(Despite The Opinion of One Particular Letter Writer to the New York Times)
A colleague of mine has a phrase about the stupidity of certain people he doesn’t agree with. I’m not going to use that phrase because I don’t want to rip it off. But when I finally finished watching Maid today, I found myself thinking of that same phrase in regards to a woman who wrote a letter to the New York Times Magazine several months ago.
Some of you who read this blog may recall what I’m referring to, but for the rest of you: in January I read a letter about a woman who had watched Maid and drew the conclusion that she thought the series ‘would have been more realistic if Alex had resented her daughter.” That comment struck me as so utterly moronic having watched just half of the series at the time that I actually wrote what amounted to a rant against this particular writer and asked her if she had watched any of Peak TV between Maid and Murphy Brown going off the air. Now having finally completed viewing Maid, I actually wonder about this woman’s ability to gather messages from TV series at all, considering that idea is the only thing she seemed to take away from the limited series.
If you’ve watched Maid (and I’m seriously starting to wonder if this woman did), you know that the story fundamentally is about Alex, the bureaucratic and societal nightmare she has to go through to escape an emotional emotionally abusive boyfriend. You also know (and I didn’t at the time I wrote the previous article) that at one point, driven to desperation Alex goes back to Sean and gets mired right in the middle of that same domestic abuse again, only it gets even worse. The only reason that she manages to escape the second time is because of a far greater fear that she had for her toddler daughter, Maddy’s safety. And having gotten through the final two episodes, it’s frankly a miracle that happened at all. She turned to a client who had fundamentally ignored her until her own child was born, managed to survive on her good will and the blessings of an attorney she would never have been able to find, much less afford on her own, managed to find financial aid to a college in Montana, and in the last episode, managed to get out of one last hurdle that her alcoholic boyfriend managed to put in her way.
And I don’t think this writer seemed to get the point of Maid: Alex is a twice-over survivor of emotional domestic abuse. Her troubled relationship with her father, who is an ocean of stability compared to her mother, is entirely due to the fact that her father was an abusive monster that Paula fled to Alaska with when she managed to get away from him. In the final episode, she turns to him in desperation to write a testimonial about Sean being emotionally abusive to here, considering he witnessed one such episode. Not only does he refuse to do it, he continues to deny his own emotional abuse of her and her mother, abuse that has scarred Paula so badly she can’t even acknowledge it when she sees it happening to her own daughter. (Throughout the series, she continues to defend Sean. Even in the finale, when she brings Maddy to Alex after a court appointed visit goes badly, she still says: “Sean had a bad day.”)
So if this viewer came away from Maid thinking that someone who has suffered the level of abuse should be angry at her toddler daughter really makes me question if this viewer has the mental comprehension to get anything about TV. Did she watch Game of Thrones and conclude the biggest problems with the weddings in Westeros were the catering? Did she watch Breaking Bad and think that Walter White’s only flaw was that he loved his family too much? Maid would have been more realistic if Alex resented her daughter? If Maddy wasn’t alive, Alex might not have made a break for it at all. We know the statistics of domestic abuse. We see examples of it in the second episode of Maid. The only reason Alex made a break for it — both times — was to save Maddy. If Maddy wasn’t there, there’s an excellent chance that Alex would have stayed with Sean until he killed her. Resent her daughter? Alex should be sending her thank-you cards for the rest of her life.
If there is someone Alex should have resented, it’s her own mother. From the opening episode to the last one, every time she turns to Paula for her help, her mother inevitably lets her down. Paula’s problems may result from being bipolar as well as domestic abuse, In the final episode Alex tells someone that’s she been taking care of Paula since she was six, and it is very clear that it’s an even harder job than taking care of Maddy. Paula has spent her entire life refusing to be on the grid, she doesn’t have a bank account, she keeps sleeping with the wrong men, and one such man ends up stealing her house and gambling away the proceeds from it. In the final episode, Paula is living out of her car, and utterly refuses to accept anything resembling guidance from Alex, even if it were to mean a stable life.
