Better Late Than Never: Maid
You Won’t Want to Binge It. You Need To Watch It
For all intents and purposes, for better or worse, Netflix invented binge-watching. The moment the next season of Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things would drop there were always a group of rabid fans (however big a group is something we can never know for sure) who would watch the entire season in the course of a weekend. That’s become the fabric of our lives. Whether it’s Amazon or Hulu, a new series or an old one, we spend entire chunks of our lives watching every episode of it at once. I imagine that is how tens of millions of people managed to survive forced isolation these past two years. Seth Meyers basically made it part of his late night routine.
But what of the series out there that are just too dark to watch? That you look at an episode of it and nobody how high the quality the idea of watching the next episode right away repulses you? Not because its too gross or violent or sexist — we’ve somehow grown immune to that over the years — but because it’s too sad? I have a feeling that millions of Netflix viewers may have made that consideration when they started watching Maid. Sure Squid Game showed a look at a dystopian future for the starving masses, but that was in Korean and you could pretend that it was ‘just’ dystopian fiction. There’s no way to pretend watching Maid that this is some world you can look away from. Millions of us know people like Alex. Well, know may be the wrong word. We ‘see’ people like Alex all over. We see them on the side of the road or walking in the dollar store — hell, maybe some of us have people like her cleaning our houses. And my guess is we note them the same way we look at a bug or a bird we’ve never seen.
That may be part of the real reason lots of people won’t watch to Maid. Some of us may be good liberal people, donate to food banks and want the minimum wage raised but do we really want these people walking our streets? And on the other side, they’ll think the only reason Alex is starving is because she can’t pull herself up by her bootstraps. Some might even take the idea that this book is a version of an autobiography and say the author is proof of the American Dream, as if somehow everything she went through is a ‘learning experience’ In either case both sides essentially do believe the same thing: They think people like Alex are less than them. And it is for that very reason that even if you don’t want to binge Maid, you absolutely need to watch it.
Alex’s life, from literally the moment the series begins, is a nightmare. She drives out of her boyfriend’s house with her toddle daughter because he is an angry drunk who we learned punched through the wall, probably not for the first time. She had $17.50 on her (the number is counted down onscreen every time she has to buy something like gas). In the average Lifetime movie, this would be the end of a nightmare. In Maid, it’s the beginning of a worse one.
Alex finds herself stuck in a bureaucracy that Kafka would find painful to live through. She doesn’t file for police protection because her boyfriend didn’t hit her and she doesn’t think (yet) she’s in an abusive relationship. She can’t get government support because she doesn’t have a job. She can’t file for a job because she doesn’t have a residence or a place to leave her daughter. A ‘helpful’ social worker gives her a lead on a domestic cleaning job, which offers even lousier pay, makes you buy the cleaning products you need for the job and penalizes you if you don’t bring back the vacuum they supply.
Alex finds herself turning to the one person she really doesn’t want to: her mother (who she calls Paula). She’s rented out their last residence as a B&B and she has drive through two trailer parks to find her. Paula is an ‘artist’ and clearly bipolar. If she ever loved her daughter, it’s not clear for a moment. She is entirely self-obsessed with no use for anyone but her current flake of a boyfriend.
She’s goes to her first job in Westchester. The owner blames for being an hour later and threatens to dismiss her right away. She cleans the place and is astounded by the amount of food in the refrigerator. She collapses from hunger in the nursery and the owner gives her a granola bar and two minutes to eat it before she tells to get back to work.
She has no phone service on the ferry and comes back and learns her mother has basically just given her daughter back to Sean the abusive boyfriend, the one thing she insisted she not do. Her mother berates her. Alex drives back to Sean who is apologetic and says he went to a meeting. He offers her the first meal she’s had in twenty four hours. It says something for her that she refuses to touch it. He treats with barely veiled contempt until she drives away.
She gets a call from the service telling her that her client is pissed because she did a shitty job on the lawn furniture and if she wants to keep her job, she’ll drive their back now. And things just continue to get so much worse it becomes nearly unbearable. In the second episode things nominally improve when Alex begins to accept the truth of her situation and she finally moves into a domestic violence shelter. There are moments of cheer in the next episode — mostly focusing on one of the previous occupant’s ridiculously large collection of My Little Ponies and as she finally confronts the woman who stiffed her of her pay that basically will cost her car, her job and her daughter. That is balanced by the fact that the woman who has accompanied her through her day of struggle and who seems genuinely free in a way Alex isn’t checks out of the shelter the next day. “It takes most women seven tries before they break free of their relationship,” the woman who runs the shelter kindly tells Alex. “It took me five tries.”
What makes this series absolutely riveting — and what will probably draw even those who find the subject matter excruciating — is the work of Margaret Qualley in the lead. I knew who Qualley was before this — her work in Fosse.Verdon and Native Son was riveting — but not even that could prepare you for her work. We write clichés in articles such as ‘the world is against so-and-so’ but its impossible not to watch this and not feel like it is against Alex. Everything that should be helpful is against her — her parents, the system, her car. Even the toddler she loves unabashedly seems utterly unconcerned with the chaos around her and doesn’t seem to care how much worse she seems to be making it. No one has a kind word for her, even the paramedics who help her when her car is totaled. The only asset Alex has is Alex, and that’s not nearly enough.
I’ll admit I had no clue that Qualley was the daughter of 1990s box-office star Andie MacDowell who is a revelation in her own right as Paula. Many people argued that MacDowell was a lightweight throughout her acting career, that even her performances in just critical and box-office hits as Sex, Lies & Videotape and Four Weddings and a Funeral were somehow the movies weak point. Watch her in her scenes as Paula and you will instantly reassess any assumptions you might have previously had. I know I did.
Now I know there are certain people who will look at the premise of Maid and simply view it as another example of a white woman suffering. They will look at this picture of Alex’s poverty, struggle and being stuck in a relentless system — and especially the scenes where they see a wealthy African-American woman employ her, regard her as nothing and cause her to lose everything as a result — as some kind of conservative click-bait. To them, white people on television are the Drapers of Mad Men at worst and the Roys of Succession at best. (They ignore the reason Walter White started Breaking Bad and clearly never saw a single episode of Shameless — a series which, like Maid, John Wells also helped create.) White privilege to them extends even to the poor.
These people clearly look at those who are poor and abused basically the same way that the people at the top do. That they can’t avail themselves of the system even though its weighed against people like Alex. (In the second episode Alex attends a court proceeding where Sean has filed a custody writ and every word she can’t understand is just ‘legal’ to us and to her.)
Because here’s the thing: Alex thinks she’s a ghost and maybe she is. In the opening of the second episode, she reads a heartrending story at a bar of how at age eleven, she fell through the ice and was clinically dead and that she has felt like a ghost ever since. Not a single person listens to her except the asshole who will become her boyfriend. (You never saw Nick Robinson like this.) We ignore people like Alex so much that ultimately they think they deserve to be in the situations they’re in — that the $37.50 we don’t even think of paying for a shirt on Amazon could be the money they need to keep everything. When Alex tells the story of how she became pregnant and how Sean reacted in front of an audience of My Little Ponies, it’s triumphant and still sad — right now, they’re the only things listening to her. That’s why you need to watch Maid — we need to be listening to her too.
My score: 4.75 stars.