It takes money to make money, even as a house cleaner collecting $12.50 an hour. Alex (Margaret Qualley), the 25-year-old single mother of a toddler, does the mental math as the gas and cleaning supplies she needs for her tryout shift at Value Maids drop her bank balance from $12.35 to $2.10. The remaining funds aren’t enough for a grocery-store sandwich, which means scrubbing a seaside glass-cube mansion for three hours on an empty stomach — and throwing out the perfectly good food in the fridge because it’ll go bad in a few days. But the indignities aren’t over: There’s still the $25 uniform and the eye-watering $500 background check that Alex has to pay for — costs that keep her and her 2-year-old daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) never more than a half-step from homelessness, even as she spends her days making other people’s houses more comfortable and inviting.
Adapted from Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir, “Maid” captures much of the shame of being poor and having to ask for help, as well as the bureaucratic barriers even to inadequate government aid. A social worker tells Alex, for instance, that she needs a job to qualify for subsidized day care, but she can’t go out and find work if she can’t afford to park her kid somewhere first. Alex’s artist mom, Paula (Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s real-life mother), can watch Maddy for an afternoon or two. But Paula’s undiagnosed mental illness makes her the kind of parent who’s more likely to be looked after by her daughter than the other way around. Leaving Maddy with her mother would mean an afternoon of babysitting the babysitter.
Like our own, the world of “Maid” is one in which the poor have to contort themselves into bizarre shapes to receive the assistance they’re begrudged for, while the rich are offered perks and advantages they don’t need and often never even asked for. But the Netflix limited series is such a compelling watch because it takes care to individuate Alex’s story. Her experiences — such as habitually counting down the remaining dollars in her checking account, or losing out on work after her car is totaled — certainly resonate.
But creator Molly Smith Metzler and pilot director John Wells (“Shameless”) couldn’t be less interested in sociological miserabilism. The grueling hours spent cleaning toilets or fighting her ex Sean (Nick Robinson) for custody are balanced by tender moments with Maddy, approaching something like friendship with an initially difficult client (Anika Noni Rose), and the emotional whiplash between pity, empathy and teeth-grinding frustration with her manic mom.
“Maid” opens with Alex and Maddy fleeing the trailer they’d called home with Sean, a bartender who’d punched a hole in the wall by Alex’s head a few hours earlier while drunk. He’s never laid a hand on her or their daughter, though, which gives Alex hesitation when she’s referred to a domestic violence shelter — she doesn’t want to take a spot from a woman who’s been “abused for real.” But the placement encourages Alex to reconsider her relationship with Sean, who has spent the last couple of years curbing her physical and financial independence, and reexamine her mother’s many flings with violent or exploitative men over the years.
Despite its economically oriented title, “Maid” is most compelling as a tale of healing and self-discovery. “I’m not really sure what happened to me,” Alex says to her therapy group at the shelter. Despite attending six high schools during a childhood in which her nomadic mom went from man to man, she was accepted to college but didn’t go. When her daughter is asleep, she writes about her new job and what she sees in the homes as she snoops around, which provides a welcome episodic structure to the show, as does the series of housing situations and makeshift arrangements that she has to constantly sort out to have a place to sleep at night.
Alex’s toddler isn’t too bothered by the instability — almost credulity-strainingly so — but her young mom is perturbed by how many of her own mother’s patterns she may be repeating. It’s a fear she shares with Sean, who’s eventually revealed to have survived an even more harrowing childhood.
Alex’s relationships with her mother and with Sean are exceptionally complicated and achingly familiar, with the writers refusing simple villains and neat solutions. The show gradually illustrates the devastating consequences of Sean’s emotional and financial abuse over the season, for instance, while observing how Alex’s parents (like the rest of society) are much more eager to believe his promises of male redemption (“you don’t leave a good man when he’s trying”) than her bruiseless accusations of intolerable mistreatment.
But it’s the mother-daughter bond — and strain — that shines brightest. Qualley and MacDowell are each other’s best scene partners, with the younger actor anchoring the production with emotional realism and the screen veteran arguably doing the most impressive work of her career, flitting through thoughts and moods as quickly as the pages of a book.
If Alex occasionally comes across as a blank screen, Paula is a cheap firecracker: You never know when she’ll go off or how much destruction she’ll cause. Her bounteous cascade of salt-and-pepper curls — along with her grand proclamations about goddess energy and female power — projects a confidence that the flaky, bad-news-averse Paula doesn’t actually possess. Alex would be the first to admit that her mother has always been an easy mark, especially for such con men as her current boyfriend, Basil (Toby Levins), who sports an Australian accent that, like him, is defined by a tendency to abruptly disappear.
Set in Washington state and shot in British Columbia, “Maid” represents both the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest and the seething income inequality that’s rapidly redefining the region. A touch of surrealism helps express Alex’s mortification at her need for assistance, as well as the depression that swallows her up when she’s intimidated into giving up parts of her autonomy late in the season. In the same way that Netflix’s serial rape mystery “Unbelievable” set a new bar in candidly depicting rape kits (and how they should be done), “Maid” does the same for domestic violence shelters. It wasn’t until shelter manager Denise (a fantastic BJ Harrison) gives Alex a tour of the facility that I realized how rarely they’re seen on screen, let alone portrayed in pop culture with nuance.
The limited series’ depiction of the hardscrabble poor may prove more controversial. Though it takes place over the course of a year, “Maid” isn’t really about chronic or inescapably systemic poverty; there’s hope for a way out by the end that might resonate more with middle- and upper-class viewers than with Alex’s real-life cohort. A couple of scenes feel underthought, especially when Alex faces heightened pressure to maximize her funds. There’s also an unconvincing colorblindness in the small-town Washington setting that lightly chips away at the show’s otherwise persuasive socioeconomic critiques.
But as the rest of the series makes clear, this isn’t a story about all house cleaners. It’s about one woman, who mostly just daydreams of dancing with her daughter in her arms — in a professionally designed child’s playroom if possible, but just as happily in the woods or at the beach, where sunny, warm, love-filled days can be enjoyed by anyone.
Maid (10 episodes) streams Friday on Netflix.