.
Maid premieres Friday, October 1st on Netflix.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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