By Noah Gittell
It’s tempting to say that social realism has gone out of fashion in American entertainment, but the truth is it was never particularly popular. During the Great Depression, Hollywood did its part by making escapist entertainment about rich, beautiful people enjoying life’s finer things. There are exceptions — from 1940’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to 2017’s “The Florida Project” — but for the most part, the lives of the working poor have continued to exist just outside the edges of the frame.
Which makes “Maid”, a Netflix limited series about a single mother working as a housecleaner while she navigates the byzantine bureaucracy of the American welfare system, a minor miracle. It opens on Alex (Margaret Qualley), who has already made up her mind to leave her abusive boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) with their toddler daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). Without a job or any money to speak of, she reaches out to friends for help, her free spirit of a mother, Paula (Qualley’s real-life mom Andie McDowell), and then, eventually, to the maddeningly ineffectual state.
Over the course of the series’ riveting ten episodes, Alex lives in a domestic violence shelter, temporary housing, her mother’s RV, a friend’s house, and a studio apartment she can only afford by bartering with the landlord. She gets a job as a maid, where she is subjected to foul assignments and dismissive homeowners. For the most part, Alex endures it all without betraying her desperation. She doesn’t have any use for it. As she puts it to an inquisitive client, “I live for my daughter.” But “Maid” doesn’t just celebrate the maternal bond; it excavates it. It shows how Alex honors it with every choice, and, as a counterpoint, how her mother Paula more often neglects it, consistently choosing to serve herself over her daughter to the detriment of all involved.
Based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir, it’s a show about the hardships of being poor in America but it avoids the so-called “poverty porn”, which exploits the lives of the working poor for the entertainment of the privileged. “Maid” is too well-observed to feel exploitative. It’s not just about being poor, but it’s quite specifically about being poor and female. And being poor and female with a child. If Alex were only broke, her extrication from an abusive relationship would be much easier. Instead, “Maid” starts with the baseline mistreatment endured by far too many abused women, and then piles on further indignities and hardship.
If “Maid” is a difficult watch, it’s only because most of us spend a good deal of effort avoiding the realities it depicts. Much like the social realist films of Ken Loach (“Sorry We Missed You”) or the 1948 Italian classic “Bicycle Thief”, “Maid” demonstrates the razor’s edge on which the lives of the working poor rest. Getting temporary housing at a halfway house is a godsend for Alex, but when black mold is discovered in her apartment, she’s back out on the street. An old friend eventually takes her in, but she knows that his unrequited crush on her could lead to disastrous results. Unspoken in this portrayal is a comment on why women in abusive relationships stay with their partners; the alternative is almost unthinkably difficult. The men of “Maid,” who are almost uniformly awful, do their best to show how the unthinkable can become the better option.
With such heavy emotional material, “Maid” could have been the equivalent of cultural vegetables: you don’t like them, but you know they’re good for you. The performances bring “Maid” to life, turning what could be a slog through America’s underbelly into a universal story of human struggle. MacDowell stuns as the manic Paula, an aging flower child who has adopted a pathological positivity to survive an unjust world. It’s the best role MacDowell has ever gotten, and she makes the most of it, infuriating you one minute and engendering a wellspring of sympathy the next.
It’s Qualley, however, who holds the tone and spirit of “Maid” in her clutches. She plays Alex as a woman in a perpetual state of conflict, engaged in a series of life-and-death moments that she can only survive by acting as if everything is perfectly normal. She looks like a 12-year-old girl trying to survive in the adult world: her smile toothy, her eyes wide, her voice shaking with tension, but you only notice these cracks if you care to get close enough to look. Hardly anyone looks at a maid or a single mother on welfare. We’re lucky that “Maid” does.
All ten episodes of “Maid” are currently streaming on Netflix.