Messy Reality“Maid” Puts an Unflinching Lens on Women in Poverty

Actress Margaret Qualley as Alex in

Actress Margaret Qualley as Alex in "Maid" (Photo credit: Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix)

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix limited series Maid.

The limited series Maid on Netflix opens with Alex (Margaret Qualley) fleeing her home in the middle of the night with her young daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet). Her boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) didn’t hit her or Maddy—a fact that Alex repeats aloud to herself and others—he just hit the wall near her and screamed in her face. When she seeks support from social services, social worker Jody (Amy Reid) suggests a domestic-violence shelter that has an opening.

“I’m not abused,” responds Alex, who also turns down a suggestion to file a police report. “And say what? That he didn’t hit me?”

The ten-episode arc follows Alex as she seeks safety and stability for herself and her daughter. As a poor single mother working a low-paid housecleaning job for wealthy families, she faces barrier after barrier: At its core, Maid is about how cycles of abuse keep people—especially women—in poverty as society protects abusers, making it even more difficult for survivors to heal and flourish. The show was inspired by the memoir of the same name, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, by Stephanie Land, who similarly escaped emotional and physical abuse to keep her children safe.

Alex’s rejection of the domestic-violence shelter reflects her discomfort with recognizing Sean as an abuser and herself as a victim. After a car accident leaves her and Maddy in increasingly dire straits, the same social worker reminds Alex of the DV shelter. She again attempts to shrug off Sean’s abuse (“I’d really hate to take a bed from somebody that’s been abused for real” she insists), before realizing that the shelter is her safest option. It becomes a crucial turning point for her understanding of domestic violence as more than physical injury. “Punching a wall next to you is emotional abuse,” explains Danielle (Aimee Carrero), a fellow resident at the shelter. “Before they hit you, they hit near you. Next time, it was gonna be your face, and you know that.” Intimidation, threats, and financial control, Alex comes to see, are all part of the abuse that she experienced—and that, as Maid points out, are tools that Sean will continue to use against her.

Early in the series, the court grants Sean temporary full custody of Maddy despite his alcoholism and abuse because his lawyer paints Alex as an unfit parent. At a high point in the series, when Alex finally seems to be turning her life around—Maddy has a spot at an excellent preschool that she loves, Alex lives in a nice apartment that she barters cleaning and landscaping services to help pay for—Sean, drunk and confused, breaks into her landlords’ apartment, mistaking it for hers, and they kick her out. Later in the series, when she runs out of other options, Alex goes back to living with Sean so Maddy has somewhere to sleep, and he subsequently controls her finances, her ability to work, and her access to a cell phone by manipulating and threatening her. 

It’s not just Sean and Alex who are impacted by cycles of abuse. Alex runs into Danielle after she’s left the domestic-violence shelter to realize that she’s back with the man who strangled her, and she pretends not to know Alex. Alex’s mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell), who has an untreated bipolar disorder, struggles to leave abusive relationships with various men, including her current husband, Basil, who steals from her, lies to her, and controls her access to the outside world. The couple runs away often, usually leaving Alex worried about Paula’s whereabouts.  

A claustrophobic moment—she gets stuck in a crawl space while cleaning a house—knocks loose a repressed memory from Alex’s childhood: the time she hid in a cupboard when her estranged father, Hank (Billy Burke), was abusing her mother. Trying to free her adult self from the crawl space, she recalls Paula comforting her, reassuring her that they’ll both be okay. When she confronts Hank about this, his denial of the past abuse mirrors Sean’s; it’s notable that he continually enables Sean’s abuse, refuses to testify on Alex’s behalf, and insists that Alex should support Sean for trying to stay sober. The men bond over their sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, forging an alliance that Hank values more than the well-being of his daughter and granddaughter. 

For every small success, there are a dozen additional hurdles, as shown by the montages where “Maid” catalogs the hours Alex spends on paperwork just to barely get by.

A lack of support for single mothers in poverty keeps Alex trapped in a cycle. She’s forced to rely on Sean, Hank, Paula (and whichever significant other she’s with at the moment), and even single dad Nate (Raymond Ablack), who positions himself as a nice guy who just wants to help Alex. He offers her support throughout the series, giving her rides and eventually offering her a spare car his family doesn’t need. Nate allows her and Maddy to stay with him and his son Brady when they have nowhere else to go. But when Alex rebuffs his romantic overtures, explaining that they’re not on equal footing, Nate fails to see the reality of her situation: that she’s not a guest, she’s dependent on him for housing, food, and basic forms of security and safety. And Alex’s wariness of dating within this unequal power dynamic is validated when she sleeps with Sean again after a traumatic, emotional night and Nate kicks her and Maddy out, leaving them out of options and forcing them back to living with Sean. 

There are very few and limited social support systems available to help Alex, and the other survivors in this series, afloat. Alex faces bureaucratic red tape each time she tries to seek assistance—she needs a job in order to get a daycare grant so that she can work; she needs a landlord who’s willing to work with the Tenant-Based Rental Assistance system; she has to find a daycare for Maddy that will accept her subsidy and the paperwork that comes with it. For every small success, there are a dozen additional hurdles, as shown by the montages where Maid catalogs the hours Alex spends on paperwork just to barely get by. Underlining her precariousness, a dollar amount appears on screen to track her meager income and ticks down to zero as she waits for the next paycheck.

Actress Margaret Qualley as Alex in

Actress Margaret Qualley as Alex in "Maid" (Photo credit: Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix)

The governmental bureaucracy is another reason that her mom, Paula, remains in cycles of abuse with various men. Once she’s free of Basil, she’s back in another relationship, this time with a shop owner who controls when she works and how often she contacts Alex. She repeatedly turns down suggestions to get assistance because she’s—understandably—completely distrustful of government social supports, given the system’s track record of screwing over both her and her daughter.

Ultimately, Alex’s reckoning with the impact of such vicious cycles allows her to make a drastic change: She moves to Missoula to study creative writing at the University of Montana in a program that offers a scholarship and family housing for her and Maddy. But this new life is made possible by the help and goodwill of others, particularly fellow mothers and survivors, including domestic-violence counselor Denise (BJ Harrison), and Regina (Anika Noni Rose), one of Alex’s wealthy cleaning clients, who connects Alex with a lawyer working pro bono. Maid ends on a hopeful note, with Alex and Sean working to break the same cycles of abuse and addiction that their parents were never able to escape. Following a visitation with Maddy that made Sean want to grab a drink, he relinquishes full custody of Maddy to Alex and resolves to stay sober and get better for his daughter. The series ends with Alex reading to her creative writing support group about the future she envisions with Maddy in Missoula: “This whole new world is for her.” It’s an empowering message, especially for survivors: It’s never too late to end an abusive cycle and move forward into healing.

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Alaina Leary is the communications manager for We Need Diverse Books. She teaches courses in Emerson College’s graduate department of Publishing, Literature, and Writing. Her work has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She currently lives just outside Boston with her wife and their three literary cats. Follow her @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.