The recent Netflix web series Maid is the kind of brilliant series that comes in silently without fanfare especially in the general gloom of the pandemic and leaves acclaim in its wake almost as if by accident. This exquisite series with breath-taking writing and story tackles difficult and complex issues like addiction, mental health, emotional abuse and the pitfalls of the American social security system in ways which are powerfully stark, understated yet poignantly effective. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, this 10-episode series follows the incredible journey of Alex, a young woman who leaves her emotionally abusive and alcoholic partner in order to start a life from scratch as a cleaning maid and provide a better life for her three-year-old daughter Maddy. This is not just the story of a young mother fighting to survive but also of the ways in which women from different classes, races and social walks of life can come together to create a support system against the machinery of non-physical abuse.
The series star real-life mother-daughter duo, Margaret Qualley as Alex and Andie MacDowell as Alex’s mother Paula, and other A-listers such as Nick Robinson as the abusive Sean, Anika Noni Rose as the wealthy and childless Regina, Billy Burke as Hank- Alex’s abusive father. The creator of the series Molly Smith Metzler in casting Qualley observes in Collider that what was required for the role of Alex was a genuine human being with “an incredible lack of vanity and a great sense of humour”- a quality that was raw, unaffected, and unstudied, “not someone trying to win an award, just genuine commitment to the material.” All of this comes through amply with Qualley. The series stands out for its subtle portrayal of emotional abuse and of a woman who is consistently let down in terms of all the support systems that she should have been able to count on from family, friends, partner to the government and in the end has no option but to rely on herself to support her daughter.
Emotional abuse as a subject although increasingly discussed and talked about today has been difficult to show accurately on screen. From earlier films like Gaslight, Sleeping with the Enemy, to Provoked to more recent ones like The Great Indian Kitchen, Out of Love or Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors in the Indian context, Maid follows an already extant trend in films to explore the nuances of this subject through the visual medium. Maid is certainly one of the most stunning and balanced representations of emotional abuse and the messiness of its internal dynamics. Emotional abuse is slow and corrosive; it happens over time and through a terrible grind. It cannot be portrayed through one violent incident of physical harm. This series takes the viewer on that slow, grinding journey and unsurprisingly, there have been a lot of online responses about women writing how they have been triggered and how accurately the series resonates with the crazy-making, the self-denial, the erasure of self, the learned helplessness, the PTSD and all the other symptoms associated with abuse. The series also takes the trouble to show as Metzler says, that the bad guys “don’t have twisting mustaches, they don’t look like villains. They could often be victims of their own experience.”
Alex’s relationship with Regina, her former boss whose house she cleans and who eventually ends up being her friend and gets her a lawyer, is an interesting one. Their relationship reverses the traditional idea of employer employee along class lines and also opens up motherhood as a common trope for bonding. Denise, the woman who runs the secret shelter for abused women is perhaps the only support system that Alex can count on and who consistently supports her journey in finding her way out of abuse. Alex’s mother Paula suffers doubly not only at the hands her former abusive partner Hank but also due to her own mental health issues that prevent her from staying out of abusive relationships. This series while showing multiple frame narratives of abuse, of abuse within abuse, presents a complex yet compassionate picture of abuse and survival in interpersonal violence, and the need for awareness around coercive control.
In one of the most beautiful scenes in the series, Alex enters a fake boutique at her shelter. The boutique experience has been created (with fake tags and cash counters) to help women remember what it feels like to exercise choice, and to reclaim their selves from the stupor of long-term abuse. At the fake boutique, Alex, who initially doesn’t even remember what she likes and what her preferences are, comes back the next time and quickly picks out a blue sweater and says ‘It’s sky blue, my favourite colour is sky blue.’