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Netflix's Maid is the rare depiction of poverty that is refreshingly honest

  • "Being poor is incredibly stressful. A lot of films and TV shows have told and shown us that," says Jen Chaney. "But Maid, a new Netflix limited series inspired by the memoir by Stephanie Land, makes that pressure palpable during practically every minute spent watching it. In the first episode, Alex (Margaret Qualley), a young mother in Washington State without a job or a college degree, makes the difficult decision to leave her boyfriend, Sean (Nick Robinson of A Teacher and Love, Simon), an emotionally abusive alcoholic. She tucks their 3-year-old daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), into her car seat, then drives away from the trailer she shared with Sean and toward a life that involves scrubbing scummy toilets, having next to no money in her bank account, scrambling to find child care, staying in domestic-violence shelters or subsidized apartments crawling with black mold, battling over custody of Maddy, and filling out form after form (after form, after form) to get the federal assistance she desperately needs and that often helps by only the smallest of degrees. It’s an exhausting and demoralizing experience, and Maid, steered by showrunner Molly Smith Metzler, does an exceptional job of capturing every detail, as well as the intensity of knowing every tiny setback can legitimately become a major emergency. Around every corner, for Alex, there is always another setback and always another emergency."


    • Mother-daughter stars Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley make a great show even better: "It’s the mother-daughter bond — and strain — that shines brightest," says Inkoo Kang. "Qualley and MacDowell are each other’s best scene partners, with the younger actor anchoring the production with emotional realism and the screen veteran arguably doing the most impressive work of her career, flitting through thoughts and moods as quickly as the pages of a book. If Alex occasionally comes across as a blank screen, Paula is a cheap firecracker: You never know when she’ll go off or how much destruction she’ll cause. Her bounteous cascade of salt-and-pepper curls — along with her grand proclamations about goddess energy and female power — projects a confidence that the flaky, bad-news-averse Paula doesn’t actually possess. Alex would be the first to admit that her mother has always been an easy mark, especially for such con men as her current boyfriend, Basil (Toby Levins), who sports an Australian accent that, like him, is defined by a tendency to abruptly disappear."
    • Maid is full of "wow" moments: "There are many moments found within Netflix’s limited series Maid where I just said, 'Wow,'" says Kristen Lopez. "It wasn’t strictly the moving performances from an all-around talented cast, nor was it the empathetic and complex relationships that develop and change over 10 episodes. It was the overall package, one that blossomed into a show that left me laughing as often as I was crying." Lopez adds: "Each episode taps into so many key emotions, it’s remarkable the young actress is able to handle everything on her shoulders. Not only is Alex dealing with her chronic homelessness and custody problems, she’s also dealing with her bipolar mother Paula (played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell) and a contentious relationship with her absent father, Hank (Billy Burke). Alex wants so desperately to fix and save everything in her life and it’s hardest felt here, as she deals with repressed memories of her own mother’s life. It’s no surprise that MacDowell and Qualley are fantastic together, having a natural ease and conveying a sense of dark history between them."
    • Margaret Qualley is grounded and brilliant, finding grace notes of beauty that center everything around her in this series: "Maid improves as Qualley and the rest of the supporting cast are allowed to reveal the layers of this character drama," says Brian Tallerico. "At first, it can seem like the show that it mostly avoids becoming, sometimes leaning into some dialogue and narrative cliches about poverty in those first couple episodes. The fact that Metzler, Qualley, and company subvert the tropes that they get close to during those first few episodes are what makes it such a strong show overall. It really won me over around episode five as Alex ends up cleaning the home of a notorious burglar and ends up drawing parallels from his past to hers, along with what it says about the struggles of her present. I also loved how much the show often employs an episodic structure, telling one continuous story but also providing hours that standalone in their own way like chapter five. (More shows need to ditch the 'divided movie' form and embrace episodic television—it works.)"
    • It's hard to ignore Margaret Qualley's real-life privilege in her Maid portrayal: "It’s hard to put your finger on what the series is lacking throughout the first few episodes, mostly because it’s hard to see anything beyond the devastating image of a destitute, scared mother and her child," says Candice Frederick. "But Qualley, a more than capable actress, seems a tad ill-fitting for this role. As MacDowell’s real-life daughter, it’s unlikely she has ever experienced anything near the level of desperation Alex does throughout Maid. Though actresses with privilege have the capacity to take on a character like this, Qualley’s Alex comes off as someone for whom domestic work and glum circumstances are merely a phase, while the women she encounters are presumably doomed to their positions. It’s an uncomfortable thought, made even more troublesome by the tidy ending of Maid.”
    • Maid is the opposite of American Rust: "Unlike Showtime’s recent, misery-drenched American Rust and so many other generic dramas about rural poverty, the show is grounded in a genuine sense of place—the forests, ferries and islands of the Pacific Northwest—and intimate knowledge, via Land’s book, of how the labyrinthine, interconnected legal and social-services systems can so profoundly fail the struggling people they’re supposed to aid," says Judy Berman. "We observe the way Alex exasperates employers, daycare workers and grocery clerks by simply existing in her current, impossible state. Maddy 'needs you to do better,' a doctor lectures her. 'Parents do not get a day off,' sniffs the condescending instructor of a parenting class that Alex must take for legal reasons but could actually teach. Despite a few hit-or-miss surreal touches, the series belongs in the same category as feminist-minded, social-realist features like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy. Like them, Maid’s greatest strength is its multidimensional characters. Alex is neither a saint nor a cypher; she’s an intelligent, self-possessed aspiring writer who is fiercely devoted to her child, but she also messes up, backslides, spirals. Qualley gives her a bright-eyed tenacity and a wry sense of humor (she names Maddy’s off-brand, dollar-store mermaid doll Schmariel). Protagonists battling psychological trauma have devolved into a trope, yet Metzler and the show’s directors avoid vagueness by translating Alex’s symptoms into discrete visual terms, from the muffled perception of someone who’s dissociating to the dark cave of depression."
