Margaret Qualley had already demonstrated her star potential in the HBO series “The Leftovers” by the time she appeared onscreen for all of about seven minutes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as the Manson acolyte who climbs into Brad Pitt’s lemon-yellow Cadillac — and that was the moment and the scene when it was clear Qualley’s future was long and bright.
In the Netflix limited series “Maid,” it’s Qualley’s nomination-worthy and fully realized performance that carries the day through a 10-episode arc that is an admittedly tough and sometimes depressingly downbeat slog before a well-earned, upbeat and inspirational concluding chapter. Qualley is heartbreakingly real and natural and does some seriously heavy lifting, as she’s in nearly every scene in showrunner Molly Smith Metzler’s adaptation of Stephanie Land’s best-selling memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will To Survive,” which tells the story of a single mother and aspiring writer who takes a job cleaning houses, which gives her a front-row seat into the worlds of the clients who barely notice she’s there as they live out their privileged, complicated, messy and sometimes deeply unhappy lives.
Mostly, though, “Maid” the series isn’t an examination of class differences — it’s the tale of Qualley’s Alex, who encounters one obstacle after another (she’s been navigating a very rough road since she was just a child) but remains determined to carve out an independent, substantial and lasting existence for herself and her toddler daughter, no matter how many times the system and the flawed and in some cases awful people in her life try to get in her way.
Alex is living in a trailer with her emotionally abusive and alcoholic boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) and their 2-year-old daughter Maddie (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) when she makes the decision to scoop up Maddie and leave in the middle of the night — and that’s pretty much the extent of Alex’s plan. Broke, jobless and with Sean blowing up her phone and urging her to come back, Alex wants little to do with her estranged father (Billy Burke), who has long ago divorced her mother, remarried, found Jesus and started a new family. As for her mom, Paula (played by Qualley’s real-life mother, Andie MacDowell) — good luck getting Paula to focus long enough to babysit Maddie for a couple of hours, let alone take in Alex and the baby. Paula is a self-proclaimed multimedia artist and lifelong hippie whose incessant ramblings about New Age spirituality and being true to your spirit and refusing to conform is just an irritating and maddening cover for her narcissistic, selfish and irresponsible ways, and what is clearly a form of mental illness.
Alex finds work as a maid and struggles mightily to make ends meet, with graphics in the corner of the screen chronicling how fast the money goes when she’s shopping for food, pumping gas, buying her own cleaning supplies and trying to get someone to watch Maddie. “Maid” takes us through the painstaking, frustrating and seemingly insurmountable blockades Alex encounters as she applies for various types of government assistance, moves into a shelter and is nearly buried in bureaucratic bull- - - -.
“Maid” is filled with terrific supporting performances by the supporting cast, many playing characters who are more than what they initially appear to be. Nick Robinson (“Love, Simon”) is best known for playing sweet-natured guys, but he’s deeply effective playing the troubled Sean, who truly loves Alex and wants to be a great dad to Maddie but is his own worst enemy. Traci Villar steals every scene she’s in as Alex’s boss, who has zero sympathy for her employees and will cut you off if you violate any of her rules. And Anika Noni Rose is absolutely outstanding as Regina, a wealthy client who at first is rude and dismissive of Alex but eventually becomes a true friend.
“Maid” might have been even more impactful if the story had been condensed to six or eight episodes instead of 10. There are times when, like Alex, we feel as if we’re experiencing downbeat déjà vu. Ultimately, though, this is a worthwhile journey containing valuable insights into the myriad of ways the system works against those who need it most, how emotional abuse is abuse nonetheless, and how one young woman climbed her way to success by sheer determination.