In the opening scenes of the new Netflix show Maid, Alex (played by Margaret Qualley) flees her shitty trailer inhabited by her shitty boyfriend in the middle of the night with just her toddler and a backpack of their belongings, sleeping rough and then having a social worker explain to them that they’re not quite desperate enough for immediate assistance.
“So you’re looking for a big, fat government handout because you are a jobless, white trash piece of shit,” Alex imagines a social worker telling her when in reality, she’s told that resources are limited, systems for obtaining them are labyrinthine, and proving domestic violence with no visible marks or witnesses is damn near impossible. These things are true, but the series reveals that Alex’s childhood was peppered with them as her mother sought refuge from one abusive relationship in another. I could identify with the Alex of later in the series after this has been revealed, as I also learned about the labyrinth for the first time when I was around the age of Alex’s toddler, lessons taught again and again as the domestic scenery of my childhood shifted from house to house, parents’ relationships breaking, reforming, cracking up again, but the situations resembling those Alex’s character flees remaining mostly unchanged.
I should have been nodding, but Qualley’s (the daughter of Hollywood rom-com royalty Andie MacDowell’s) wide-eyed wonder at the bleak fuckery of it seemed designed to make this a fish-out-of-water tale about an outsider getting a temporary taste of what it’s like to be a working-class victim of domestic violence. I spent much of the early episodes thinking I was watching a show in which a writer’s room imagines poverty so that another celebrity’s kid could poormouth her way to becoming a critical darling. That impression was true in part, but the show also weaves a messy, unexpected fairy tale out of the tangled threads of generational domestic violence.
That initial sour taste lingered as a calculator superimposed on the side of the screen subtracts the cost of dollar-store cleaning supplies necessary for the house cleaning job (the only work she can find) off the $12 that makes up all the money Alex has in the world. Her SNAP forms are, once again, headed with the words “White Trash.” It was hard to know who these signifiers of her peril were meant for, the character or the viewer. Especially since, as Alex navigates the world of domestic violence shelters and thankless labor, a cast of women of color stand at the ready to explain her circumstances to her. A neighbor at the shelter points out that abusers don’t announce they’re going to strangle you on the first date; the kindly shelter director patiently reveals that it often takes survivors multiple attempts to escape the cycle of violence if they ever escape at all when that same neighbor returns to her abuser; a bemused colleague looks on as Alex gags during her apparent first go at deep cleaning a filthy bathroom.
“You think this is some kind of fucking fairy tale, Alex?” her abusive boyfriend Sean (played by Nick Robinson) screams into Alex’s face in a flashback during that first episode, illustrating the abuse she’s left. As the heroine wanders into the wilderness in those early moments, apparently confused by this new world, she does resemble some sort of temporarily displaced Cinderella, having the rules of the lower classes explained to her by its permanent residents.
“This seems like rich people explaining poverty to other rich people,” I texted a friend from my hometown, one who is very well-versed in my brutal childhood and my sensitivity to anything approaching the Hillibilly Elegy-style of recreating those circumstances through bad wigs and prestige-drama Oscar-chasers shouting all their lines in embarrassing accents. Somewhere around episode five, when the series sheds its early, affected tendency to flash the words “white trash” at the audience any time they’re meant to understand that Alex is poor and struggling, I realized these false notes are absolutely meant to clumsily initiate the unfamiliar with the shaky prospect of pulling oneself out of poverty and violence. Based on a Vox essay from 2015, the series is born of the pre-Trump era when publishers were searching for the next Hillbilly Elegy, a cash cow of a book aimed at having poor white people explain poverty to rich white people in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel too guilty.
But later episodes of the series want us to understand that Alex’s life was always uncertain: her mother also fled her abusive father in the middle of the night, to a spend a freezing, half-starved year in Alaska with her young daughter before bouncing from one chaotic, abusive relationship to the next, leaving Alex to mother her actual mother from a very young age. It seems strange, given what the series would have us believe later of Alex’s rough childhood, that its early episodes would feature characters explaining what Alex must surely already know. Because of her own chaotic childhood, Alex would be familiar with the maddening loops created by the fact that making money requires having money.
Through Alex’s onscreen struggles, Maid either teaches or reminds its audience that a person needs a work history to get a job, needs childcare to get that job, needs an address to get that childcare, but needs childcare to get the job, an endless infuriating loop that takes us to the real point of the show, which is not the poverty. The point is the idea that there’s no such thing as a poverty line, but instead a poverty slide, in which one small misstep can send a person trying their hardest right back to the beginning to start all over again, no matter how sure their footing seemed. Those lessons in episode one were never for a character like Alex, and they were never for a viewer who knows how subtraction works when negative numbers are a possibility or the consuming, numbing panic of knowing there’s no safe landing.
That’s exactly what happens to Alex as the series hits its own stride. Even knowing what she knows, from a childhood peppered with her mother’s (played by MacDowell) abusive relationships and instability to Alex’s personal experience with her own abuser, Alex still finds herself looping right back to where she started in Maid’s opening scenes, despite all her progress: trapped in the same trailer with the same man she fled.
Ultimately, the series is a fairy tale. Maid treats Alex’s situation as temporary even as it addresses the cyclic nature of abuse, and it’s clear from the jump that she’s not a maid, she’s on her way to being a former maid, telling her story from a prettier future. Cleaning an arts and crafts room in its final episode, finally, surely on her way to what the audience can see is a more stable future, Alex spills a bottle of glitter. Its remains stick to her throughout the remaining scenes like pixie dust. “Do I have the DTs or are you sparkly?” her abuser asks in their penultimate scene together.
“I’m sparkly,” Alex answers. Like one of the glitter-flecked Dollar Store princess dolls she keeps buying for her toddler, there’s a shine on the girl who’s rescuing herself from the dungeons and monsters. It’s an ending fitting for an audience that needs the fact that it isn’t easy to walk away from poverty and abuse explained to them, but it also puts a gaudy, yet lovely shine on a story that a different audience already knows too well.