    • Maid is riveting while avoiding being misery porn: "Though Maid is named after the memoir it’s based on — Stephanie Land’s Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive — in truth, the title hardly seems adequate," says Angie Han. "The Netflix miniseries turns out to be about much more than just its protagonist’s job, encompassing issues of parenthood, domestic violence and the precariousness of life below the poverty line. As that description would indicate, it’s hardly cheerful viewing. But it’s also surprisingly watchable viewing, saved from misery-porn glumness by a stubborn sense of hope and a light touch of humor." Han adds: "What Maid does very well is outline how these misfortunes tend to compound each other when there isn’t enough money to serve as a buffer. Alex is never not aware of exactly how many pennies she has in her pocket, and Maid brings us into her mind-set with a pop-up tally of her expenses and income. A dollar spent on gas means a dollar less for food, and 'minor' setbacks like a single lost shift have the potential to send her entire life spiraling out of control. Money can’t solve everything, as Alex comes to realize from her glimpses into her clients’ private lives, but it does tends to change the shape and size of your problems: A rich dude’s unhappiness isn’t any less valid because he owns a Peloton, but his is a different kind of burden than the one Alex deals with every day as she struggles to put food on the table for Maddy."
    • Maid tends toward the cliché: "It’s no surprise that Land’s modest, straightforward book, with its nuts-and-bolts account of the housecleaning work she took on to support herself and her daughter, has been radically transformed — only the broadest outlines of her story, along with the usual smattering of arresting or convenient details, have been retained," says Mike Hale. "...It’s too bad, though, that the expansions on Land’s tale tend toward clichéd story lines involving mental illness, alcoholism and recovery — worthwhile and sometimes well-made but utterly familiar. The material dealing directly with domestic violence is also more well meaning than dramatic. It may move you, but it won’t surprise you. Slightly lost, or diminished, in the reimagining is the central place of housecleaning itself, and the critique of the class and economic structures that can put a working single mother in a nearly inescapable box. It’s not that the physical toll and meager payoff of Alex’s work, or her observations about the lives and houses of her clients, don’t get screen time. But they’re not as central as they could be — they tend to be there to embellish or illustrate other, more melodramatic story lines. You don’t get the feeling that Metzler or her fellow executive producer John Wells (The West Wing, among others) were that engaged by the maid angle, or spent much time thinking about how to incorporate it organically into a standard television drama plot."
    • Maid works thanks to the script and Margaret Qualley's acting: "Maid is not exactly naturalistic — the show is not shy about using sometimes overheated visual metaphor to convey a plight that we already understand is quite challenging, and some of the performances and dialogue are quite florid," says Daniel D'Addario. "But the series does generally have an admirable soberness and seriousness of purpose when it comes to gaming out how, exactly, Alex’s story might unfold, from a pitched custody battle to entering a domestic-violence shelter. A running tally in the upper-right corner of the screen emerges at moments of highest stress about money, as when Alex spends on her uniform for maid work: That tally and the stifled frustration on Qualley’s face conjures a sense of quite how much Alex is starting from behind. Qualley, a compelling and sharp performer, could lead viewers anywhere. Audiences who know her best as the ephemeral hippie from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be surprised at just how well she can conjure up senses of anxiety; of ambivalence about Sean, who periodically seems to Alex on the verge of really changing his ways; and of deep resourcefulness. When she has even a little bandwidth, Alex, an aspiring author, tries to write herself out of her situation, and Qualley does a good job showing us Alex’s power of observation, and the spinning gears within the writer’s mind."
    • Maid is an undeniably poignant story, built on Qualley’s captivating presence: "She is incredibly convincing as a young mother determined to give her child the life she never had," says Saloni Gajjar. "It’s impossible not to be drawn to her performance; she’s essentially in every frame, and shows off an ingenuous star quality. Even in the moments when Maid is predictable or dawdles, Qualley’s earnestness keeps the momentum going. Directors like Nzingha Stewart, John Wells, and Lila Neugebauer spend time building out Alex’s world, beautifully capturing the scenic setting and making it all feel lived in. Maid takes a seemingly familiar but important story, making it one of the most quietly compelling dramas of the year so far."
    • How Margaret Qualley got mom Andie MacDowell to play her mother on Maid: "It was my idea, actually," she said. "I pitched the idea to Margot Robbie, because she's one of the producers on this, and she loved it." The only outcome Qualley didn't take into consideration? That her mom might say no. "That was the one thing I hadn't checked," says Qualley. "But I was lucky enough that she wanted to do it, and then she was stuck with me for almost nine months. So, thank you, mom!"
    • Maid showrunner Molly Smith Metzler began to see the world differently after reading Stephanie Land’s memoir: However, for every small detail Smith Metzler kept in her version of the story, she greatly fictionalized something else in the 10 episodes — or, as she calls it, “10 plays” — of the season. Metzler's changes included renaming characters.

    TOPICS: Maid, Netflix, Andie MacDowell, Margaret Qualley, Molly Smith Metzler