There is a moment in Maid — a devastating long-form exploration of abuse — which succinctly captures the essence of the show. Alex (Margaret Qualley in a breakthrough turn) is sitting in a park watching her three-year-old daughter play. This is the first instance in a long time when she is not cleaning strangers’ washrooms or is gripped with a fear of being homeless. Next to her is Nate, an old acquaintance who has been persuasively helpful. He is there with his son. There is a romantic undertone to this setting: two people, both out of broken relationships, meeting at sunset. “Look at us… we’re finally on a play-date with our toddlers,” Nate says. Undercutting the appeal Alex replies, “It was getting kind of weird how many times you asked”. The smile on her face lends ambiguity, but the miniseries reveals itself most vividly here, making a point in spite of the premise — the prevalence of abuse when even it is hiding in plain sight.
Maid opens with a decisiveness reserved for an ending. In the dead of the night a woman frantically leaves home with her sleeping daughter in arms. Her apologetic partner scrambles to stop but she refuses to budge. The sequence of her driving away withholds so much context on virtue of being familiar that it requires no backstory. This is her breaking away, taking the plunge to finally leave someone she has been trying to. But the 10-part series, adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive is telling a larger story, one that seeks to spotlight the persistence of abuse, the transgenerational trauma it causes and the labour that undergoes in severing the pattern.
Alex, 25, had to grow up early. Her mother Paula (essayed by Andie MacDowell) is a foul-mouthed, flaky artiste who has been in a string of unhappy relationships. This constant precarity shaped Alex’s own relationship with her partner, defining her dependence on him and her eventual decision to have with child in spite of it all. Although never spelt out, it is also this that propels her to leave. Having known the consequences of being in such a household, she didn’t want the same for her daughter. Having only herself to fall back upon, Alex takes the job as a maid. But this choice of profession serves another purpose as it strangely opens up avenues for self reckoning.
Created by Molly Smith Metzler, Maid not just tells the story of an abusive relationship but seeks to narrativise abuse and the circles of pattern it thrives in. That is the cornerstone of the tale. The profession in such a case, despite considered lowly, serves another motive — it opens up a space to investigate the viability of the system put in place for survivors. By putting the profession as the centre, the series is essentially enquiring after what lies for them who walk out hoping there are policies to fall back upon. And the results are bleak.
Homelessness looms large in the series, both as a consequence for survivors moving out and as a dread for those who want to. In this way Maid serves as a scathing critique of the bleak system we inhabit which lulls us into being an ally. As the series progresses, Alex moves from one shelter house to the other, lugging her child with her. At one point, the latter contracts a bad cough because the room is filled with black mould and in another instance Alex faces endless rejections when she tries utilising the policies and get a rebate on rent. But the quiet tragedy of the situation is reserved for Paula, a woman rendered broken by men and the system alike. Towards the end of the series, she lives in a car having lost her home forever. In this unrelenting urgency of survival, Maid resembles Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland. Both protagonists are victims of the stilted way the state apparatus operates. In a poetic extension, Alex starts living in her mother’s RV having no other place to put up in.
Yet, Maid is telling a hopeful story, one that uncovers the insidious way abuse functions and what lies ahead if one can severe the pattern. In this way it also becomes a coming of age story of both Alex and Paula, even though one gets away and one fails to. Maid then is also about motherhood, placing it a nourishing force against the depleting assault of abuse. It is the relationship that helps Alex to move on and Paula to know she had faltered.
Maid is streaming on Netflix.