Netflix’s new drama Maid, plunges you into the life of its main character Alex (Margaret Qualley). She’s a mother with a two-year-old daughter who we first meet when she quietly flees from her abusive boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) in the middle of the night. She stealthy gathers her sleeping daughter gently placing her in a car seat before speeding off, just as Sean realises what’s going on. The 10-part series is inspired by author Stephanie Land’s 2019 memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, and puts Margaret Qualley’s Alex front and centre as a young woman struggling to support her daughter in a world that seems designed to not to have her succeed.
The first episode is a traumatic one. After deciding to leave her home, Alex discovers that the government help she will now be dependent upon has a lot of hoops and hurdles she needs to jump through. She’s reluctant to call Sean an abuser. When asked why she didn’t call the police when she left him, she wonders what she’d have told them if she’d the call, ‘Do I call them and say he didn’t hit me?’ We see through mini-flashbacks of her previous life that Sean was an aggressive drunk and although he didn’t directly assault Alex, he did punch a hole in the wall she was standing next to, resulting in Alex having to pick tiny pieces of glass out of her toddler’s hair. The flashbacks also reveal the couple at happier times but show how Sean transformed when Alex revealed she was pregnant.
Though bleak, the show is incredibly engaging and never feels ‘too much’ This is down to a stunning lead performance from Qualley and scripting from playwright-turned TV writer Molly Smith Metzler. The pair make sure you’re always on Alex’s side. Always angry when she’s angry, always happy when she’s happy and always rooting for her to succeed. Metzler teams again with John Wells, who directs a handful of the episodes. The pair first met on Wells’ US remake of Channel 4 drama Shameless and this series shares more than a little DNA with the Gallagher family. Both are shows that portray those from poorer backgrounds, but they’re both shows that never have their characters wallow in their poverty. Alex, like the characters in Shameless never really gets angry about the awfulness of her situation. Even when she loses her daughter in a custody battle she doesn’t scream, shout or protest. She tries her best to fit into a world she’s completely unprepared for.
When she becomes the ‘Maid’ of the title she’s sent to clean the luxurious home of a woman with impeccable standards. Alex arrives late, having only just made the ferry, and rather than spin her new client a sob story about her horrendous Alex rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. It’s another example of the show not having its main character winge or moan, but work hard and quietly to achieve her end goal of putting a secure roof over her daughter’s head.
Metzler applies some creative and effective ways to convey Alex’s dire straits. In the first episode, the amount of money she has is occasionally displayed on screen and then recalculated down as she has to buy cleaning supplies before going on her first house-cleaning assignment. In episode two, when Alex goes to court when Sean seeks to get Maddy back, viewers hear the proceedings from Alex’s point of view to show her confusion. Lawyers in the courtroom speak normally punctuated by the gibberish of: “Legal, legal, legal, legal, legal…” These are clever devices that put us in Alex’s mind.
Qualley, who is in almost every scene here, is absolutely mesmerising. In her hands, Alex is warm, gentle, brave, confused and an utterly devoted mother who loves her daughter more than anything else in her world. Alex has had a tough life. Andie MacDowell (Qualley’s real-life mother) puts in an equally engaging performance as Alex’s chaotic mother Paula. The scenes between the two are fractious but it’s clear the pair care very deeply for each other. Paula suffers from bipolar disorder, though she’s never been diagnosed, it’s further proof that Alex has always had a tough life and has shown herself to be resilient.
Netflix dramas are hard things to define. They often arrive with little notice, fanfare or promotion, and I wanted to flag Maid in case the algorithm didn’t point you in its direction. It’s quieter than a lot of Netflix dramas, with more in common with limited series like Unbelievable and The Queen’s Gambit. It’s a deeply humane drama helmed by utterly believable performances. It’s the sort of drama that puts the ordinary in the spotlight. I’ve always admired Qualley’s skill since first seeing her in The Leftovers and Maid proves she a real star who deserves to be huge.
Maid arrives on Netflix Worldwide on Friday 1st October.