Netflix’s Maid is the kind of TV drama that stays with you for a long time. The gritty limited series—which is based on Stephanie Land’s 2019 best-selling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother’s Will to Survive—presents a persistent, troubling look at the hardships of single mother Alexandra Langley (Margaret Qualley). The 10 episodes are unflinching in their portrayal of her poverty, isolation, and fragile emotional well-being. It is also unabashedly hopeful; the show and its protagonist forge ahead with resilience and poignancy. Anchored by a striking lead performance, Maid might just be one of the most hypnotic dramas of the year.
The series begins with Alex leaving her abusive boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) in the middle of the night with their toddler Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) in tow. It’s quickly established she has no one to look to for help with rent or other expenses. As she seeks government assistance and goes on multiple welfare programs, the show explores the levels of red tape that domestic violence victims must clear to get basic help, especially if they’ve suffered emotional abuse. The bureaucracy here is dismaying.
With guidance from a welfare worker, Alex lands a job at a small cleaning agency. But even after securing employment, she still has to find a place to live and contend with a custody battle for her daughter, as well as a flighty mother. It can often feel like there is just too much going wrong for Alex in this tear-jerking drama, but there are also surprising bouts of sweetness and lightheartedness.
Every expense Alex makes—be it gas, a toy for Maddy, or cleaning supplies—shows up on screen like a profit or loss account. She routinely goes in circles to figure out complex paperwork. When she is in court, she is unable to understand the jargon so all she hears is the word “legal” repeated ad nauseam. Despite Sean’s drinking and rage problems, she is labeled the unfit one; she can’t prove his abuse is real because it’s not physical. She finds room at a domestic violence shelter and finally forms a much-needed community there. The hoops Alex has to jump through are presented as indictment of the flawed legal and justice systems, which hamper the chances for those below the poverty line or in debt.
Created by Orange Is The New Black and Shameless writer Molly Smith Meltzer, Maid peels back Alex’s past bit by bit, revealing she is attempting to break out of the cycle of intergenerational trauma. She is fiercely protective of Maddy. “I live for my daughter,” she matter-of-factly tells one of her cleaning clients. It’s the kind of love she longs to receive from her mother, Paula (played by Qualley’s real-life mom, Andie MacDowell), a hippie artist with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Alex and Paula’s tumultuous relationship becomes central to the plot. It’s a fascinating, painful examination of how trauma is passed down from parents to their children. In episode five, “Thief,” Alex has an agonizing recollection about her father, Hank (Billy Burke), with whom she has recently reconnected after several years apart. Ultimately, even Sean isn’t a one-dimensional villain; Maid tries to explore his own unfortunate upbringing without excusing his behavior or actions.
The seemingly peaceful times in Alex’s life are the ones spent with her daughter or when she is cleaning homes. Maid tries to put her chaotic life on hold when she is scrubbing bathroom tiles or folding laundry. The show has fun with the kind of houses she goes to, including the homes of a kid burglar who was the subject of a manhunt and a hoarder who needs help getting rid of everything. Her experiences as a cleaner become the subject of her writing, as they did for Land. In the second half, Alex’s aspirations begin to shift, and she works hard to go to Missoula to study creative writing, as was her plan before pregnancy.
With each passing day, despite a string of failures and falling into past patterns, Alex proves her resourcefulness. It’s inspiring to see her (and Land) climb out of the abyss. But Maid is limited by the white lens through which it is told. The show is empathetic about the plight of women like Alex, but doesn’t do enough to demonstrate how distinct their experiences are. Nor does it acknowledge the level of privilege that Alex, a young, white woman, has compared to marginalized people with similar jobs and upbringings.
Most of Alex’s interactions with women of color offer a different power dynamic. Regina (Anika Noni Rose), her first client, who also becomes her most regular client, is a successful Black woman. Alex strikes a hesitant bond with her that proves valuable at the end. At the shelter, she connects with Denise (B.J. Harrison), an elderly Black woman who takes her under her wing. But their time in the spotlight is mostly spent nudging Alex along on her journey.
Danielle (Aimee Carrero), who is the first friend Alex makes at the shelter, is a survivor of physical abuse whose story is left ruefully incomplete. Alex’s demanding boss Yolanda (Tracy Vilar) personifies the “feisty Latina” stereotype. In one episode, Alex’s fellow cleaner is a woman of color who is snide and uninterested in the work. The show shines a light on an occupation that has historically been overlooked, but it does so through an ultimately narrow perspective, rather than give the secondary characters any individual complexities. Land’s novel received similar criticisms despite her vivid writing. The book lacks discussion of advantages she might’ve had as a white woman that undereducated maids from marginalized communities don’t—like actually getting a publishing deal in the first place.
Still, Maid is an undeniably poignant story, built on Qualley’s captivating presence, as seen in The Leftovers and Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood. She is incredibly convincing as a young mother determined to give her child the life she never had. It’s impossible not to be drawn to her performance; she’s essentially in every frame, and shows off an ingenuous star quality. Even in the moments when Maid is predictable or dawdles, Qualley’s earnestness keeps the momentum going. Directors like Nzingha Stewart, John Wells, and Lila Neugebauer spend time building out Alex’s world, beautifully capturing the scenic setting and making it all feel lived in. Maid takes a seemingly familiar but important story, making it one of the most quietly compelling dramas of the year so far.