The past two years have made plain how precarious life is, and how quickly things can change. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Netflix’s biggest hits of 2021 are both about desperate people pushed to their limits. As Squid Game dominates the headlines, it is Maid – quieter, but no less devastating – that is generating word-of-mouth buzz. The series is on track to beat The Queen’s Gambit as Netflix’s most-watched miniseries, estimated to be streamed by 67m households by the end of its first month on the platform.
Adapted from Stephanie Land’s bestselling 2019 memoir, it follows a young mother, Alex (Margaret Qualley), as she scrabbles to save herself and her daughter, Maddy, two, from a crushing cycle of domestic abuse. Homeless and alone, Alex is tossed into the choppy waters of impenetrable bureaucracy. She can’t access subsidised childcare if she doesn’t have a job, but she can’t get a job without childcare. She doesn’t believe she belongs at a shelter because the abuse was emotional not physical. She gets a cleaning job, but can only work limited hours to qualify for government assistance. She must pick her battles, reserving energy for those that matter most. The only thing more overwhelming than her circumstances is the immense shame she feels.
It sounds gruelling – and it is – but Maid’s tender storytelling has viewers intensely invested. Much of this is due to the staggering, nuanced performance of Qualley as Alex, a character who seems so real as she falls through the cracks. The relationship between Qualley and her on-screen daughter, played by Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, has astonishing authenticity to it, matched by that of Alex and her mother, Paula (played by Qualley’s real-life mother, Andie MacDowell). Indeed, Maid focuses not just on Alex and Maddy, but the flawed people that cushion and compound Alex’s misery. Paula is a flaky, free-spirited artist with her own history of escaping abuse, who is described as having “undiagnosed bipolar disorder”. Meanwhile, the man from whom Alex is desperate to flee, Sean (Nick Robinson), is an alcoholic who mines his own wounds to inflict new ones on others.
We have become more accustomed to portrayals of emotional abuse on television of late, with everything from Dominic Savage’s I Am … series to Coronation Street depicting relationships that feature coercive control. Maid also mines this vein, emphasising how difficult it is to prove this type of abuse is taking place. Later, a guardian angel is dangled in front of Alex in the form of Nate, a Nice Guy who wants to help … until he doesn’t. Offering a kind of generosity bound up with expectations of sexual entitlement, his behaviour towards Alex is almost as insidious as that of her ex.
Alex’s isolation, and the total absence of helping hands, hits hard in an era of pandemic-induced loneliness. In one episode, she literally slips out of sight, between the cushions of a sofa, finding herself at the bottom of a dark well. The series also makes frequent use of fantasy sequences to submerge us in the reality of her experience. At an intimidating custody hearing, we hear the court vernacular as it sounds to her: “She failed to legal legal, which is legally legal, per legal’. When she flicks through paperwork, the forms appear to read “Welfare Bitch”, “No-One Cares” and “Go Fuck Yourself”. On-screen graphics show the pitiful amount in her bank account. This immersive quality is part of why Maid never becomes “poverty porn”: we are not simply witnessing Alex’s lowest points but fully involved in her world, which affords her dignity.
Qualley herself has pointed out that Alex’s privilege as an educated, attractive white woman – also one of the reasons that she ultimately has a chance to claw her way out (“It’s more challenging to ‘other’ Alex in this circumstance because of those reasons,” she told Elle magazine. “A lot of people in these exact same circumstances get stuck there.”) While Alex’s odds are better than most, Maid has managed to make a singular story of mother and daughter – punctuated by their daily forest walks, reciting We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – feel universal to the viewer.
Ultimately, it is a show that asks what comes easily, and to who. It is about how performative kindness fails those who need real help, and how quickly things can unravel when someone has no one to turn to. There may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel – but Maid takes no short cuts in getting there.
Maid is available on Netflix