'Maid' and the correlating cycles of poverty and abuse

The new Netflix miniseries reveals how intergenerational trauma and poverty repeats itself, over and over


Watching Maid is an exercise in sustained anxiety. The new Netflix miniseries opens with its protagonist, Alex (Margaret Qualley), quietly escaping, breath held and with her two year-old daughter in-tow, from her abusive boyfriend in the dead of night. The rest of the show is all about the aftermath of this escape — a seemingly unending cascade of things going wrong and a painstaking diagram of how, when you’re poor, taking one step forward tends to simultaneously mean taking two steps back. Amid Alex’s persistent troubles, about halfway through the show it feels momentarily as if ten mostly hour-long episodes is a bit overlong — how long can we stay on the same rollercoaster of things briefly going up, only to nosedive downhill again? Yet by its end, Maid reveals itself to be building toward something much greater — a full-scale portrait of how the interconnected cycle of poverty and abuse is built to repeat itself again and again, across generations.

Based on the bestselling memoir of the same name by author Stephanie Land, the show tracks a young mother’s journey to a better future for her and her daughter as she works as a maid, dusting unimaginably wealthy mansions and scrubbing off grime in abandoned, vomit-inducing houses, all for meager pay that tends to shrivel up immediately. But the job is just one part to a labyrinthine network that Alex must grope around to find stability — the complex legalese (Sean, her ex-boyfriend and father of her daughter, takes her to court early on in the show), the mountains of paperwork, the network of bureaucracy and constant catch-22s that make it practically impossible for someone in need or in danger to get help. “How is this assistance assisting me?” Alex frustratedly asks a social worker at one point. A numbered ticker pops up on-screen periodically throughout the show (beginning with the grand $18 she has in her wallet when she first escapes) tracking just how quickly her savings dwindle with every twist and turn.

And there are many twists and turns. In the first episode alone, Alex endures a hellish marathon on the day after her departure: fainting from hunger and exhaustion at her first cleaning gig; watching her car get totaled in an accident (with her toddler in the car while she is on her knees on the side of a highway) during the drive back to redo the cleaning job she collapsed at; and falling asleep for the night on a ferry station floor. Over time, whenever Alex seems to find a break, disaster strikes — yet it’s never in a way that feels purely like a stroke of fantastical misfortune. Instead, it always seems to be a dismayingly natural sequence: living in precarity, Maid makes clear, breeds more of the same. Climbing up a step is practically impossible when the foundation below you is already crumbling.

Alex does ever so slowly push her way out, with the help of a few guardian angels: a social worker who helps her navigate her options; a domestic violence shelter and its vital network of female survivors; one of her clients who becomes an unlikely savior. One of the few blind spots of the show, though, is in failing to directly address how Alex’s way out can be informed by her white womanhood. “You don’t exist to them,” Alex’s boss Yolanda, a Latinx woman, says to Alex about their clients. Yolanda is “just a burrito they call when their bathroom starts smelling bad.” Yet, a young white woman like Alex is less interchangeable, less invisible, and far more likely to access a rare lifeline from a stranger or from society.

But the support system the show primarily focuses on is the most troubling, and the one Alex returns to the most: her own family and ex-boyfriend, the orbit of abuse that is the very source of her troubles. Most survivors of domestic violence leave seven times before they leave for good, Denise, the woman who runs the shelter, tells Alex. Soon enough, Alex is pulled back toward her ex, in large part because without enough resources she becomes financially dependent on him, a fact that Sean is aware of and exploits.

Meanwhile, Sean, an alcoholic in and out of rehab, is enabled by a myopic understanding of abuse. Alex’s mother and father, along with Alex herself early on, are reluctant to seriously consider Sean an abuser because he had not physically struck her. This view is informed by a complicated family history — Alex’s own father, also a recovering alcoholic, was violent toward her mother, a traumatic memory that Alex has burrowed into her subconscious. Alex’s father, in turn, is especially reluctant to help her testify that she was abused because doing so would jeopardize Sean’s journey to sobriety. “You don’t leave a man who’s trying,” Alex’s mother echoes at one point. The women that damaged men hurt on the way to becoming undamaged are apparently altogether acceptable, even understandable, casualties.

The latter episodes of the show, the stretch that makes Maid remarkable, quietly needles at this network of trauma. It is unflinching but nuanced in casting Alex’s family as deeply scarred people, while retaining a measured sense of empathy in tracking how self-destruction manifests through intergenerational trauma. The show is unforgiving of Sean as an abuser, but also acknowledges that his behavior is fed by addiction, which is rooted in an upbringing ravaged by his own abuse.

In all of this, the most complex storyline is in Alex’s mother, Paula (a brilliant Andie MacDowell), whose arc reveals the show’s grand, sharply rendered tragedy. A bohemian artist, Paula initially reads as neglectful, unstable, and often explicitly toxic in a way that tends to multiply her daughter’s predicaments. Yet we come to see her as a woman who squirms and evades when Alex asks her about the domestic violence she faced, whose self-absorption ultimately reads as a learned survival instinct: to look forward at all costs and keep your head in the clouds most of the time lest you confront your wounds. How many women are cast flatly as “unstable,” when they simply didn’t have the language, the resources, or the self-understanding for what they endured?

Paula’s unaddressed trauma results in her own particular pattern of self-destruction that keeps her from climbing out of a similar hole as Alex. Toward the end of the show, Paula becomes homeless herself. Even when it feels impossible, Alex keeps trying to help her — after all, she’s been taking care of her mother since she was six, Alex tells Denise. “What would happen if you didn’t?” Denise asks rhetorically. In a poignant scene toward the end of the show, Paula seems to finally accept help from her daughter, to agree to progress alongside Alex, only for her to soon fall back into a dubious situation again. “This is your adventure,” she tells Alex. “It’s not mine.” There is a deeply sad, knowing glint in her eyes — for some, it’s too late to be pulled out of the cycle.