You would be forgiven for thinking the only TV show anyone is watching at the moment is Squid Game, the Korean thriller that has quickly become Netflix’s most watched series of all time. But just behind it on the streaming service’s chart is an altogether different – but no less brilliant – drama, Maid.
Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, My Salinger Year) plays Alex, a young mother to three-year-old Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) who flees her abusive boyfriend, Sean (Nick Robinson, Love, Simon), with no money and nowhere to go. Over 10 episodes we see her struggle to survive, anchored only by her low-paid job as a house maid and her fierce love for her daughter.
That the show is based on the real-life experiences of Stephanie Land, author of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, makes the story even more visceral and affecting.
Watching Maid can be an anxiety-inducing experience. As Alex fills up her car, we watch the $15 she left home with dwindle until she can no longer afford food or a place to stay. She spends the first night in her car, only to be awoken by a police officer who tells her to move along.
Eventually she heads to social services, who tell her she needs proof of work to secure housing; without a job Alex is homeless, but she can’t afford the childcare she needs in order to work. This is just one of the many frustrating catch-22 situations Maid presents deftly and with quiet rage.
Leaving her daughter with her unreliable and self-centered artist mother (a brilliant turn by Andie MacDowell), Alex heads to a cleaning company with a high staff turnover to find out if they have any shifts.
A ray of hope arrives when she learns that there’s a house – though it’s more like a mansion – on a nearby island that needs a weekly clean.
It’s short-lived, however, as she soon learns she has to provide all her own supplies, pay for her own petrol and return the company Dyson after every shift lest she be fined and likely sacked. As she wanders around the store buying bleach and sponges, we once again watch with dismay as her money ticks down to almost naught.
Maid excels in portraying how hard it is for a woman with no support system to leave an abusive relationship. As well as money and childcare, Alex also has to worry about Sean finding them and claiming custody of their baby. She’s also ashamed of her situation, refusing to share the full extent of her problems with her parents or friends.
Domestic abuse in the media is often characterised by physical violence, but one of Maid‘s greatest strengths is its focus on other types of abuse.
Alex isn’t sure that her boyfriend’s manipulation and aggression amounts to domestic abuse, but almost everyone she shares with cements the idea that she is a victim and that she did the right thing in leaving. It’s a refreshing and important message.
It’s Qualley’s exceptional central performance that makes Maid must-watch TV. Her portrayal of Alex is often meek and desperately inoffensive, making her moments of strength – whether quiet (leaving her boyfriend) or loud (demanding the rich owner of the house she cleans to pay the money she is owed) – all the more brilliant.
It’s an emotional, complex performance that will surely attract attention when it comes to awards season.
It may not have the same bloody thrills as mega-hit Squid Game, but Maid is a visceral, heart-wrenching drama about the true struggles of poverty and motherhood. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s well worth your time.
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