In the middle of the 10-episode Netflix miniseries “Maid,” single mother Alex is staying in a subsidized apartment whose walls are grimed with insidious black mold. In bed at night, she can hear her almost 3-year-old daughter, Maddy, coughing, and coughing more, the coughing nightmarishly mingling with her own fitful sleep. She has to move out of the place with Maddy (she rolls to the right), but she has nowhere to move to (she rolls to the left). She’s in the system (right), but the system is a fruitless jungle of bureaucracy and red tape (left). “She needs you to do better,” Maddy’s doctor says to Alex about finding a healthier home — a facile remark that serves only as another blow to her self-esteem.
It’s the kind of corner Alex — played with quiet grit by Margaret Qualley — gets stuck in over and over again in the Pacific Northwest-set miniseries, which is based on the memoir “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive” by Stephanie Land. At 25, she’s struggling to free herself from an abusive relationship with Maddy’s bartender father, Sean (Nick Robinson), and working full-time as a house-cleaner to establish fiscal independence. But with each step forward she takes, fate puts her back two steps — fate, and a harsh background involving divorced parents who continually reenter the foreground. Every time Alex turns to her flighty mother (Andie MacDowell) or her distant father (Billy Burke) for help, nothing good comes of it.
“Maid,” created by Molly Smith Metzler of “Shameless” and “Orange Is the New Black,” isn’t an easy watch, as you can probably tell. There is almost no comic relief, as there was on “Shameless,” which was also about the white working poor. Alex’s fortunes fall and then fall some more. Just when you think she has a foothold, something unexpected trips her up — losing custody of Maddy for a week, or missing out on benefits because Sean’s abuse was psychological and not physical (throwing things and punching the wall, it seems, don’t count). On a different show, MacDowell’s Paula, an artist spouting cosmic revelations, might evoke a few laughs. Here, she’s just one more burden for Alex to carry, her childlike temperament and self-absorption bearable only because she clearly has an undiagnosed mental illness. MacDowell, who is Qualley’s mother, gives a tropical storm of a performance, playing Alex’s best friend one minute, her hostile competitor the next.
At one point, Alex finds the perfect solution to everything. One of her clients, Regina, is a wealthy but unhappy lawyer (played by Anika Noni Rose), and she is going to become a single mother. As she and Alex talk, Regina realizes she’ll need to hire a live-in nanny. Alex offers up her services, which would give her a place to live, and a place to live in a town where she can get Maddy into a good day care center. But Regina, a tricky personality who has witnessed some of Alex’s stumbles, gives the proposal an unequivocal “no.” Likewise, a lesbian couple tries, and fails, to give Alex a safety net. “Maid” doesn’t traffic in the savior mentality, much as Alex — and we — want it to; Alex is going to be tested again and again.
And yet, “Maid” does offer moments of relief, moments that arrive as little godsends. Some of them come thanks to a man who’s been crushing on Alex for years. Nate (Raymond Ablack) continually shows up for her — to lend her a car, or celebrate Maddy’s birthday — but Alex knows her life is too complicated to start dating. “Maid” is psychologically astute enough, too, to make it clear that Alex is, deep in her DNA, behind her self-protective eyes, not particularly drawn to the nice guys. Another steady flow of much-needed relief comes from the young actress playing Maddy, Rylea Neveah Whittet, whose frequent smiles are little bursts of sunshine. Every time we see her, no matter how dire the situation, she projects an emerging resilience that we hope will flourish.
And then throughout, we know that ultimately Alex, who is seen writing in a notebook on occasion, will publish a book. The knowledge provides a vague sense that she will finally prevail, without spoiling any of the dramatic power along the way. With her wide-open eyes and still face, Qualley brings a stalwart quality to Alex that is at times inspiring. Alex’s determination to save her daughter from a childhood like her own and her increasing willingness to grow up drive her forward. Many of the performances, including Robinson’s Sean, are layered and specific, but none so much as Qualley’s. She puts a face on the hard-working people, so often dismissed and ignored, who slip through the cracks in this country.
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Nick Robinson, Andie MacDowell, Anika Noni Rose, Tracy Vilar, BJ Harrison, Raymond Ablack, Toby Levins
On: Netflix. Premieres Friday.