Despite the title, Maid isn’t about being a maid. Not really. The main character, Alex, is a maid. But that’s merely a tool – a window into the lives of people so utterly distinct from her. Alex’s partner, the father of her daughter Maddy, is a drinker. When he drinks, he gets angry. He shouts, he breaks things, hits walls. Alex takes Maddy and flees their trailer in the middle of the night. Her mother, Paula, has undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and Alex has lived through her distant highs and mean lows her entire life. So, she isn’t much help. There are government systems in place to help people in Alex’s position – but they’re poorly funded and sealed up in red tape. Against the cold backdrop of Washington state, Alex – an aspiring writer – takes a job as a maid as proof of employment to get state aid.
Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, playwright and screenwriter Molly Smith Metzler fictionalises a story about cyclical abuse and trauma, the bureaucratic sinkhole of asking for help, and the differing ways in which parents try to raise their children.
“Confessions of a maid. People keep weird things in their drawers and I could list them all year. But instead, here’s what I’ll confess. Cleaning people’s houses mean I spend hours dusting credenzas that could put me through college, washing floors made of wood that could buy me a house.”
The crux of Maid, for me, is the Porn House. This is what Alex calls one of the places she cleans. She notes that there are two bedrooms, one for the husband and one for the wife. Each room has a drawer by the bed, and each one contains pornography. The man has magazines, the woman has raunchy romance novels. She wonders what the initial spark that brought these two people together was, and what led to them having separate drawers of sexual fantasies. She wonders what broke their life.
Alex and Sean, her (ex-)partner, loved each other once. Once upon a time, they were happy. They’d laugh together, and have sex in the front garden of their trailer. They’d talk about the books she’s reading for her upcoming college course. But then she told him she was pregnant, and he assumed she’d keep the child. He developed a temper and a drinking problem. The sunlit woods surrounding their home became dark and swamped in mud. It wasn’t until he hit the wall near her head that she took Maddy and left in the night. Sean never hit her, so getting help becomes near-impossible. Her mother lives with an “Australian”, Basil, and Alex doesn’t trust him. She’s estranged from her father, but it’s unclear for what reason.
It’s only until she becomes trapped in a dark, enclosed space during a cleaning job that she remembers why. Sensorially, it seems to expose an old memory. Of hiding in a cupboard, of her mother’s face – blood leaking from her nose – and her father yelling in the background. Perhaps that’s a bit too Freudian for some (the APA believes that psychological repression and unlocking is very rare) but the revelation makes sense. Alex always believed the story that her mother had stolen her in the night and made them live in a commune during a manic episode. That her father was just distant, and her mother was to blame for the chaos of her childhood. The reality isn’t that clear-cut. It’s more jaded, like a broken mirror.
“It’s hard not to want their things, their lives. Want is too soft a word – covet. It’s hard not to covet these lives you ache for because it all looks so easy, so pleasant. The coconut waters, the shelves of books, the infinity pools, the ice-cold Sancerre.”
Sean’s mother, aside from her controlling and demeaning attitude towards everyone, was an Oxy addict. Sean first shot up before he was a teenager. Alex and Sean were equals, which goes a fair way to explaining why they were together in the first place. Alex and Sean, two ‘broken’ individuals, found each other and fell in love; they had a child. Happily, ever after, right? Obviously not – the personal and interpersonal problems caused by adverse childhood experiences won’t go away just because you’re in a relationship. In fact, without adequate psychological help, they’ll get worse. The coping mechanisms and the maladaptive behaviours can become magnified once that level of emotional intimacy is on the table. Now the pair of them are in a family situation all too familiar. Sean, child of an addict, becomes an addict himself. Alex, daughter of a mentally ill woman who fled an abusive partner, finds herself having to run away with nothing but the clothes on their backs from an abusive drunk. Again.
I’ve never seen a show with such a clear understanding of cyclical trauma before. In the latter half of the series, after finding herself back living under Sean, Alex discovers Maddy hiding in a cupboard. Just the same as her mother found her. In the final episode, Paula notes how Sean – currently 24 hours sober – was shaking like Alex’s father used to shake. Everyone says that Maddy looks like her father. All of this is so masterfully unspoken, and the point is never laboured. The Netflix Originals tick of making characters explain what’s happening to them is refreshingly absent from Maid’s writing.
“But the truth is, despite being wealthy and living in a dream house with marbled bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling views of the sea, their lives are still lacking. Maybe all those long hallways and walk-in closets are just hiding places. Maybe all the glass shows you, is your own loneliness. Maybe when you live in a house that big, you lose yourself in it.”
Gendered abuse runs rife through the world of Maid. Even ostensibly decent men, such as Alex’s friend Nate, have a level of power over her. He gives Alex a car when her old one gets totalled. He welcomes her, Maddy, and Paula into his home. But it’s clear that his altruism and giving nature comes, in part, from his attraction to Alex. And once Alex finds herself accidentally back in the arms of Sean, he throws them out – giving her nowhere else to go but back to their abuser. For all the idealised vision of life he can offer Alex and her daughter – he owns a pony and a nice, big home – it’s predicated on his position as a man and hers as a woman. Maybe it plays too much into gender essentialism at points; the men hurt the women, it’s the women’s job to raise the children and the men’s job to raise themselves. But it’s honest, at least. The world does work like that sometimes.
Sean finally, truly, admits to his problem at the end of the series. Whilst spending a court-ordered four hours with Maddy, he realises that he’s only thinking about when he can next drink. He gives Alex full custody of their daughter. That’s not to say he’s forgiven, or that he’s going to have an easier time going forward. Sean’s still living under that cycle himself, and only when he realises how he’s repeating that onto his child can he admit it to himself. His life is as broken as everyone else’s, and finally, he understands that he can’t project that onto other people. What a hero.
He’s earnest about it, however, and giving away Maddy shows that he’s committed to the work of fixing himself and not vying for power over Alex or anyone else. It takes enormous strength and work to break these cycles. Danielle, a woman Alex meets at a domestic violence shelter, has strangle marks around her neck from her partner. But she runs away and goes back to him; statistically, it takes several attempts for someone to leave a domestic abuser. For Paula, even by the end of the series, she’s still working for that freedom. It takes Alex ten episodes, one year, and three hundred and thirty-eight toilets to get there.
“When I think about the house I want for my daughter and me, it’s not big and full of stuff. There’s a bed for each of us, a surface for me to write on. Maybe a yard for a big, dumb dog someday. But our space is a home because we love each other in it.”
Maid is available for streaming on Netflix.