I also find it ironic that his writer said it would have been more realistic if Alex resented Maddy for making things harder for her, yet somehow didn’t have anything to say about Paula resenting Alex for doing the same, even though it’s the right thing to do. In one episode Paula is put on a thirty day psych hold and implores Alex to get her out. When Alex refuses to do so, Paula doesn’t say another word to her for the rest of her stay. Alex visits her every day and tries to paint a rosy picture and Paula ignores her. Then one day Alex comes to visit and learns that Paula has broken out of the facility after calling the man who stole her house from her. I guess hating your daughter on TV only counts if she can’t speak.
I realize I have spent the majority of Maid criticizing another person’s shallow critique rather than justified why I liked it. And as I have said in my previous reviews, Maid is one of the most brilliant things on Netflix. Yet I completely understand why many viewers might have watched the first episode and turned to something lighter like The Kominsky Method or Squid Game. Maid is not an easy series to watch because it is so realistic. Watching Alex struggle to get through a system that is rigged against her, deal with an emotional abusive alcoholic boyfriend who has all the cards, and seeing her mired in a family situation that is so toxic does not lend itself to the binge-watching that we associate with Netflix. I’ve argued against it as a form of viewing before, but I’ve relatively certain nobody binge-watched Maid. One episode can be such a drain on a viewer that you’ll need a break of at least a week, if you decide to come back to it at all. It’s a brilliant series, but it took me nearly six months to see the whole thing because of the unflinching reality of the situation that Alex is in.
But the performances are glorious. Margaret Qualley gives arguably the best performance in a Limited Series this entire year. Her Alex goes through a situation that Dickens and Kafka would consider twisted, but she somehow manages to keep her head up all the way through it. Part of it is no doubt for Maddy, but part of it is someone who desperately wants a better life for herself, and who has given everything in to stand for it. Qualley is likely to face several former Oscar winners in this race — Jessica Chastain and Julia Roberts are among the most likely competitors — but it’s very hard to watch Qualley’s work and not consider her the favorite.
An even greater revelation is Andie MacDowell as Paula. I was blindsided when I learned that MacDowell was in fact Qualley’s real life mother (though the resemblance is clear in hindsight) and even more blown away by MacDowell’s performance. MacDowell was a screen star in the 1990s but always considered a lightweight. Watching her in Maid you are drawn in to all of the chaos that Paula leaves in her wake and who actually seems to welcome it in comparison to anything resembling stability. There is a scene in the final episode where Paula is the most open about her experiences with the abuse that she endured and how she made one final break to save her and Alex at the end of it. It’s the most realistic she’s ever seemed on the series because she seems to judge herself a failure for it. It may be the one hopeful moment between mother and daughter we have seen — and it is all the more heartbreaking because of their final encounter when it becomes clear that Paula just can’t accept it. In their final moments, despite their discussion, everyone watching knows that they will never see each other again. Alex is finally letting go of her mother. I can’t imagine how wrenching this series was for them and both MacDowell and Qualley deserve nominations, if not Emmys for their work.
As the world knows now, if you watch the first ten seconds of a Netflix series, they count it the same as watching the entire thing. I doubt we will ever know the true number of people who watched Maid, but I have a feeling that most of the viewers would count among the former than the latter. This is not an easy series to watch and it certainly isn’t a series that lets itself to binge-watching. But for those of us who have the temerity and stamina to get all the way through it, there are rewards. Maid may not have been a story you want to see, but it is definitely a story that needs to be told. There are innumerable Alexs out there who the world ignores and who don’t have the good fortune to survive either the system or their abusive spouses. The next time you see a bedraggled woman holding a screaming child on the floor of a train station or of the women who come to clean your luxurious houses, think of Maid. They could all be an Alex if they only had the chance.
My score: 5 stars.