6 February 2023

Ticking clock of tension sustains a captivating escape narrative throughout Maid

Margaret Qualley in Maid.

By Tim Kroenert

12 November 2021

The Netflix series Maid gets deep into the weeds of an emotionally abusive relationship and its fallout. It centres on Alex (Margaret Qualley), a young mother who flees her partner but falls into a new kind of nightmare, a story inspired by American writer Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive. Maid follows Alex’s struggle to navigate legal and social bureaucracies that seem forever stacked against her, trying to keep herself and her daughter safe.

Even by the standards of family violence, emotional and psychological abuse is a pernicious kind of evil. The lack of bruises and broken bones can hide its very real effects. It’s also frighteningly common. Australian Bureau of Statistics research estimates 25 per cent of women and 14 per cent of men experience emotional abuse by a partner after the age of 15. As a result, 76 per cent of these women and 46 per cent of the men experience anxiety or fear.

Maid is effective in part because of the economy with which it draws out the nature of the abuse. In the early episodes, as Alex interacts with well-meaning loved ones and social services, she struggles to articulate precisely what it is that she has suffered at the hands of her partner Sean (Nick Robinson). The series opens cold with her escape from Sean’s trailer home. At first we the audience see only fleeting flashbacks of the shouting, broken plates and punched walls that preceded the escape.

During the first half of the series, Sean is portrayed with sympathy. He works hard, he loves his daughter. He has made sacrifices to be with Alex. He’s struggled with alcohol abuse and anger management … but hey, he’s trying. When their mutual friends treat Alex as if she’s overreacting, we can understand why they might think so. 

Maid bides its time before fully portraying what Sean’s abuse looks like in action. Once it does, it is a harrowing indictment that we feel full force.

Throughout, the precariousness of Alex’s situation is a ticking clock of tension. She ekes out a living as a domestic cleaner, while an on-screen tally charts the meagre cash in her pocket at any given time. Qualley’s captivatingly detailed performance underlines this tension. Her Alex, an aspiring writer, is fiercely intelligent and undeniably bold, even as she contends with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and desperate circumstances.

Alex’s present situation brings her close to her past. Over the course of the series she gains insights into her relationship with her mother (played by Qualley’s real-life mother, Andie MacDowell), who has borderline personality disorder, and with her estranged father (Billy Burke). In the end, her path to salvation is paved with kindnesses, both those she receives and those she imparts. Not all of Maid’s resolutions are happy, but those that are are well earnt and heartfelt. 

Maid is currently available on Netflix.

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