Maid continues the tradition of a made-for-television series that explores a story with depth and detail that a feature film cannot. Rather than being action packed from start to finish, each episode in Maid has a story arc that keeps you on the edge of your seat while simultaneously building the greater narrative. Unlike shows that go on forever or movies squeezed into two hours, these limited mini-series are like extended movies. There is no filler action, every scene is carefully crafted to continue the storyline and the characters are developed to a depth not possible in other styles of storytelling.
Maid is inspired by the book Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive—a memoir written by single mother Stephanie Land. While not a factual retelling of the book, Stephanie Land’s memoir of life as a single mum struggling to make ends meet while living below the poverty line serves as inspiration for much of the show’s plot.
Alex (masterfully played by Margaret Qualley) is the protagonist of the Netflix series, an intelligent, empathetic mother of three-year old Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). She was accepted into college but didn’t go, putting her life and dreams on hold for her daughter and her relationship with Sean (Nick Robinson), a bar tender. Sean has a chronic drinking problem and, in a confronting opening scene, we see Alex taking Maddy and fleeing into the night. This is only the start of Alex’s problems as Maid takes an in-depth look at some of the relationships and circumstances that have led Alex to this point and some of the challenges she must overcome to find safety and security—but more than that, finding fulfillment for herself and her daughter. She must become the titular “maid” to survive, cleaning other’s houses, including people too rich for her to even imagine. I’ll avoid going into any more details to avoid spoilers, but be warned that there is a high chance you may get emotionally invested in the characters, finding yourself frustrated, cheering, angry or overcome with emotion.
Alex barely makes enough money to navigate all the bureaucracy let alone afford her rent. Yet the series has a “show don’t tell” attitude. It is not preachy. It navigates difficult scenarios with tact and grace. Qualley has expressive eyes and communicates so much through her facial expressions.
The cast is perfectly chosen, perhaps in part due to the fact that Quallley’s real mother Andie MacDowell (you may know her as the face of L’Oreal for 30 years, or as the romantic lead in the comedy classic Groundhog Day) plays her onscreen mother Paula. It also helps that the cast relate to the script. Paula’s unstable relationship with Alex is on point, something MacDowell attributes to personal experience. “I grew up with so much mental instability, it’s something I understand on a really deep, deep level.” MacDowell shares in an interview. She also adds that her character Paula as loveable but also mean.
The audience does develop complex relationships with all the characters, one of the show’s strong points. As a viewer you feel uncomfortable as the script, scenes, scenarios and the performances combine to emulate the feeling of anxiety, instability, heartache and helplessness the characters’ experience. Domestic violence (DV); homelessness; navigating court systems; neglect; how easy it is to relapse into toxic relationships; generational trauma passed down through the family—Maid tackles these complex problems with courage and compassion.
I should warn you though, Maid is heavy. It may be triggering for some people who have dealt with any of the situations depicted or even issues that are related, such as mental health. Some episode are oppressive, mimicking the desperate situations Alex finds herself in as her options close around her and her world shrinks down to focus on her daughter Maddy.
The show is visually stunning, set on Fisher Island and around the Washington State coast (US), with colour palettes that match the mood and set the tone. But despite the feast for the eyes, this is not just Sunday afternoon popcorn escapism. This is an important cultural piece that shares a message: how hard it can be for a mother to leave a violent family situation, how easy it is to fall into homelessness and how mental health can contribute to homelessness.
Maid is a trauma narrative. To be a trauma narrative, a story must contain these three elements. A traumatic event, the psychological and physical fall-out from that event and attempts to recover as the character tries to regain place and identity. Not everything has a happy ending either. While the audience will be satisfied with the outcome for Alex and Maddy, many of the other characters and their relationships with Alex either go backwards or stay the same (which in some ways is almost worse as they are unable to grow or change).
Not all domestic or family violence is black eyes or broken limbs. This miniseries tackles many of the misconceptions that people have about family violence. Even Alex, who is the victim, has to be educated about the services she can access and that what is happening to her is classified as abuse. In an interview, Christian relationship counsellor and Avondale University lecturer Paul Bogacs explained it this way: “We had all of these women coming forward [saying] ‘I wish he would hit me because then somebody could see the bruises and then they could believe how awful and how terrible it is to live with him,’. So we had to rethink—Domestic violence or domestic abuse doesn’t necessarily mean being hit or being a victim of physical violence. We now talk about different forms of DV; we talk about financial abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, spiritual abuse—all as different forms of DV, with the key underlying issue being control.”
