A Clean Start
Series Review: “Maid”
A heartwrenching story of domestic abuse, addiction and mental illness — born out of generational family dysfunction — against which a young single mother will stop at nothing to make her escape, baby daughter in tow.
Based on the real-life memoir by best-selling author, Stephanie Land, entitled “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive”, this 10-part dramatic series stars Margaret Qualley in a star-making role that must have hit quite close to home. . . but more on that in a bit. Qualley’s character, Alex, is a 25-year old whose dreams of attending college on a writing scholarship had become derailed when she became pregnant three years earlier with her daughter, Maddy. She’s now trapped in an emotionally abusive dynamic with boyfriend, Sean (her daughter’s father) in a domestic arrangement that’s quickly spiraling out of control, with physical assault just around the next alcohol-infused rage meltdown.
The show takes off with Alex and Maddy literally escaping in the night from Sean’s rundown trailer, with no real plan in her head other than the desperate need to get them both away from the real and unpredictable danger he’s come to represent. Whereas most young women could turn to family and friends for shelter and help, Alex quickly realizes how alone she truly is, given her estranged relationship with her own father and the dysfunctional one she has with her undiagnosed bipolar mother, Paula.
Andie MacDowell’s portrayal of Paula is a bit of casting alchemy, for two reasons. First, she happens to be Margaret Qualley’s mother in real life. Second, she is here portraying the kind of untethered personality of MacDowell’s own undiagnosed schizophrenic mother, which she has described in recent interviews in quite unvarnished and honest terms.
Realizing she has nowhere to turn, Alex becomes a statistic in the confusing and confounding game of State assistance programs, joining the ranks of single mother victims with little to no job skills, living in domestic abuse shelters and low-rent subsidized housing. The only work she seems qualified for? Cleaning people’s houses at less than minimum wage. Thus begins Alex’s odyssey of survival, a journey on which she relies on her own wits, a willingness to work hard, sheer stubbornness, and the occasional kindnesses which come from the most unlikely sources. It’s a roller-coaster of disappointments saved from melodrama by Alex’s innate belief in herself, even when each small victory is often accompanied by an inevitable sabotaging, often not her fault at all. Perhaps because we know this is based on a memoir, chances are Alex and Maddy will come out OK in the end, but from one heartbreaking situation to the next, that conclusion doesn’t feel quite so foregone while experiencing this engrossing series.
It seems there’s a kind of recent trend taking shape as a modern trope of our times, reflected by entertainment titles (some based on actual memoirs) — such as Hillbilly Elegy, Glass Castle, and Captain Fantastic — which address the toxic blend of domestic abuse, addiction, mental illness and poverty. And running through them all is this romanticization of a life untethered to or dictated by social norms or the constraints of ‘normal’ family values. In every situation, one is left wondering about the ratio between that kind of ‘Freedom’ and the very real and damaging consequences of an impoverished life lived under the thumb of a parental figure with a tenuous hold on reality.
In Maid, with every disruptive and unsettling appearance by Paula, we are left to imagine the kind of childhood Alex spent in which the parenting role was reversed, admitting to a hospital administrator that she’d been ‘taking care of her mother’ since she herself was six years old. In Qualley’s wide-eyed face, full of expression and grit, she’s totally believable. We ache for her to finally cut a break, to find a way out, to live her own life.
The show makes a great case for women seeking assistance to get out of domestic abuse and crisis situations, and portrays both the victims themselves as well as Paula and even Sean, with a degree of mercy and respect that is worth applauding. But there’s no mistake in the message of this show, that the kind of abuse that might not land you in the emergency room still leaves indelible scars which mark your psyche, and unless stopped in its tracks, tend to trickle down the generations, and that mess is even harder to clean up.
Maid is presently streaming on Netflix.
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