'Maid' And The Endless Work Of Being Poor

In the Netflix series, a desperate single mom shoulders the Sisyphean task of turning government benefits, low-wage work, and the occasional kindness of others into a stable life.

By the end of the Netflix series “Maid,” Alex Russell (Margaret Qualley) is an expert at having the rug pulled out from under her. (And an expert at cleaning it neatly as she’s thrown to the floor.) A single mom who left an abusive relationship with the father of her toddler, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), Alex dreams of going to college in Missoula, Montana and becoming a writer. Instead she’s cleaning houses for Value Maids, scrubbing stovetops and toilets and baseboards for rock-bottom wages while her bank account balance constantly hovers near zero.

Alex, a bright, pretty, white woman who had gotten a scholarship to college before getting pregnant with her daughter, navigates the bureaucratic obstacle course of accessing government benefits (SNAP, daycare grants, subsidized housing) as ably and comfortably as anyone is likely to. She has work. She’s doing her best. And still, at every turn, she’s thwarted by the merciless realities of American capitalism and our moth-eaten social safety net.

She has little choice but to supplement her own income and government aid with assistance from her community — what little of it there is. She has to ask a friend for shelter when she flees her ex, Sean (Nick Robinson), in the middle of the night. She has to ask her eccentric mom, Paula (Andie McDowell) for babysitting so she can do a trial shift with Value Maids. She has to accept more and more help from a well-off former coworker, Nate (Raymond Ablack): a hot breakfast for her and Maddy after he finds them sleeping on the floor of the ferry terminal, an old car he no longer drives, a place to stay when she’s left homeless yet again. She also has to accept a place to stay from her estranged father and stepmother, and eventually from Sean.

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