‘Maid’ on Netflix: Class struggle on the small screen

In the empty calorie candy store of American television entertainment, Netflix’s new miniseries Maid does something different and does it very, very well. Maid breaks canon to show us actual working-class people on the job and at home. Not the doctors and detectives that seem to exclusively populate our screens. Not the cowboys or criminals. Not even rich people in corporate board room war games.

Instead of insulting our intelligence, we are presented with lifelike, working-class people plying their trades, ruining their relationships, and trying to survive in a world that takes their labor and gives them less than a livelihood.

The storyline of this workers’ drama has more tension than any number of formulaic, faux adventure dramas. Situations all too common to our socio-economic world shame the contrived plots that deflect scrutiny of the actual world we inhabit.

Alex Russell (Margaret Qualley) attempts to leave her alcoholic partner Sean Boyd (Nick Robinson), the father of their child Maddy. Sean clearly cares for Alex. But he’s a practicing alcoholic whose default to Alex is abuse. She flees with Maddy to a women’s shelter where she quickly learns the complexity of navigating government programs, finding permanent affordable housing, and securing low-skilled employment.

As she bounces from one dangerous, untenable situation to another, family generally makes situations worse. Her mother (played by Qualley’s real-life mother Andy McDowell) is a delusional, overbearing sociopath. Her father, also a recovering alcoholic who has embraced religion, tries to push her back into the relationship with Sean.

Real-life dramatic tension is generated by Alex’s daily struggle to find a place for her and three-year-old Maddy to sleep, to make enough money to feed themselves, and to keep custody of her child. As she often cleans the homes of the rich, her own situation is keenly felt.

Alex slides, vacillates, settles. She is not a flawless superhero. Under pressure, she sometimes makes bad decisions which threaten her and Maddy. Still, her strong will and love for her child underpin hope and courage.

Friendship and support come from other women in her situation and through her work. Though often overly complex and underfunded, the social programs offer a promise and a lifeline, a shelter in the storm where she can regain footing.

Creator and producer Molly Smith Metzler has adapted Stephanie Land’s bestselling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mothers Will to Survive into an uncompromising look at the working poor. Sharp writing is ably brought to life by the deft skills of the cast. Particularly painful are the interactions between Alex and Sean and Alex and her mother, as we watch the fragility of relationships under the stress of poverty buckle.

Clearly, we need more stories about how we live in order for us to build back better a new society.

(Disclosure: this reviewer worked in the tobacco fields and production, was a carpenter’s apprentice, drove a truck, did factory and car wash work before becoming the first in the family to attend college.)


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!

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