It should be mentioned up top that a series about a young and poor white mother who turns to housekeeping to provide a life for her and her small child is an awkward choice when there are myriad young female domestic workers of color, some without legal citizenship documents, whose urgent stories often go untold. But as far as Netflix’s new series, “Maid,” goes, that’s apparently neither here nor there.
To be fair, the Stephanie Land memoir upon which “Maid” is based, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” is evidently so compelling that it became a New York Times bestseller. The series, by showrunner Molly Smith Meltzer? Not exactly. That’s not to say that the story doesn’t hold your attention in the same way as a weepy Lifetime drama of the kind audiences gorged on in the ’90s. In fact, it’s hard not to watch once you get started, because you instantly want Alex (Margaret Qualley) to succeed at something.
“Maid,” obviously, is not an upper. Alex has an emotionally abusive boyfriend (Nick Robinson), an estranged dad (Billy Burke), a mentally ill mother (Andie MacDowell) and a bank account so depleted that an unavoidable trip to the gas station can cause panic. She and her daughter also sleeps at the ferry station because they have nowhere else to go. Those who are supposed to love and protect her fail at both, and Alex finds herself at a shelter for domestic abuse victims, first out of desperation for housing until she realizes that she does actually belong there.
But as “Maid” shows with a continuous tally of her deteriorating funds every time she has to pay for something, everything costs money — day care, an ice cream cone on a field trip, even her job cleaning houses because she has to buy supplies. On top of being a mother and dodging her daughter’s alcoholic father, she is regularly stressed out about her mother’s flakiness and terrible choice in men (one of whom steals mom’s mortgage). With a boss (Traci Vilar) constantly riding her about her tardiness and need to leave early to care for her child, Alex finds that actually cleaning houses is the only part of her life where she is at peace.
Perhaps that’s why Meltzer and her writing team spend so much time building Alex’s relationships with the women at both the shelter as well as the ones she meets on the job. Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a client overwhelmed by new motherhood, has a particularly tender bond with Alex, from whom she seeks advice and in turn supports her dreams of becoming a writer and freeing herself from her abusive boyfriend. These women in Alex’s orbit provide necessary color and humanity to a story that can be curiously empty.
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. 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.”
On the other hand, MacDowell delivers one of her most fascinating performances in recent years as a mother and artist in denial of her own trauma, a self-proclaimed bohemian living out of a trailer who can’t seem to grasp why her capriciousness would rattle her exhausted daughter. It’s a sad, vibrant yet utterly vivacious portrayal.
It could be true that “Maid” just tries to do too much in its depiction of how the legal and government systems fail people, especially young mothers, struggling below the poverty line. The show goes out of its way to make a strong case for why emotional abuse is still abuse, and to show the pitfalls of welfare and generational trauma. But the drama really shines when it relaxes and shows the delicate relationship between a mother and daughter and mutual understanding among women who feel alone.
That sense of humanity, however pained at times, is what breathes life into “Maid.”
“Maid” premieres on Netflix on October 1.