By Inayah Inam
Heart-wrenching, empowering, soul stirring and brutally real, Margaret Qualley is captivating in this revelatory miniseries about extreme poverty and abuse.
I watched Maid with my mother. It wasn’t a conscious decision but rather accidental. My mother, much like Alex in the show, was a young divorcee, who found herself in her early 20s, separated and on her own with her toddler. I had never delved into why my parents separated. I had ideas, of course, but found the topic irrelevant over time. We were a strong unit: the two of us and that’s all that really mattered. When we first meet Alex in the show, she quietly evades waking up the man in bed next to her and takes her daughter away from her home in the middle of the night. Alex, played by a fresh-faced Margaret Qualley, only has 18 dollars to her name and spends nights homeless and destitute. Maid doesn’t sugar-coat anything. It is a bleak watch. Soul shattering and unvarnished, we are all strapped into Alex’s journey to claim financial freedom and emotional independence.
Maid has created for me and its wide viewership a dialogue around abuse. Physical violence, ubiquitous and clear-cut as it may be, is not the focus here. Rather the temporal cyclicity of abuse is explored multi-generationally. Emotional abuse in all its insidious forms and subjective dilemmas (both in a legal and human sense) are mired by gas-lighting and denial. There are multiple perpetrators (both of Alex’s parents, played by Billy Burke and the transcendent Andie Macdowell) as well as her partner (Nick Robinson). Can we really carve out a new future for ourselves in a situation so downtrodden and devoid of hope?
That is the question Maid proposes in its 10-episode arc. Although Alex is determined to rise above these structural disadvantages (she takes a job as a minimum wage cleaner and navigates the drudgery of benefits applications), a clean break proves to be almost impossible. The odds are stacked against her: her cleaning hours aren’t enough to liberate her financially and her justifications for fleeing her abuser are belittled. The shame of poverty is crudely outlined. We see scenes through the prism of Alex’s imagination to convey what Alex is thinking. “So you’re looking for a big fat government handout because you are a jobless, white trash piece of shit, am I right?” says the first social worker in Alex’s parallel fantasy. Numbers appear on the screen to signify the budgetary hoops Alex has to jump through, living from paycheck to paycheck. The money earned is immediately spent and the series provides an unflinching fiscal reality check for any of Alex’s small wins.
Motherhood is one of the stronger themes in the show, heightened by the presence of Paula who plays mother to real-life daughter Alex. Paula’s free-wheeling, hippie persona is zany, eccentric and at times mouth-droppingly hilarious. She boasts of her ancestry and artistic talent that passes through to her granddaughter whilst remaining in denial about her other baggage – namely generational patterns of abuse and trauma). This is most viscerally (and horrifyingly) felt in the latter part of the series when Alex discovers Maddy hiding in a kitchen cupboard – a twisted prism of history repeating itself which provides Alex the impetus to leave Nick once and for all. MacDowell’s Paula is on top form here, flawless and transcendent, stealing every scene with her biting dialogue and her luscious ‘let it all hang’ silver locks.
Fatherhood is also explored. Both Hank (Billy Burke) and Sean (Nick Robinson) are emotionally and physically abusive alcoholics and generally exude standard ‘deadbeat dad’ shithead behaviour. However, Maid goes beyond that one-dimensional stereotype. Nick is dealing with his own generational trauma and history of family-related drug use, while Hank through AA meetings and faith has been reborn as a picture-perfect Christian father. However, embedded hypocrocies are exposed. Loving and respectful as he may be to his second wife, Hank remains fervently in denial about his past wrong-doings to his first. Nick, despite his earnestness and sensitivity to Alex during her mother’s breakdown, once secure reverts straight back to his old tricks, locking Alex back in the trailer. Sexism is rife and history is often re-written as fast as the wind changes for both the abusers and their abused.
Maid is not an easy watch. You’ll cry, lament, and feel exhausted at the sheer powerlessness of the situation. You’ll watch the screen thinking “what would I do?” and honestly, by the end of it you’ll still be clueless. At the heart of it, Maid feels right up to the credits a fierce story about the power of human resilience and manages in its last episode to feel uplifting and cathartic. Poignant, layered and hypnotic, it is a must watch this autumn.
If you would like to report a domestic violence incident, please call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. The LSESU has its own advice page providing relevant information and links to access DV related resources and support. If you would like to get involved with Anti-violence/abuse campaigning, please contact the ‘Hands Off’ Campaign Team. ’