The way we relapse into bad people, like bad habits. There is an addiction to hope. That people who do bad to us will reform. We believe. Even when we don’t, a part of us does. Maid, on Netflix, trending since it dropped in early October, is the patron saint of that debilitating, relentless hope — the one that throws us into the mouth of the monster, again and again, hoping to be shat out in one piece, into daylight and fresh breeze.
The show begins with Alex’s (Margaret Qualley) eyes opening to make sure her boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) has dozed off, slowly getting up, dressed up in athleisure as if ready to bolt out. She creeps into the next room, scooping up her child, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). On their way out, she steps on glass strewn across the floor, which cracks audibly, gets into the car, and just as she is about to leave, her boyfriend runs out, questioning her, screaming at her as the car sweeps by his mobile home parked in the middle of the forest. She is 25 years old. Maddy is almost three.
The first episode of Maid is so carefully designed, it almost feels over-wrought, a strategic introduction of characters — Alex’s mother, an undiagnosed bipolar artist, Alex’s father, a born again Christian with a past of domestic abuse performed in an alcoholic haze he cannot recollect, and a kind man Alex slipped up on while dating Sean — to accompany the increasingly staged drama. The kind where you know how a scene will end the moment it begins. But then, even as the show retains this familiar dramatic impulse, it goes straight for the jugular, and the remaining nine episodes, I was simpering for some relief.
Alex’s writing — which becomes the centerpiece of her resurrection — has a very odd impulse. To slot the rich clients whose houses she cleans into neat categories of lonely, broken, or “cunt”-like. There is severe class resentment.
Alex and Sean battle it out in court briefly. Sean is an alcoholic, and Alex got Maddy in a car accident while escaping. Alex, over the years, has become so dependent — emotionally, financially, socially — on Sean, she has no one to go to, no job to prop her up, no savings to dip into. She wants to be a writer. She ends up cleaning toilets, collecting pay stubs for food stamps, housing discounts, and child-care — she is on 7 different types of government assistance to put food on a table. She hallucinates that her social worker calls her “white trash”. Such moments, while on the nose, serve as ways for us to see how Alex sees herself, uncharitably. We also get to see how despite these self-image issues, she insists on dignity and possibilities. She must get a job. She must get custody of Maddy. She must move into an apartment of her own. She must not fall back into the brutal yet comforting arms of Sean.
Alex’s writing — which becomes the centerpiece of her resurrection — has a very odd impulse. To slot the rich clients whose houses she cleans into neat categories of lonely, broken, or “cunt”-like. There is severe class resentment, which the show doesn’t poke too much at, for it is a rich black woman’s familiar arc that salvages her eventually. They become friends, because one Thanksgiving night, the rich woman drank a lot and performed a word vomit of her woes, stilting the imbalance of their relationship.
Adapted from Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Molly Smith Metzler, the show props up the drama surrounding Alex with a wellspring of disaster and trauma. (The show is set in the fictional town of Port Hampstead, a version of Port Townsend in Washington) With pearl pink or ashy green stones dangling as earrings, and glassy, determined eyes, Alex stumbles but lands firmly on her feet, to stumble again. Some of her days look fiendishly long. You are not sure how she is skipping through all these tasks.
When she finds herself back in Shawn’s mobile house, the same situation she had boomeranged herself into, she weeps, “I’m so stupid”, but continues to stay with him till, like last time, the glass shatters. There is a terrifying stylization of this isolation, where Alex disappears into the dark cracks of the sofa, separating the backrest from the buttrest.
But even as she is dealing with her present predicament — which itself is a lot, including her mother throwing the most vicious barbs at her, padding it with an endearing “baby” — the show also allows for Alex’s past trauma, inherited from her mother who also ran out of an abusive home. But Alex never breaks, not entirely at least.
One of the kindest things about the show is that it doesn’t put emotional abuse on a hierarchy of violence. While Alex initially feels like a fraud for going to a domestic abuse shelter for emotional abuse, no one around her deepens this doubt. When she exclaims about Sean, “He didn’t abuse me. He punched a wall beside my head and I didn’t do anything about it,” her friend Danielle, a survivor of violence with marks on her neck, notes, “Before they bite, they bark. Before they hit you, they hit near you.” Should the law only care when you look battered and bruised? Is sympathy necessary for justice?
The other kind thing the show does is that it leaves us with affection for everyone, and hope that they’ll pull through the alcoholism, and cycle of abuse, and indifference. While they may be thinly sketched, they aren’t allowed to become stock avatars of evil, even if they show glimpses of it. It is possibly this kindness that cloys because it is so cinematic, but it also has a spectacular dramatic payoff at the very end. One that is made possible by all the kind things that kind and sometimes mean people do. But the tragic thing about all this is that Alex needed kindness at all, just to make ends meet. Just to be okay.