Some television series takes you on a journey through time and space. Some will show you a fantasy, a brief but enjoyable diversion. Shows like this provide a reprieve from regular life while also providing solace through their narrative.
That is not the case with Maid.
Margaret Qualley plays Alex, a young woman who leaves her husband when he threatens her safety while intoxicated, in the Netflix limited series written by Molly Smith Metzler and based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. Without a job or a place to live, Alex swiftly becomes entangled in the social service bureaucracy, meeting one setback after another as she struggles to keep herself and her daughter safe.
From beginning to end, Qualley is exceptional. She conveys Alex’s hope, despondency, and determination, all of which have been numbed by the abuse’s aftershocks. She has the perfect tone in the show’s lighter moments and tiny wins, but she breaks down in the same way when life throws her another obstacle. She delivers a performance that will linger with you between episodes and after an emotionally charged conclusion.
When you watch Maid, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of tension. Because child care, employment, and rent are unavoidable realities, the conflicts impact harder than on other shows. Alex is navigating a maze of red tape while living check-to-check, with doors slamming in her face for accommodation and job, and the anxiety rests in your sternum, eating at your sternum.
Metzler and her directors also get outstanding performances from the rest of the ensemble, particularly Nick Robinson’s portrayal of Alex’s husband Sean. An abusive husband is a simple TV villain, full of fury and violence and lacking in complexity. However, Maid emphasizes right away that emotional abuse is also abuse. Sean is usually thoughtful and polite; he genuinely loves his wife and children and despises the person he becomes when he is inebriated. Robinson’s tremendous range shows that he can be angry, compassionate, and everything in between while still feeling like a real person.
Andie McDowell, who plays Alex’s bipolar artist mother, and Billy Burke, who plays her estranged father, a born-again Christian with his own dark past, are treated with the same care. Qualley’s real-life mother, McDowell, stands out in particular. Paula (McDowell) refuses to name herself mistreated because of generational differences, but a run of disastrous relationships and unmanaged mental health make her a barrier to Alex during critical times. Despite this, Alex can’t help but love her, and it says a lot to McDowell’s performance that we can feel her warmth after a storm.
Maid is a masterful finished product, with a delicate script and thoughtful direction. It’s just damn good television that’s been put together with care. It sheds a harsh light on this country’s failure to help victims of poverty and abuse, dragging them into a system that depletes the spirit and forces so many women to return to their abusers inevitably. Witnessing Alex’s struggle is not easy or enjoyable, but after ten episodes, the series leaves you feeling raw, moved, and full.
The film Maid is now available to watch on Netflix.