Alex, the 23-year old domestic abuse survivor, could teach our female protagonists a thing or two or twelve about surviving utterly hopeless and demoralizing circumstances.
Accustomed to Pakistani television, one watches Maid with expectations of dredging through a dark abyss of misery. And the 10-part limited series on Netflix, inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, has been dubbed as ‘misery porn’. But it’s ‘miserable’ more for its reflection on the system and it various forms of abuse rather than the main character’s inability to cope, as would be the frustratingly obvious case on Pakistani television.
Maid takes us through the story of 23-year-old Alex (a brilliant Margaret Qualley), who walks out of an abusive relationship with Sean, long-time boyfriend and father of their two-year-old daughter Maddy. While she feels she doesn’t qualify to benefit from state social services as a survivor of domestic violence, ‘as he has never hit her and she doesn’t have the bruises to prove the violence’ she is corrected and explained how emotional abuse is just as violently abusive, if not worse.
Alex finds herself in an apparently irreparable mess in the very first episode and you spend 50 minutes watching her go through pennilessness, homelessness, hunger and even a car crash in which she almost loses her daughter. You expect her to breakdown, but she doesn’t. At times Alex’s resilience and strength seems unreal but then she balances it out with occasional naivete that convinces one that she is after all human. When she invites her abusive ex (who is also Maddy’s father) and his friends to Maddy’s birthday party, to the little sanctuary of an abode she has landed with great struggle, you keep asking yourself, ‘why would she do that and risk getting evicted’?
Alex’s relationship with her mother (played by her real life mother Andie McDowell) is at times just as unreal and one wonders in awe at Alex’s patience and warmth in dealing with this extremely unhinged character who jumps from relationship to relationship, through one trailer after the other, without ever being a true guardian to her daughter. Though artistic, whimsical and thoroughly free spirited – she believes the sun rises from within her body – Paula has an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which makes her hugely unreliable. Alex puts up with it with saintly stamina.
It’s not just Alex’s inner strength that compels you to watch. It’s her journey, from dealing with a demoralizing welfare system to tackling the skeletons that connect her abusive relationship with Sean to her mother’s similar ordeal with her own father. It all comes tumbling back but instead of weakening her, it strengthens her and nudges her on. When she sees, in shock, her two year old cowering in a kitchen cabinet out of fear of erupting violence between her parents, Alex decides this isn’t the life she wants for Maddy. There are no two thoughts to it.
Alex is thankfully given agency. She is a gifted writer who uses her skill to further her passion. She’s hardworking and has no qualms signing up with Value Maids, a small service that provides maids to the fortunate on Fisher Island. She works herself through literal rags to almost riches and manages to earn both stability and security for herself and Maddy. The gender division could be seen as a bit unfair: all three men in her life are a let-down. Her father being the cause for her dysfunctional past, Sean being the reason for her present state and the apparently idyllic Nate helping out in the hope of a potential relationship that she’s not interested in.
The women, on the other hand, are aspirational. There’s the obvious bond in mother-daughters Paula, Alex and Maddy. Regina, her first employer, may come in as an insensitive and privileged women but she eventually turns out to be a true friend. Denise, the manager of a domestic violence shelter is kind, comforting and compassionate. These women become her support system.
Compared to our local dramas, there are the misfortunes of so many stories rolled into one big ordeal here, and yet there is hope and aspiration, strength and pride and resilience that leaves one wishing for a fraction of Alex’s strength to rub off on a Dilnasheen or Meher, Seher or Samra. With Maid trending in Top 10 in Pakistan, one can hope that the trend picks up, if nothing else.