‘Maid’ Review: Margaret Qualley Gives an Award-Worthy Performance in Netflix Limited Series

The "Leftovers" star earns center stage in this eye-opening story of a single mother fighting to survive in America.
Margaret Qualey in "Maid"
Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix

There are many moments found within Netflix’s limited series “Maid” where I just said, “Wow.” It wasn’t strictly the moving performances from an all-around talented cast, nor was it the empathetic and complex relationships that develop and change over 10 episodes. It was the overall package, one that blossomed into a show that left me laughing as often as I was crying.

Inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir of the same name, “Maid” tells the story of Alex (Margaret Qualley), a young woman living in Washington and raising her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. The audience meets Alex as she’s embarking on a transition far too many have to make: fleeing in the middle of the night, trying not to wake her boyfriend, Sean (Nick Robinson), in order to protect her daughter (and herself) from the emotionally abusive alcoholic. Alex and her child make it out, but that’s only the beginning of where series creator Molly Smith Metzler takes us throughout the series.

Metzler uses Land’s memoir as the catalyst to tell stories about women too often presented in negative, stereotypical terms. “Maid” forces us to confront our own societal attitudes about everything, from domestic violence to those who rely upon government assistance. Right away, Alex feels like she doesn’t fall into the stereotypical parameters of her situation. A victim of emotional abuse, Alex doesn’t believe she requires domestic violence housing because it would take a spot away from a woman who’s “really been” abused. The depiction of Alex’s mental state shows us how she feels worthless; worthless of help, worthless of love, and ultimately worthless in telling her story to help others.

Alex isn’t unintelligent, but she’s surrounded by situations and people that chronically underestimate her because of societal assumptions. The series isn’t afraid to emphasis her emotional perspective over strict reality, either, such as a custody proceeding where the only word she hears is “legal” over and over, or when Alex uses her EBT card to buy groceries and imagines the checker getting on the loudspeaker to shout out her impoverished state. Qualley captures Alex’s constantly shifting mentality, from the depression she feels due to Sean’s control, to her humorous attempts to get people to like her. It’s obvious why Qualley is considered one of the most exciting new actresses out there because she makes you see Alex’s lived experience, whether you’ve been her or fear becoming her.

Each episode taps into so many key emotions, it’s remarkable the young actress is able to handle everything on her shoulders. Not only is Alex dealing with her chronic homelessness and custody problems, she’s also dealing with her bipolar mother Paula (played by Qualley’s own mother, Andie MacDowell) and a contentious relationship with her absent father, Hank (Billy Burke). Alex wants so desperately to fix and save everything in her life and it’s hardest felt here, as she deals with repressed memories of her own mother’s life.

“Maid”Ricardo Hubbs / Netflix

It’s no surprise that MacDowell and Qualley are fantastic together, having a natural ease and conveying a sense of dark history between them. Alex has been down this road with her mother — one involving mismanaged money and bad men — for years, and as the series goes on, Alex’s biggest question becomes, “What would I do if I stopped trying to save my drowning family?” Alex wants to be a savior and the hardest thing for her to accept is that people have to be open to her help. One young mother, who Alex meets in the domestic violence shelter, returns to her abusive husband, and Alex can’t understand why.

There have been articles over the last few weeks discussing how “Maid” shows poverty in a new light and while that’s true, it’s a base exploration of the show. The series talks about who’s worthy of our presumed charity (and how much of that charity comes with ridiculous hopes indicative of a broken system). More importantly, it talks about how help is generally only given if a person has presumably suffered enough. There are numerous characters Alex encounters who need help, but they’re too afraid or ashamed to ask.

Alex takes to being a maid in order to get on government aid. One of her first clients is a wealthy woman named Regina (wonderfully played by Anika Noni Rose). The obvious haves-and-have-nots plot kicks things off with Regina treating Alex like dirt on her shoe. But much like the series in general, their relationship blossoms into something different. Regina has money, but wants a family and the horror of raising a child without her husband is terrifying to her. Eventually, the pair garner a genuine friendship, with each woman realizing the other heard their inner scream for help.

There are so many moments within the series that I’d love to discuss, just on their own, but to tell too much of Alex’s story lessens its overall impact. I haven’t even mentioned MacDowell’s ability to bring levity and heart to her struggling character, or Robinson’s blend of charm, fragility, and horrific dominance as Sean. We need more stories like this and, hands down, “Maid” deserves all the acclaim it gets.

Grade: A

“Maid” premieres Friday, October 1 on Netflix.

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