Netflix series "Maid" starring Margaret Qualley

“Maid” is Compelling, Precise, and Inconsistent

“Maid” is a series I like, but that I feel I should love. Its strengths easily outnumber its weaknesses, but a few things hold it back. It’s anchored by Margaret Qualley as Alex, who takes her daughter Maddy and leaves her abusive boyfriend in the middle of the night. She has no plan or place to go. Since her boyfriend essentially controls her money, she has less than $20 to spend. It’s a desperate situation, handled at times with a realistic and horrifying tension.

Alex doesn’t have anyone to trust. All her friends knew her boyfriend first; he hasn’t let her lead her own life. Alex’s own mother has schizophrenia, struggles with untrustworthy boyfriends, and regularly forgets feeding and caring for Maddy when babysitting. Alex is alienated from her father, a cost sacrificed for him to make things work with his new family.

At its heart, “Maid” is a unique intersection of custody procedural, family drama, and what I like to call wallet horror. The first episode even keeps a running tab of the little money Alex has, subtracting bit by excruciating bit in the upper-right as she tries to find a job, feeds her daughter, and pays for gas a few dollars at a time. Anyone who’s ever lived in debt, close to zero balance, or paycheck to paycheck will recognize that awful running tally. The right-side of the screen it takes up may seem heavy-handed, but it is nothing compared to the amount of space it truly takes up in your head.

To its credit, “Maid” is careful to journey around the pitfalls of poverty porn. It avoids the exploitative eye that objectifies people in poverty simply to generate cheap catharsis for viewers. Qualley is given space to act, not as an icon or object of pity, but as a full, complex person.

“Maid” also treats emotional abuse seriously. While her boyfriend hasn’t hit her, he’s screamed at her, controlled her, and hit objects near her. It even takes Alex a few conversations to understand this is a form of domestic violence, even if the state she lives in doesn’t.

In its very best moments, “Maid” focuses on the horror of procedure. The systems in place to help domestic violence victims and people in poverty have been routinely gutted, sabotaged, and under-resourced. At a custody hearing, the dialogue between the commissioner and her boyfriend’s lawyer simply turns into the two saying “Legal legal legal” back and forth to each other. When a question Alex can recognize is asked of her, she’s already lost.

As she thumbs through a stack of documents she needs to fill out for that custody hearing, their official titles turn into “You’re a bad mom” and “Go fuck yourself”. There’s a stark truth to this experience, where so many fail without a chance just because they’ve missed a line on a form or didn’t get a signature. Alex takes the failures of the systems that are supposed to help and serve her, and internalizes them as her own failures.

She has to ready herself for a custody battle, apply for benefits, and work a job she has no car to drive to, sometimes all in the same hour. If she’s late to one, it’s held against her, despite those demands being physically impossible. She’s awash in catch-22s. She has to have a job to prove she needs the transitional housing that enables her to get a job. She has to spend more than she’ll make in a three-hour tryout for a job in order to stand a chance of getting it.

In its overwhelming horror of procedure and a host of metaphorical cutaways (she’s surrounded by a flurry of papers, she sees her daughter receding on a beach), “Maid” is powerful in both content and composition.

Let me be clear before I say this. For me, “Maid” is on the border between good and great. My criticisms aren’t about whether the series is good or bad. They’re about an element in “Maid” that’s noticeable and can be frustrating to some viewers:

What can sometimes unseat you from its rhythm are regular tonal inconsistencies. The first episode shovels a lot of happenstance onto the already-numbing horror Alex faces. It doesn’t really need it. The premise is already compelling, but then more happens. The series is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land. I have no clue whether extra events are added or not, or whether their time frame is condensed. Yet just like so many fictional stories can be made to feel natural, a real story can sometimes present details in a way that feels contrived.

There are so many tense moments in the first episode, “Dollar Store”. That wallet ticking down a few dollars at a time is a piece of existential dread. An impromptu job interview where Alex is essentially steamrolled is a beautiful example of the cost those in poverty can face to even get a few hours of work. A scene where Alex has to set foot in her boyfriend’s trailer again, his initially kind exterior slipping toward extracting guilt from her…there’s a sickening artistry in its unflinching precision.

This constant encroachment of tensions is where “Maid” excels. It evokes a sense of witnessing both physical and emotional realities, but in a hands-off way. Instead of telling you how to feel, it simply relies on your empathy to do the work as you watch.

