At one point in Netflix’s “Maid,’’ a young woman named Alex, portrayed by the extraordinary Margaret Qualley, tells the other participants in a group therapy session: “I’m not really sure what happened to me.’’
What makes the 10-episode “Maid” such a powerful miniseries, though, is that it details precisely what did happen to Alex that pushed her to the economic margins — and drives home the point that it can happen to anyone.
Like “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,’’ Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 nonfiction book, and “Good People,’’ David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2011 play, “Maid’' gets into the nitty-gritty of the struggles that are faced by low-wage workers every single day.
Created by Molly Smith Metzler and loosely based on Stephanie Land’s best-selling 2019 memoir, “Maid” is the opposite of a sociological tract. It’s an uncommonly well-crafted drama, centered by a protagonist whose fate you come to care deeply about. (My ever-discerning colleague Matthew Gilbert named “Maid” among his Top 10 shows this year).
After she flees her abusive, alcoholic boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) with their toddler daughter, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), Alex is plunged into financial crisis. For this single mother and aspiring writer, life becomes a constant struggle for basic necessities, especially housing. She and Maddy twice have to stay in an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence. They are homeless for a time, and doors are literally slammed in Alex’s face by landlords who refuse to accept rental subsidy vouchers.
She lands a job as a house cleaner and works very diligently at it, but the job pays minimum wage, which makes it difficult for Alex to afford decent day care for Maddy during working hours. When she’s not cleaning houses or caring for Maddy, Alex is trying to navigate the red-tape complexities of the social service bureaucracy and the court system.
On top of all that, Alex has to keep racing to the rescue of her mother, Paula, an undiagnosed bipolar artist whose own life is perpetually spiraling into chaos. Paula is played by Qualley’s real mother, Andie MacDowell, in one of the most vivid performances of MacDowell’s career.
To underscore how precarious a line low-income workers have to navigate, “Maid’' employs an effective visual device. Whenever Alex is buying groceries or gas or making other purchases, white type appears on the upper part of the screen, spelling out the dollars and cents of each transaction, and how much money Alex has left afterward. It’s never much.
Alex’s efforts to keep herself and Maddy afloat are nothing short of Herculean, but she’s not Hercules. She’s human. She needs support, a living wage, and a sense that a better future lies over the horizon. And so do all the other Alexes out there.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.