There are so many obvious reasons to seek out the emotionally gripping Netflix limited miniseries "Maid," but it’s because of what this program is saying about America, right now, that lends it the overall edge that it possesses in nearly every moment of its being.
On a micro level, the show revolves around a poor, single mother looking to escape a lifetime of abuse, but on the macro level, the show speaks to so many people who have struggled, or are currently struggling, either financially, emotionally, or physically. The fact that much of the show’s content is derived from the personal experiences of its subject gives it further narrative importance, while the many snappy artistic decisions employed by the astute storytellers helps to create a lived-in atmosphere and sense of belonging for the main characters. At all times, "Maid" feels alive with possibilities, and because of the painful truths that are frequently explored in each episode, there’s a real-world poignancy that resonates with the viewer.
Anchored by a quietly forceful star-making performance by 26-year-old actress Margaret Qualley ("The Leftovers," Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), at first blush it might be easy, especially while living through these culturally (in)sensitive times, to dismiss this project as more “white woman’s tragedy porn,” but that would be doing it a unique disservice; despite focusing on a very specific person at a very specific juncture in her life, "Maid" couldn’t be any more universal in its quest to find happiness for its characters, while they navigate uncertainties in their lives that are both within and beyond their control.
Based on the memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, which was written by Stephanie Land, the 10 episodes which comprise this emotionally draining effort focus on Qualley’s Alex, a young mother who is simultaneously trying to leave her abusive boyfriend (who happens to be the father of her three-year-old daughter), and figure out a way to be self-sufficient in the Pacific Northwest, all of which presents various obstacles. Qualley is absolutely fantastic and dominates every moment she’s on-screen.
Once free from the terror of her alcoholic partner, Alex turns to cleaning houses to make ends meet, and after numerous set-backs, is able to find a place that she might be able to call home. But that would be too easy. We’re introduced to her sketchy father, played with secrets in his eyes by the underrated Billy Burke, and the emotional and sexual pull that she still shares with her daughter’s father, played relentlessly by Nick Robinson, provides the show with a maximum amount of drama. It’s hard to watch Alex continually go back to the one person she knows she shouldn’t head back to, but in real life, this often happens; according to the show, on average, a woman will leave her abuser seven times before they finally say enough is enough. And once Alex’s flighty mother, played with stony exuberance by Andie MacDowell, enters the scene, the entire program receives a high-voltage kick in the pants, an unpredictable spark that sets a particular tone for the duration.
What does "Maid" say about how hard it is to raise a child in America, especially when you are poor? It says that it’s a very scary situation, and because we know that roughly 30% of American single mothers can’t afford to put food on the table for their children, the difficulties presented in "Maid" are just the tip of the iceberg. In one of the more memorable aesthetic embellishments, the show keeps a running digital tally, presented in the corner of the screen, of how much available cash Alex has at her disposal, at any given moment. And because just leaving your house, on any random day, means that you’re inevitably going to spend some amount of money, the viewer watches—helplessly—as Alex’s bank account frequently flat-lines.
"Maid" constantly reminds you how nearly impossible it is to exist without the proper financial resources, and through its focus on money, and through its highlighting of the lack of government intervention into this epidemic, the show posits the notion that this is an unfixable problem. The various frustrations that you see Alex go through are all too real, and you just know that the conversations she has with her empathetic case worker are likely carbon copies of the discussions that are happening while I write this piece and you take the time to read it.
"Maid" arrives with a fair amount of production pedigree, too. So it would be almost impossible not to note just how many talented people were involved with this show’s creation. Land’s memoir was published in The New York Times and was quickly optioned by Netflix, who hired playwright turned television writer Molly Smith Metzler ("Shameless," "Orange is the New Black") to sculpt Land’s original creation into a miniseries. Veteran producer/director John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing") jumped aboard, helming four episodes, including the pilot and finale, with Margot Robbie also receiving an executive producer credit. This is the type of material that back in the 1990’s would have been a two hour studio feature, but these days, because of our shifting marketplace, and the demand placed on premium television content, the story took shape over 10 individual episodes.
The series also operates as a fabulous mother-daughter story, which is made all the more special as MacDowell is Qualley’s mother in real life, so in addition to the multilayered characters they’re essaying for the screen, you know there’s something deeply personal about the experience of creating art with your parent/offspring. It further heightens everything that makes "Maid" so enjoyable, if harrowing; as with life and very much in evidence in this show, you have to go through a lot of bad in order to end up with the good.
Qualley also had to become very close with her young co-star, Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, who gives one of the most naturalistic performances that a child performer has given in quite some time, as Alex’s too-young-to-fully-understand daughter. Whittet is constantly asked to provide an expressive, nearly wholly reactive performance, and the off-screen bond that likely developed between her and Qualley must’ve influenced their on-screen relationship. Cinema and television have long focused on fathers and sons, and in "Maid," the viewer is treated to not one, but two mother-daughter relationships, with one informing the other, and vice versa.
There’s an unlimited amount of options right now at your fingertips when it comes to what you’re going to binge-watch next. The streaming outlets have all but assured their consumers that there’ll be an endless, sometimes dizzying amount of content for people to get lost in, and when it comes to actually deciding what you’re going to occupy your time, taking the plunge on an admittedly stressful endeavor like "Maid" might seem like a tall order. But somehow, this show has really grabbed the zeitgeist, becoming not only one of Netflix’s most-watched programs, but also a critical darling, with Emmy-love likely knocking on its door next year. That’s refreshing, as this is, at its heart, a classical drama for adults, free from superheroes in spandex outfits and explosion-laden action-idiocy that’s laced with consequence-free wisecracking.
There’s a nobility of spirit that one can feel all throughout "Maid," and that quality extends from the top down, from all of the generous yet focused performances, to the writing, which is constantly filled with small grace notes which allow the viewer to digest some of the more painful aspects of the story. "Maid" is a triumph, and more importantly, it has the power to last in the memory banks long after the final episode has unfolded.
*Feature Photo: Margaret Qualley in "Maid" (Netflix)