“Maid” is a rare and unwavering depiction of Hollywood poverty
Housemaid is filled with flights of fantasy. To illustrate the fate of her heroine and the boundless imagination she uses to cope with it, the Netflix limited series sometimes takes a surreal twist. When Margaret Qualley’s cash-strapped single mother shows up at the supermarket with food stamps, she hears the cashier calling for “cleaning up the poor aisle.” When she shows up in court to fight for custody of her toddler, the judge and her ex’s lawyer simply repeat the word “legal” to each other until nauseated. And when she hits a low point at the end of the series, she literally disappears onto her couch, falling to the bottom of a black pit where she stays for most of the episode.
These vignettes are not true representations of what happens to Qualley’s Alex, a young woman who flees an abusive relationship to start a new life for herself and her daughter. Instead, they’re dreamlike reprieve from a story that’s otherwise terribly down-to-earth. More than 10 episodes, Housemaid tells the kind of story that is still rare to see in the Guarded Realms of Hollywood: an unfailing look at what it means to be poor. Housemaid is the individual story of a set of overlapping structural issues, showing how the downward mobility spiral is only accelerated by factors such as gender, parenthood, and mental health.
Freely adapted from the 2019 memoir of Stephanie Land by playwright Molly Smith Metzler, Housemaid tweaks many details of Land’s true story. Metzler and his writers retained the Washington state premises, but moved the location of Port Townsend to the fictional town of Port Hampstead, near the wealthy hamlet of Fisher Island. (Although there is a Fisher Island in Washington, it is uninhabited; HousemaidThe version of is closer to the neighboring one in Bainbridge in Seattle.) Some characters have changed their names, while others are omitted entirely. And to extend the story to the screen, Netflix Housemaid makes a more substantial presence of Alex’s mother, Paula. The plot helps trace the cyclical patterns of poverty and abuse over a generation, but it also sets up a polished cast: Qualley stars alongside his own mother, actress Andie MacDowell – an odd choice for a show. about a woman who doesn’t have the sort of safety net that a well-connected parent provides, but effective. You would think the pairing would highlight the similarities of women, but in practice, the opposite is true. Alex and her mother, a free-spirited artist struggling with bipolar disorder, are two very different women, with different responses to their mutual trauma. (Alex is pragmatic, Paula in denial; Alex tries to change her situation, Paula claims they don’t matter.) The genetic link only underscores that shared DNA is not a guarantee of ‘a shared point of view.
Always, Housemaid retains the most important element of Land’s writing: a hard-earned knowledge of our threadbare social safety net and its gaping holes, rooted in the author’s first-hand experience. When Alex impulsively decides to leave her emotionally abusive boyfriend, she has no plan, a mistake that turns out to be almost fatal. Almost instantly, she runs head first in the endless Catch-22 of American life. To be entitled to food stamps or housing vouchers, she must prove that she has a job; to get a job, she needs access to child care; to pay for child care, she needs a source of income. With no physical injuries or previous police reports, Washington State does not consider Alex a victim of domestic violence, and neither does she, making it difficult even to seek help, let alone. to receive it. And even the refuge she ultimately turns to can’t do much.
A part of HousemaidBest scenes from show the sheer drudgery of managing bureaucracy, a decidedly non-cinematic endeavor Housemaid dresses with the aforementioned fantasies. Many recent portraits of life below the poverty line, including Oscar darlings like Nomadic country and The Florida project, focus on the beauty of the struggle for survival. Housemaid is just about the fight. Edit by edit, Alex becomes familiar with a flood of acronyms, pulling together the grants and household gigs that give the show its name into a semblance of an independent life. But without spoiling the twists and turns of the story, Alex’s journey is not linear. Inertia is a powerful force, and there is much more to trying to keep the underclass where it is than trying to help them.
Placed in the wrong hands, Housemaid could be a bootstraps fable of a woman (attractive, able-bodied, young and white) overcoming adversity with her guts. But the Netflix show honors the essence of Land’s story, proving that even the most relentless efforts can be undone by a little bad luck. The life Alex builds for himself is fragile. A case of black mold in the only subsidized housing complex in her entire county is all that stands between her and homelessness; a single shift that refuses to give it more than 30 hours per week, for fear they will have to pay allowances, makes the difference between a positive bank balance and a negative balance. For everyone HousemaidIn Fantastic Sequences, his most powerful visual device is a harsh reality check: a running tally of Alex’s bank account, which rarely breaks down into three digits.
Housemaid is not didactic, because it does not have to be; the sight of Alex throwing a refrigerator’s worth of good food at the behest of a wealthy customer has the power of a thousand Bernie Sanders speeches. And the show never sinks into traumatic porn, despite the heavy topic. Given that about 40 percent of Americans couldn’t find $ 400 in an emergency – and that was before the pandemic – Alex’s fate seems less exceptional than representative. (The introduction to Land’s book was written by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the seminal study Nickel and gray.) Housemaid is a TV show and ultimately indulges in some Hollywood tropes to alleviate some of Alex’s misery. Yet the happy ending only comes because Housemaidhas already shown how many stars must line up to secure one.
When it comes to low-paid work, HousemaidThe empathy of is not surprising. After all, Land’s subtitle was Hard work, low wages and a mother’s will to survive. More disarming is sympathy Housemaid reserve for his less sympathetic figure: Alex’s aggressor, Sean, played equally pathetic and threatening by A teacheris Nick Robinson. A reluctant father who resents Alex for bringing his carefree youth to a brutal end, Sean effectively turns their home into a prison, isolating Alex and subjecting her to his drunken rage. Yet Sean, too, is held captive by his own demons, from a traumatic childhood struggling with his mother’s opioid addiction to his own obvious need for sobriety.
Housemaid walks a very fine line when it comes to Sean: condemn without villain, explain without excusing. It’s a mix of sensitive writing and remarkable performances that conveys one of the harshest truths about chronic violence. For Alex, Sean is a source of pain and also of comfort, a tyrant to follow and a sad bag to be pitied. We never wonder why Alex wants to leave, or why she would keep her child’s father in her life even when she does; we see how the same person who looks miserable in one light looks scary in another. Sean may be weak and insecure, but it’s the powerless ones who cling to him behind closed doors.
Two years ago, Netflix aired another feminist drama set in the Pacific Northwest, also a scripted version of real events. Unbelievable is a work of real crime, with higher stakes and a more established genre than Housemaidsingular story. But the series shares an unlikely and powerful mix of institutional reach and furious sentiment. Housemaid would never be blunt enough to explicitly argue for a political solution, just as Unbelievable did not call rape culture by name. He just shows us what some women have to go through, one obstacle at a time, and then challenges us to suggest that their issues are upon them. Housemaid may find new ways to visualize its history, but that only requires us to notice what is already there.