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Margaret Qualley Captivates in Netflix's Maid, a Devastating Portrait of Poverty

The new limited series systematically shuts down the “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” narrative.
  • Rylea Naveah Whittet and Margaret Qually in Maid. (Photo: Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)
    Rylea Naveah Whittet and Margaret Qually in Maid. (Photo: Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix)

    Netflix’s Maid is not for the faint of heart. Margaret Qualley’s Alex, a single mother who begins housecleaning to make ends meet, spends much of the limited series scrubbing grime off toilets, pulling hair out of drains, and hosing down mold-riddled surfaces, work that leaves her underpaid and over exhausted. If that doesn’t turn your stomach, the rigid bureaucracy she faces will: to receive subsidized daycare, Alex needs to prove she has a job, but in order to get a job, she must first secure childcare for her two-year-old daughter. As she so eloquently puts it, “What kind of fuckery is that?”

    It’s a testament to Qualley that, despite its difficult subject matter, Maid remains so watchable. The 26-year-old actress, best known for roles in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood and Fosse/Verdon, is captivating as Alex, who gives up everything to create a better life for her daughter (played by Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). Qualley brings a sense of lightness to the role that helps carry Maid through its darker moments, ensuring that the series resonates with viewers long after the credits roll.

    Inspired by Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Maid begins in the middle of the night as Alex leaves her abusive partner, Sean (Nick Robinson, in a role that further distances him from his Love, Simon days). Even in the dark, it’s suggested that this is a dangerous environment: Alex carefully steps over large pieces of glass on the floor and passes a hole in the wall on her way out the door. We learn that Sean is emotionally abusive, although Alex doesn’t realize the level of his manipulation and intimidation until she puts space between them and finds temporary housing in a domestic violence shelter.

    By the end of the first episode, Alex is left with nothing. Her car is totaled in an accident, leaving her homeless. She’s about to be fired from her job after a client complains she left streaks on her outdoor furniture. She’s given a parking ticket and handed a bill for the tow truck, draining her bank account.

    While we've grown accustomed to seeing poverty portrayed in the abstract (Shameless, on which creator Molly Smith Metzler served as a writer, comes to mind), Maid puts Alex’s dire situation into explicit terms. Whenever she earns or spends money, the balance in her bank account appears on screen, serving as a constant reminder of the stakes for both Alex and a Netflix audience that likely has the luxury of ignoring such concerns.

    To make matters worse, Sean files an emergency petition to gain custody of Maddy, citing Alex's car accident as evidence that she's an unfit mother. The resulting preliminary hearing leads to one of Maid’s most memorable early scenes, in which Alex is so overwhelmed by legalese that she’s unable to effectively advocate for herself. The moment underscores how obscure the legal system can be for those without knowledge (or those unable to pay for someone with knowledge) and how that ignorance is used to further disenfranchise working-class and poor Americans.

    Margaret Qualley stars opposite her mother, Andie MacDowell, in the limited series.

    Qualley is at her best in these out-of-body moments. Maid is peppered with scenes that offer a glimpse into a world Alex doesn’t inhabit — a world in which she gorges herself on cake and chicken in a client’s fridge or tells someone off who desperately needs to be put in their place. Qualley dazzles as her character crafts an on-the-spot narrative about a wealthy woman with a “cashmere sweater that makes her feel like she’s being hugged by 1000 baby lambs” and not a care in the world. “People with money have everything,” she says, matter-of-factly.

    Viewers wondering where Qualley’s acting chops came from won’t have to look far: her real-life mother, Andie MacDowell, plays Alex’s mother in the limited series. A self-centered, flaky artist, Paula refuses to see that her daughter has been abused; rather, she actively encourages Alex to get back together with Sean, who she insists is “a good man” who's “trying to evolve.” It would be easy to paint Paula as the villain of this story — she can’t even bother filling out a form to help Alex regain custody of her daughter, after all — but under MacDowell’s care, she too is a complex, three-dimensional character who defies the stereotypes of the “bad mother” or the selfish artist. Yes, Paula is both of those things, but she’s terrible in her own unique way, and Maid benefits from portraying the many sides of Paula and her complicated relationship with her daughter.

    Through a combination of Qualley’s exceptional performance, the show's refusal to establish a single villain, and its deft shifts between gritty realism and dreamlike fantasy, Maid systematically shuts down the “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” narrative. Alex is doing everything possible to escape poverty, and it’s still barely enough. The problem, Maid makes clear, isn’t laziness or apathy; it’s a system designed to keep poor people down. It's not an easy watch, but that's the point.

    All ten episodes of Maid are available to stream Friday, October 1 on Netflix.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Maid, Netflix, Andie MacDowell, Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson