By Sarah Osman
Series creator Molly Smith Metzler clearly cares about the subject matter and is determined to tell a nuanced story about the hellish plight of the victims of domestic abuse.
Maid, created by Molly Smith Metzler. Streaming on Netflix.
Inspired by Stephanie Land’s acclaimed memoir of the same name, Maid is a moving and complex look at the cycle of poverty and domestic abuse in America. The Netflix series follows Alex (Margaret Qualley should be considered for multiple awards), who takes Maddy, her three year old daughter, in the middle of the night and runs away to escape the girl’s emotionally abusive and alcoholic father, Sean (Nick Robinson, who also gives a riveting performance). Alex is then faced with the numerous obstacles and government roadblocks on her way to financial and custodial freedom.
The series (for the most part) follows Land’s memoir closely, bringing in only a few minor changes. Quite a few of the scenes are pulled verbatim from Land’s volume. And that is impressive, given that this book posed considerable challenges in making a successful transition from page to screen. But creator Molly Smith Metzler clearly cares about the subject matter and is determined to tell a nuanced story about the hellish plight of the victims of domestic abuse.
Numerous visual cues throughout Maid are used to give us insights into Alex’s mind. There is a running calculator in her head that adds up how much everything costs. And we see how she interprets official information: for instance, when looking over government forms, she reads each document as containing references to “White Trash” “Freeloader,” etc. All of this reflects a sad reality.When one is impoverished, it’s hard to focus on anything other than on how much things cost. Ironically, while Alex isn’t what many would perceive as the “stereotypical freeloader,” she’s convinced that she is. She doesn’t want to accept a spot in a domestic abuse shelter because she fears that she would be taking a room away from someone who has really been “abused.” Alex wants to work and is a talented writer. She desires what is best for her and her child — which is what any caring mother would want. Maid reminds viewers that, just because someone is poor, it does not mean that they are lazy or that they want to have little. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Alex needs to work as a maid in order to pay the bills — facing some truly horrid clients in the process — and to be eligible for EBT and housing for her and her daughter. Alex also has to deal with her bipolar mother, Paula (played by Qualley’s real life mother, Andie MacDowell). MacDowell captures Paula’s instability perfectly and the pair have perfect chemistry on screen. Watching Alex try to help her mother explains, at least in part, why Alex may have fallen for the violent Sean in the first place: she is so used to taking care of others that she never had the chance to take care of herself. Research shows that victims of domestic abuse were often exposed to those kinds of situations in unstable homes during their childhood.
Much of the power of the series lies in that it goes beyond Alex’s story. Maid takes the time to explore other women in the same situation as hers. One woman who befriends Alex at the shelter eventually returns to her husband, who had strangled her. It befuddles Alex but, considering the stigma, as well as the financial and societal difficulties facing her, it’s not absurd that this woman would return to her hostile partner. The owner of the shelter reminds Alex that it usually takes 10 times before a woman leaves a brutish partner for good. Many often question why those in an abusive relationship don’t just leave. The psychological barriers are powerful: some women are so manipulated by their partner that they begin to believe his lies, believing that they deserve the abuse. Another brutally honest truth revealed in Maid is how many women tell Alex to just go back to Sean, that he is trying, he was just drunk, he does love you, etc. Very few flat out tell Alex that yes, he is indeed a monster — getting her daughter away from him was the right decision.
When I was living through my own abusive relationship, I had many women tell me that getting angry was just what men do. I was doing the wrong thing by questioning his behavior. I have since learned that this is not true; once the cycle of abuse begins, it continues and becomes worse.
Just like its source material, Maid is a story that needs to be told. The cycle of abuse and poverty in this country is often not discussed because those who have experienced it are ashamed; they feel judged and embarrassed (much like Alex). But this problem must be talked about in order to generate meaningful change. Land’s memoir received numerous critical accolades when it was first released, and its Netflix adaptation deserves to receive just as many.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman