The system conspires against our heroine in the brilliant Netflix series ‘Maid’
On the face of it, Netflix’s new limited series Maid is pretty simple. It’s about a single mom trying to get paid, to keep a roof over her head and her daughter’s while keeping them both out of the clutches of her emotionally abusive drunk of a baby-daddy, navigating the labyrinth that is welfare while contending with a bottom-line, no-compassion boss as well as rich clients who see her as little more than an extension of the furniture. And that’s to say nothing of her undiagnosed-bipolar, eccentric artiste of a mother, who’s handed her own well-being over to a younger man who’s probably not really Australian. So, sure. Simple.
As played by Margaret Qualley, Alex, our titular maid, finds herself in circumstances perhaps all too common. Cohabitating with the father of her child, she is kept isolated, under his control. Uncommon, perhaps, is the resolve she shows when she revolts against that control and flees. Every possible avenue of escape, that might lead to their independence, she explores. First stop, the welfare office, with endless forms that (in a fit of magical realism) blur into headers along the lines of You are an unfit mother.
Later, the domestic-violence shelter, which allows no visitors and does random pee-tests of its inhabitants to be sure they’re on the straight-and-narrow. In between, the housecleaning outfit operating out of the back of a laundromat, that won’t give her more than thirty hours a week, no benefits, to clean fancy houses on exclusive islands with supplies she bought herself. Even the college applications she’s been working on present demand after endless, random demand.
In the mix, of course, are the personal relationships she’s had and that she makes as the show goes on. Her ex, Sean (Nick Robinson), thinks he means well but doesn’t quite know how. Maybe he quits his bartending job and takes up carpentry in an effort to get sober. But once Alex and their daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), come back to him, thanks to a sentimental pity-fuck, he ends up just as drunk and resentful and abusive as ever he was.
Her mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell—Qualley’s mother IRL), is like another child in her care, skipping doctor’s appointments, sleeping in her car, and on the whole unclear whether she means anything at all beyond buck the system. Then there’s Nate (Raymond Ablack), an old acquaintance from a bar she and Sean once worked at. He finds her sleeping on the floor of the ferry station one morning. Before too long, she and Maddy and Paula are crashing at his house, and Alex is driving his spare car to work. He may insist that he doesn’t want anything from her, but when she comes home from her night with Sean and tells him what she’s done, he kicks them out. So much, then, for disinterested charity.
As for those Alex meets along the way, perhaps most significant is Denise (BJ Harrison), who runs the homeless shelter where she and Maddy find refuge. Though a stickler for the rules, Denise gives good personal advice, most of which involves not falling for one’s abuser’s bullshit all over again. She encourages Alex’s aspirations as a writer by bringing her in to a domestic-violence support-group she leads, and gives Alex the opportunity, for once in her life, to be the authority on something, to forget for a little while the custody battle she and Sean are fighting.
“Describe a day in your life that you were really happy,” Alex instructs the pink-mohawked person with the quivering lip, the white-haired woman who could be a librarian, the red-uniformed medical worker, and the rest. She gives them ten minutes on the timer, and they all get writing.
The custody battle, and getting away, are what matter most to Alex. Try as she might, though, to stick to her plan, it’s easy for someone else’s good intentions to seduce her. Suffice it to say that Sean’s bullshit derails her for a little while. She casts aside even her independent work with the wealthy Regina (Anika Noni Rose) to bask in the illusion of a whole and happy family. And when Sean’s good intentions come up against the limits of his resolve and personal discipline, what else is there to do but run back to the strictures of Denise’s shelter, where you don’t have to worry about being able to make choices that will ruin your life?
Of course none of it is simple, just as no one’s life is simple. What Maid digs into, though, is not just the complexity of life, but how established systems and expectations regarding relationships can devolve into structures of control. It’s not just the welfare system or the homeless shelter, or even your endless, fruitless attempts to help out your self-destructive mom, because that’s just what you do. Early in the show, there’s a flashback to Alex’s telling Sean she’s pregnant, and he’s all sweetness and light and cooing over her until she tells him she’s not going to have an abortion.
Suddenly he’s all rage, throwing things, cursing her out. So society has made even this, what’s supposed to be a woman’s last resort to maintain her independence, into a tool against her. When, at the show’s end, Alex and Maddy stand together on a mountaintop, surveying the town below, you have to wonder just how much of the world you have to shed to truly be yourself.