Netflix’s Maid: The “Dollar Store” Is a Pulse-Pounding Premiere

Alex (Margaret Qualley) stares with a slight frown in this image from Netxlix's limited series Maid.
Photograph by Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

I wasn’t quite sure exactly what to expect when queueing up the new Netflix series Maid. The Stephanie Land 2019 memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, on which Molly Smith Metzler’s series is based, is an affecting, important, and at times powerful read, an accounting of the young writer’s struggles with poverty, government assistance, single-parenthood, and a series of truly godawful maid gigs. But the premiere episode of Metzler’s Maid had my heart pounding for its protagonist, Alex (Margaret Qualley) in ways Land’s book never had.

Margaret Qualley as Alex is depcted in a maid's apron and carrying a vacuum cleaner in the kitchen of a well-appointed home in this image from Netxlix's limited series Maid.
Alex (Margaret Qualley) finds employment tough going in the premiere episode of Maid. Photograph by Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

It might have been the effect of the homemade kombucha that accounted for my accelerated pulse. But more likely that heightened response is due to the excellence of the script, direction, and performances here. Metzler’s series promises to be not only an important portrait of poverty in 21st-century America, where the economic divides are deeper and wider than ever, but also one of the disparate ways our institutions discriminate against individuals based on gender as well as class. Like the excellent Jessica Earnshaw documentary Jacinta and Nicole Reigel’s fiction film Holler that both appeared earlier this year, Metzler’s Maid has the potential to examine the conditions of class without lapsing into the poverty porn of eras past, in part because of its source memoir.

Land’s book, a New York Times Bestseller, focused on the author’s many temporary gigs cleaning in and around Island in Washington State as she cared for her toddler daughter Mia and navigated relationships with bio-dad Jamie and a later partner, rancher Travis, both of them abusive gaslighters. Land begins with an account of her first day in assisted housing where she is unable to pay her way for a lunch out her mother suggests. Later chapters detail the sordid sundries of maid gigs in in fine detail, right down to the sh*tstains that soil the bathroom tile grout, the backbreaking and nerve-pinching labor that may or may not yield a paycheck, the daunting invisibility of the lower class.

As is evident from the simple fact that Land would survive the experience to narrate it in a best-seller, her story is a happy ending of sorts. Land would ultimately earn her B.A. in English, begin freelancing, have a story on cleaning houses go viral for Vox, and earn her book contract for Maid. A success story, to be sure. To read her memoir is to know all along that despite her years of toil she would find a well-earned measure of professional accomplishment. Would that more of the working poor had opportunities to tell their stories.

Metzler’s series, though, does not aim to tell Land’s exact story. To judge from the premiere episode “Dollar Store,” Netflix’s Maid will be all the better for taking significant creative license. Changing the names of the characters, the timeline of events, the details and circumstances of the particular gigs as Metzler does here allows the story to roam a bit more freely and focus on specific moments that convey Land’s truths without being bogged down in the details. It also opens up the possibility that this ten-episode limited series could return for subsequent seasons.

The opening sequence is one example of Metzler’s adroit direction. Rather than open, as Land does, with the protagonist shamed over a ten-dollar hamburger, “Dollar Store” begins in medias res, with Alex, eyes open in the middle of the night, ready to escape with daughter Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) from the home they share with bio-dad Sean (Nick Robinson), leading to a series of frightful near-misses and close escapes. On her own with only a car and a few hundred dollars to her name, Alex lacks safety and shelter. Pressed to find work so that she qualifies for assistance, she must pay the costs of cleaning supplies, ferry transport, and her uniform—not to mention the deposit on a Dyson vacuum—that deplete her bank account.

The gig itself, in an upper-class enclave off the coast of a tony island community, turns out to be full of indignities. Alex is insulted by the homeowner Regina (Anika Noni Rose), instructed to discard pounds of unused food, and confused by the couple’s magazine-worthy nursery, a staged property the childless couple constructed only to increase the home’s value to prospective buyers. That some have the resources to create nurseries for appearances is too much for Alex to bear, and when she faints she loses the precious time she needs to complete the job to their satisfaction. So she goes unpaid.

And it gets worse from there, as a frightful car accident endangers Maddy and leaves the two of them without transportation. (This specific incident is one that follows directly from Land’s memoir but occurs there nearly two-thirds of the way through her narrative.) Ultimately alone together, overnight, homeless, jobless, spending the night in the ferry terminal. Metzler’s storytelling takes the raw material of Land’s memoir and reshapes it to the format of the limited series and the language of the cinema to convey, beautifully and efficiently, Alex’s quick descent into near-total destitution. That the narrative is not shackled to the specifics of Land’s memoir frees Metzler’s series to focus on the more cinematic moments that shape her protagonist’s life.

That liberty also allows Metzler’s cast to shine. Qualley is ready for her star turn, no doubt, and though she is, I imagine, a complete stranger to the poverty Land endured, she is cast perfectly here, her wide-eyed naïveté registered in a series of close-ups that convey each successive shock to the system. Following her scene-stealing turn as one of Charles Manson’s minions in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Qualley can light up even a humdrum dialogue with her uncannily expressive reactions.

As Alex’s mother Paula, Qualley’s own mother Andie MacDowell plays a flighty free spirit who can’t be entrusted to make a rational decision. (I wonder how soon it will be that MacDowell is referred to regularly as Qualley’s mother more so than Qualley is as MacDowell’s daughter.) Jack Robinson, of the moment with his roles in Love, Simon, and A Teacher, has thankless work to do as Maddy’s gaslighting dad. In the series premiere there is little for him to do other than yell and threaten, but I assume that over the course of the series his character may be given some room to develop.

Like Land’s memoir, Maid has the potential to open eyes and hearts to society’s disregard for the working poor. Homeowner Regina initially treats Alex with such callous, cavalier disrespect that I literally recoiled as she did so; but Alex barely flinched, a sign that such was all too normal in a culture that measures value by wealth. Alex’s interaction with social worker Jody (Amy Reid) is only a little less disheartening. Land’s book demonstrated how simple activities many people take for granted, such as grocery shopping or seeking assistance, are fraught with tension for the working poor. Maid makes those those interactions, to its credit, palpably discomforting, and in every scene, Qualley’s wide-eyed reactions.

Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) and mother Alex (Margaret Qualley) are depicted in partial sunlight looking slightly right of camera in this image from Netxlix's limited series Maid.
Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) and Alex (Margaret Qualley) share a special bond. Photograph by Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

Readers of Land’s memoir know well the tough road she traveled on the way to her own happy ending. Maid‘s story of Alex so far is offering a similar story, though the creative license Metzler takes should allow the series enough flexibility to shape its protagonist’s journey through the occasional ups and perilous downs of povertywhile never, ever losing sight of the precious bond mother and daughter Alex and Maddy share.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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