Opinion: Netflix’s “Maid” reminds us just leaving isn’t that simple

By Alexandra Cummings

Oct 29, 2021 | Editorials | 0 comments

//Ricardo Hubbs | Netflix

It’s the middle of the night. Lying in bed, a young woman named Alex (Margaret Qualley) turns to look at the figure next to her. She quietly gets up, tiptoes to her closet to get dressed and grabs a backpack before retreating. Gently grabbing her daughter from the next room, she steps over a pile of broken glass as she opens the door to leave the place they call home. 

Turning the key in the car ignition, she lifts her head to pull out of her parking spot, only to be staring straight at the figure that had been lying next to her just moments before. This breath-holding opening scene sets the tone for Netflix’s latest project “Maid.” It’s been called “the most important series in history” by fans.

With only $18 in her wallet, Alex flees from the trailer she shares with her boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) following an incident that results in picking glass out of her two-year-old daughter Maddy’s (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) hair. 

Based on a memoir by Stephanie Land, viewers get an inside look at how one woman maneuvers through public assistance while coming to terms with abuse at the hands of her partner. The decision to leave isn’t easy. Alex faces pointless bureaucracy, a lack of cash and housing, and toxic relationships with her family and friends.

“Maid” demonstrates the disparate forms of domestic abuse and the cumbersome barriers that often keep victims like Alex from receiving the help and resources they need.

Note: The following story discusses the plot of “Maid” with some spoilers.

Government Help Isn’t Very Helpful

“So you’re looking for a big fat government handout because you’re a jobless, white trash piece of shit, am I right?” OK, the social worker doesn’t actually say that, but it is what Alex hears when she seeks support from the public assistance office. Alex quickly realizes the system in place to help her is not as helpful as she expected. 

She learns she’ll need two pay stubs in order to qualify for subsidized housing; she can’t get a job without access to daycare, and the cherry on top is the grants available for daycare require proof of employment. 

“What kind of fuckery is that?” Alex asks. The social worker simply refers to it as bureaucracy. Episode one ends with Alex and Maddy sleeping on the floor of a ferry station.

Domestic violence has long been recorded as one of the most common reasons women become homeless. In fact, approximately 50% of all women who are homeless report that domestic violence was the cause of their circumstances.

In the United States, more women than men live in poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau data shows that out of the 38.1 million people living in poverty in 2018, 56% were women. In 2018, the poverty line was set at an annual income of $13,064 for a single individual under the age of 65 and $25,465 for a family of four with two adults and two children. 

We watch as Alex struggles to decide if she should spend $20 on food or cleaning supplies for her new job as a maid, only to eventually see her balance at $0 yet again in big red letters. 

The stereotype that single mothers are lazy and untrustworthy persists yet is a reality for 14.3% of women over the age of 18 in Colorado, In fact, women are more likely to live in poverty at every stage of their lives. Single mothers are especially susceptible to poverty, with two out of three lacking adequate income for basic needs in Colorado.

The system that is meant to help Alex merely allows her to barely scrape by.

Emotional Abuse Is Abuse

Early in the series, Alex is offered a room at a domestic violence shelter. Alex declines, saying she doesn’t want to take a bed from someone “who has been abused for real.”

“Abused for real? What does that mean?” asks the stunned social worker. We’re reminded that domestic violence comes in more than one form when Alex ends up in court fighting for custody of Maddy. Sean is granted temporary full custody after Alex can’t say he ever hit her or called the police on him. 

Although a black eye can be photographed and documented, the scars left behind by emotional and psychological abuse are more difficult to see and understand. This depiction of abuse was intentional for the creator and showrunner, Molly Smith Metzler. 

“It was really important to me to capture emotional abuse,” Metzler said to Glamour. “It’s this slow, corrosive takedown of your spirit and your self-esteem, to the point that you don’t even know who you are at the end of it. It was really important to me to make an audience go through it.”

Most shows focus on physical violence over emotional abuse. Sean, who struggles with addiction, takes out his personal strife on Alex. He’s manipulative and prone to rage-induced outbursts, calling her a “fucking whore” when she decides against an abortion.

Emotional abuse is the most common form of intimate partner violence. Almost half of women report being psychologically abused by their partners. Name-calling, isolation tactics and physical threats are common.

Currently, in Colorado, there are no criminal laws around emotional abuse. However, civil legal options, such as restraining orders, exist for anyone not burdened by bruises. 

Going Back Is Common

One heartbreaking moment that is all too common is when Alex goes back to Sean. 

Much of the support Alex receives is often conditional. While sleeping on the floor of the ferry station, she encounters Nate (Raymond Ablack), a former co-worker who thinks he is in love with her. He appoints himself the role of savior by taking Alex and Maddy in. He gives them food, housing and even a car. 

Initially coming across as thoughtful, that changes when Nate tries to cash in on his generosity by asking her out. He’s incapable of accepting her rejection.

Alex points out that he’s putting her in a difficult position.

“You are the only difference between us sleeping in a bed and sleeping in the streets,” Alex explains. “It’s not equal between us.” 

The “nice guy” facade disappears when he finds out Alex had a sexual encounter with Sean following a traumatic incident with her mother. Nate throws Alex and Maddy out, making it clear his generosity came with strings attached. Not getting what he wanted, he couldn’t care less about Alex. 

Nowhere to go, Nate’s actions force mother and daughter to move back in with their abuser, confirming the dangers that come with an unequal power dynamic.

On average, a victim returns to their abuser seven times before finally leaving the relationship for good. This is due to the difficulties that come from relocating, legal issues, sharing child custody, emotional connection with the abuser, or the disruption to daily life. 

Alex ultimately creates a safe life for her and Maddy. The series ends with them leaving for Missoula, Montana, where Alex will attend college. Recognizing the parallels between his childhood and Maddy’s, Sean gives full custody to Alex with a promise to clean up his act for their daughter. Despite the hard journey, we can smile at the end knowing everything seemingly turns out OK.

But Netflix isn’t reality. The harsh truth is that 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner, 94% of victims being women. In 2019, 70 Coloradans died in domestic violence incidents, a 63% increase from the year before and above the five-year average of 50 deaths per year, according to a report by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

This series isn’t perfect. Critics have pointed out what they view as its flaws. However, it created a dialogue on this important topic. With more than 67 million viewers, “Maid” is on track to become the most-watched limited, scripted series Netflix has ever produced. It has done an exceptional job showing that there are many hurdles constraining a woman from simply packing a bag and leaving when facing abuse.




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