This is all done superbly. Where’s the inconsistency come from? The problem is “Maid” also includes more dramatic moments and situational set-ups. Sitting right next to that deft storytelling that relies on your reaction are moments that feel like they visit from a much more dramatic adaptation.

All those building tensions are enough to send our mind reeling. By the time a car crash is added in, it doesn’t ratchet up the drama – it detracts from it. Maybe this is what really happened to Stephanie Land, in which case I’m not saying to change it. It’s not that the event doesn’t belong. The problem is that it’s handled in a way that redirects the slow and steady creep of becoming overwhelmed into something more recognizably cinematic and even melodramatic.

There are times when “Maid” presents a dramatic situation in a way that presses pause on its sense of subtlety, realism, and texture. It’s played more broadly and its sense of direction suddenly feels much more intentional. “Maid” handles the small moments like an understated character study, and some big moments like a 90s drama where characters enter and act to the nines.

Neither is done badly, and both approaches have their place. They’re just difficult to fuse together tonally. In these broader moments, there’s a loss of that very precise, nuanced, and intimately personal experience that “Maid” takes such care in building. It gets swept away, and because it’s a tone that is built scene upon scene, it can take some time to build back up to where we already were.

In those more personal spaces, we recognize how a little detail can break a person, how a frustration that might be ordinary on any other day presses on trauma because of what a person is going through. We’re witnesses of something in Alex she doesn’t let others see, that people in the world rarely let others see. You can’t just hop back into that sense right away; it does take time to build into again.

Nowhere is this more present than with Alex’s mother Paula. She’s played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell. The relationship between the two is difficult, and one of the most intentionally frustrating elements of the show is how little Alex is heard by her mother. Her relationship to Paula is chiefly one of exchanges and leverage. Qualley and MacDowell’s ability to play off each other in a way that feels real and fraught is exceptional.

MacDowell has spoken about the role’s similarity to her relationship to her own mother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dealt with alcoholism. MacDowell does an incredible job, but at times it can feel like one that doesn’t sync up with the rest of “Maid”. She sweeps in from another genre, a 90s drama where everyone’s playing it big and MacDowell’s sure to be on an awards shortlist. This is no less true a portrayal; it’s just tailored to a different era of presentation.

Nor is this the only departure. Alex is required to go to a class where a man lectures women – many of whom are escaping domestic violence – about the stability of a two-parent home. It’s a searing point that’s an example of the systemic gaslighting of women, and this should easily hold on its own just like so many other points “Maid” makes straight-faced. Instead, he’s played like an “SNL” character. While this may add to our ability to laugh at him and it could be a moment of disempowering him in the face of a godawful act, it’s a gigantic tonal shift from everything else the series does.

I won’t get into it because it intersects with important plot points, but this sense of being thrust out of the show’s tone and reality holds most true for a subplot about stealing someone’s dog.

When these moments occur, they strain “Maid” in two different tonal directions. Sure, there are ways to use that strain in a metaphorical way, but “Maid” isn’t pursuing that kind of storytelling. It’s not some Charlie Kaufman directorial vehicle using genre dissonance-as-absurdism to step us out of the story itself. The strengths of “Maid” rely on precision within the story, a keen eye for detail, and translating criticism of systemic misogynist oppression into natural dialogue about lived experiences. “Maid” has a deep sense of its own earned knowledge and emotional realities, so when its tone suddenly shifts away from that reality into more traditional drama, it can require some conscious redirection and re-commitment on the part of the viewer.

This isn’t difficult, but it is noticeable. Moments like these don’t lack power. They don’t undermine “Maid”. They do feel consciously, intentionally situational on a series that’s fine-tuned for building tension, character, and emotional rhythm as one big flow state. When that flow state is interrupted, it’s not a big deal, but you do worry about whether you’ll sync back into it. It’s less a criticism of quality and more one of presence. “Maid” is exceptional and I absolutely recommend it. It just gets interrupted every once in a while. The interruptions are OK, but because the flow of what happened before was so precise, it’s difficult not to be especially conscious that those interruptions are there in the first place.

It’s the difference between a really good series and a great one. I’m not so sure that difference matters much, particularly when either assessment recognizes “Maid” is vitally important. Just be aware that viewers are going to fall on both sides of that good/great line, and a large part of that will be how well you take these tonal shifts in stride. This all makes “Maid” a strong choice if it’s on your radar, provided you’re in a safe and comfortable place to deal with its subject matter.

You can watch “Maid” on Netflix.

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