Film & Television

‘Maid’: Beautifully Made and Terribly Important

Like Fate, the tastes of Netflix viewers are fickle. Just when you thought they lusted after extravagant period romance — Bridgerton, that naughty Regency romp, attracted 82 million viewers in its first month — there’s an about-face and a sudden insatiable appetite for a brutal survival drama set in South Korea. 

Since its launch, Squid Game has drawn 111 million viewers, and grabbed the number one spot on Netflix’s Top Ten lists in 90 countries. The series is banned in China, but bootlegged versions are easy to find. South Korean politicians have woven some of its imagery into their campaigns, while North Korean officials have pointed to it as proof that capitalism is inherently evil. The hapless real-life owner of a phone number used in the show has received up to 4,000 calls a day. Vans slip-on shoes, worn by fictional Squid Game contestants, have seen a 7,800 percent increase in sales. And it’s predicted that this year’s most popular Halloween costumes will be Squid Game players and guards (along with Bernie Sanders bundled up at the inauguration, Cruella, and the Met Gala’s Kim Kardashian).

At this point, if you haven’t watched, you may be wondering what the fuss is about. Squid Game follows a contest in which more than 400 players, all of whom are deeply in debt, are abducted, taken to a secret offshore location, and forced to compete for a prize of 45.6 billion South Korean won. They play a series of familiar but demented children’s games. Desperate for money, they are at first incredulous that the games are so simple, but they soon realize that when the masked organizers told them they’d be eliminated if they lost, they meant eliminated, as in gunned down in a spray of violence that puts Quentin Tarantino’s films to shame. It’s shocking and sickening and strangely, almost hypnotically, addictive.

Squid Game revolves around senseless violence, and psychologists have already warned that, while watching it may not turn an otherwise normal person into a ruthless killer, it does have the potential to dull our natural sense of outrage, anesthetizing people to real-life violence. Regardless, its entertainment value is certainly being embraced in record-breaking numbers.

Netflix released another original series about three weeks after Squid Game. It too revolves around a type of violence, but in a very different way. 

Maid, a limited 10-episode series created by Molly Smith Metzler and inspired by Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, follows the story of Alex, a young mother who tries to escape her emotionally abusive, alcoholic boyfriend, Sean, only to find that the system offers very little opportunity for a fresh start. It drills into the endless paperwork, false starts, and “catch-22s” that plague domestic abuse victims. It stunningly educates on the realities of overcomplicated social services and painfully dramatizes endless familial cycles of addiction, abuse, and mental illness. And, if I’ve made it sound too preachy, Maid does all of this important work while delivering award-worthy performances, writing, and direction. It’s sometimes hard to watch, but always worthwhile.

The first episode begins with Alex sneaking out of bed, carefully stepping over broken glass and other evidence of an earlier altercation, collecting her sleeping two-year-old, Maddy, and driving away just in time as a man emerges from their shared trailer screaming “What are you doing?” Alex goes first to some friends, only to find that they’ve already called Sean, who is headed over. With very little in her wallet, she and Maddy sleep in the car until a police officer interrupts and tells her she can sleep in the Walmart parking lot or go to social services.

In this way, Alex is introduced to the labyrinthine processes created in theory to help the helpless. Pressed by a well-meaning but brusque social worker, she admits that she is has no college diploma, no skills, no money, nowhere to live. We learn that she can’t count on her family (and soon understand why). And we watch and share her frustration as she’s offered work that she can’t take because she has Maddy, and a daycare voucher that she can’t accept until she can prove she has a job. When the social worker asks if Alex has reported her abuse to the police, she scoffs, “And say what? He didn’t hit me.” It takes time for her to realize that emotional abuse, financial abuse, not to mention constant fear and the threat of violence, are legitimately domestic abuse. Alex lands a job with the very shady “Value Maids,” and temporarily, reluctantly leaves Maddy with Alex’s mother, Paula, a hippie artist who lives in a trailer with a younger allegedly Australian lover and suffers from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.

Alex’s journey continues in subsequent episodes, as she struggles to find a safe place to live, fights Sean for custody, endures unfair criticism from the wealthy owners of houses she cleans, attempts to help her mother, and always, always does her best for Maddy. There are moments of elation (when she scores a preschool scholarship), as well as despair (when she does the math and realizes that her expenses will burn up her entire salary), terror (her parked car is totaled with Maddy strapped in the backseat), and revulsion (a more tenured maid forces her to scrub the toilet in a place where squatters kept living after the plumbing was turned off). The odds are stacked immovably against her, but Alex persists.

All of Maid is told through Alex’s point of view, and lead actor Margaret Qualley is onscreen for every scene. Just 27 herself, Qualley has appeared as Ann Reinking in the wonderful miniseries Fosse/Verdon and as aspiring writer Joanna in the more recent My Salinger Year. She’s absolutely wonderful in Maid, and someone whose career we should all watch with interest and enthusiasm. Nick Robinson plays her boyfriend, Sean. He was utterly likable in the 2018 coming-of-age movie Love, Simon, and here he finds ways to make Sean more complex and sympathetic than a stock villain. Anika Noni Rose is powerful as a house-cleaning client who antagonizes Alex at first but eventually becomes an ally. And adorable newcomer Rylea Neveah Whittet is about as natural as any child actor you’re bound to see.

However, the real revelation here is Andie MacDowell (Qualley’s real-life mother) as Paula. She has never shown the range she does here, vocally or physically. Her scenes with Qualley are alternately entertaining and terrifying. Whether she’s dancing with her granddaughter, painting wild murals, getting stoned, or mourning the loss of an imagined gallery show or the house her mother left her, she delivers a soulful, larger-than-life performance that is magnificent.

Squid Game is (as far as we know) purely fictional. However, there are 500,000 homeless in America. There are 900,000 cases of domestic violence each year (and those are only the reported ones, a fraction of actual incidents). It takes the average woman seven attempts to finally leave her abusive partner. And nearly 25 percent of single mothers live below the poverty line. These numbers are not fiction. 

Maid shines a light on a very real problem, as well as the thoroughly broken system trying to solve it. It should be required watching for all of us.

Maid is available to stream on Netflix.

 

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  • Chris Lombardi October 19, 2021 at 10:24 am

    And there I was saying that I didn’t regret canceling my Netflix subscription (because of Chapelle’s transphobia). Dayum.

    Reply