That element of control is really at the centre of all violence and this theme is masterfully explored in Maid as different forms of control and abuse are explored.
“To feel some power, to feel that you have some kind of control over something—even if it’s what my wife [or intimate partner] does or doesn’t do. That is domestic violence,” continues Bogacs. “Now, we see it [domestic violence] on a spectrum, because power and control are issues in all relationships. What I look at as a couple’s therapist is how much fear is there?”
The series answers the question “Why don’t they just leave?” about abused parents and some of the complex reasons why they are unable to free themselves from abusive relationships. It also invests effort into dismantling the stigma around those who leave and then return to abusive relationships. Denise (BJ Harrison), a saintly African-American woman who runs the DV shelter where Alex finds herself has to explain to Alex that many of the victims have to leave a number of times before finding freedom. We see some of Alex’s own suppositions and prejudices unmasked as she learns more about the other women who have experiences the same trauma.
An important point the series makes is that it is necessary to leave an abusive situation, no matter how hard or inconvenient that may be.
Another theme explored by the series is mental illness. A number of characters have obvious mental health problems. Maid explores the link between mental illness, institutions, homelessness and how it contributes to poor decision-making or lack of family support in family violence situations.
One technique the series uses to depict mental health is in the episode “Sky Blue”—when Alex sinks into a depressive state, depicted by her character sinking into the lounge and disappearing, and also finding herself at the bottom of a deep dirt pit. When she starts to take agency for herself, she’s shown as physically starting to climb out of this pit. Alex isn’t the only character who deals with mental health challenges.
If MacDowell doesn’t win some category of television award for her portrayal of Paula, I’ll be shocked. Her bipolar, high energy, eclectic and artistic character is dynamic, engaging, and self-destructive, like watching a high-speed train derail. But Paula’s character also teaches viewers a very important lesson that is echoed to a greater or lesser extent by most of the characters of Maid: that no one is purely evil or good but that their actions are often a mixture of the two. People are complex.
This understanding is compatible with the Christian worldview. The Bible teaches that all “have sinned and fallen short” (Romans 3:23) but that all humans are made in the very image of God (Genesis 1:27). This tension means we must see people as infinitely valuable and not ever try to exert control or wield power over them—while understanding that in this broken world, people do bad things and good things, but don’t have to be defined by them. There is power to choose and power to change. But Maid shows that change has to happen by the choice of an individual. We cannot change others and we cannot change for others, we can only change for ourselves. This is demonstrated powerfully in Sean’s story arc, as he is trapped by the demons of his upbringing and falls away from his best intentions to change for others.
As a Christian magazine editor, it would be remiss of me not to examine the way faith is explored in Maid, despite it playing a minor role in the series. Alex’s dad Hank (Billy Burke) and his new family turn to faith and display some piety in their lived experience, attending youth meetings and praying for meals. Some characters are also attempting to change through an Alcoholics Anonymous program (a thread in another of Netflix limited series which also engages with religion, Midnight Mass), which emphasises a “higher power”, something Hank and Sean try to use to stay on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately, Hank lets Alex down at her hour of need, and the supposed secrecy and fraternity of the church—though never explicitly—seems to be implicated here. It is a good lesson for those of us with a Christian faith. In reality, there are many Christian organisations that help the disadvantaged and lead the way in showing compassion to others. I can understand that the writers and producers of Maid may have wanted to keep faith out of the series so as not to complicate things further. That being said, I can’t help but feel there was possibly a missed opportunity to have a character compelled by a strong Christian faith. The church must do a better job of changing the world through compassion and encourage sharing difficult stories and life experiences.
While Maid may not be for everyone, it is certainly an important cultural artifact that explores the gritty reality of human experience and tackles some heavy and pervasive issues with grace, depth and insight. We can all be thankful if Netflix continues to make impactful television like Maid.
Jarrod Stackelroth is the Editor of Signs of the Times Australia and Adventist Record. He loves looking at all the latest and greatest in media and culture through a religious lens—that is, when he’s not busy editing the next issue of the magazine.
This article first appeared on Signs of the Times Australia.