19 OCT - 2021
Prepare to be forced to think outside of yourself.
This year, we have enjoyed a refreshing line-up of comedy-dramas [most recently Sex Education and White Lotus] that have explored complex themes relating to class and poverty, without simply using them as vehicle for a trivialised tale of addiction or social reclusion.
But Netflix’s newest hit Maid is by no means enjoyable, or even comfortable to watch. Rather than entertaining, it harnesses our common human desire to have an unrestricted peak into the life of another. The life is that of a young, newly-single mother who is escaping domestic abuse and teetering on the edge of homelessness.
Alex, played by a shining Margaret Qualley, features in almost every scene of the 10-part series, which tracks her journey from escaping her abuser with her toddler Maddie in the dead of night, to sleeping in her car, to the welfare office and beyond. When she does finally land a job as a housekeeper, it is still far from smooth sailing.
Based on a best-selling memoir from Stephanie Land, the series lifts the lid on public housing [mould problems and all], domestic violence shelters and courtside custody battles. Displays of frustrating bureaucracy in desperate moments of touch-and-go thrust audiences into the struggle that is scrambling to rebuild your life while trying to maintain stability for a child.
The idea that in order to improve your life, you have to want to help yourself is put to the test here: Alex so obviously wants nothing more than to do the best by her daughter, but the hoops she must jump through to gain the little assistance that she qualifies for makes it all feel impossible. “How is this assistance assisting me?” she asks.
There is no question about her being a fit mother. She is, in fact, an exceptional mother. A fear that she will be determined otherwise by the state sits at the back of viewers' minds throughout the show and makes a statement about how women can feel a return to their abuser is their only viable option.
Aside from the lucky few who are simultaneously privileged and carefree, it’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced financial stress to some degree. In this case, Alex’s monetary struggles are represented in numbers that flash on screen anytime she pockets some shillings or makes an expense. Her balance repeatedly drops into the red despite her purchases only ever being essential, apart from a replacement of her daughter’s favourite “Schmariel” mermaid toy.
Many of us have only had to subtract those mental figures as a child in a milk bar with a parent’s loose change, or perhaps using foreign coins while backpacking across Europe. Or maybe you’ve been in a position where you had to work three jobs just to pay the mortgage and its 18% interest rates in the ‘80s. Maybe you’re a Gen Z graduate who’s concerned about how you’ll achieve financial freedom while earning a $40k salary and spending more than you can earn. Or, maybe you’re incredibly lucky and your worst financial experience so far is that Zaddy only gave you a measly $300k budget for your wedding.
Pain is relative, but the heart sinking feeling of not having the funds to acquire what you need, especially when it’s something so basic for survival, is despairing. What you’ll likely discover is an astounding contrast of privilege against a woman who is so lacking in resources and a support network, not least of all, from a system that has failed her.
Viewers can’t help but align and share frustrative emotions with Alex, who makes each decision from a place of deep love for her daughter and a determination to break a cycle of hardship. It is a credit to Qualley’s raw, soul-stirring performance which has her destined for award season success. Alex’s compassionate interactions with the other imperfect characters, each revealed to be a complex sum of their own experiences, only further displays her wholly good nature.
Through the lens of Alex, most of the characters who are introduced to us as ‘flawed’ gradually develop to have redeeming qualities. An uppity cleaning client, Regina, is a generous woman hidden under a steely, girl-boss exterior, and Alex’s zany “arteest” of a mother [Played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell] is revealed to be a victim of undiagnosed bipolar and a survivor of domestic abuse herself.
Pain is relative, but the heart-sinking feeling of not having the funds to acquire what you need, especially when it’s something so basic for survival, is despairing.
It is evident that creator Molly Smith Metzler made a conscious effort not to pigeonhole her characters into being a hero or villain, ally or foe. Instead, the story delves into the nuances of what drives and guides each individual at any given moment and inspires empathy for the different paths they have taken. Even the final decision made by Alex’s abusive ex, Sean, to concede custody of Maddie after recognising the parallels between his mother’s abuse of alcohol and his own, offers some hope for his embattled character. Alex’s dad is perhaps the only exception, refusing to acknowledge his shortcomings and ultimately choosing his faith-driven laurels over a relationship with his own daughter.
It is not all doom and gloom, with moments of quick wit and displays of wry humour punctuating a dark journey with light. Not to mention the triumphant ensemble of strong-headed female characters on display.
We have moved past the point of viewers simply watching TV to be entertained and thank goodness for that. Shows like Maid can break down stigmas, encourage empathy for marginalised communities and ultimately, show the lengths some of us will go to, to protect the ones we love.