'Maid' shines a light on a flawed safety net : Pop Culture Happy Hour Based on Stephanie Land's memoir, the Netflix series Maid stars Margaret Qualley as a single mom who must learn to survive on public assistance. While the series takes a hard look at the logistics of poverty, it's also a riveting personal story that will keep you guessing until the very end of its tenth episode.

'Maid' shines a light on a flawed safety net

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The excellent Netflix series "Maid" is about the toll it can take to need public assistance even for a person in a better position than some to navigate that system. And while it takes a hard look at some of the logistics of poverty, it's also a riveting personal story that will keep you guessing about some of the outcomes until the very end. It stars Margaret Qualley, and it's based on Stephanie Land's memoir, and it really takes on a lot in 10 episodes. I'm Linda Holmes, and today, we're talking about "Maid" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HOLMES: Joining me is Monica Castillo. She is an arts and culture reporter with Colorado Public Radio. Welcome back, Monica.

MONICA CASTILLO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

HOLMES: I'm always extremely happy to have you here. As I mentioned, "Maid" is a 10-episode Netflix series. It's based on a memoir also called "Maid" written by Stephanie Land. The main character is not Stephanie Land. She's a woman named Alex who shares some of Land's experiences, particularly that she leaves an abusive boyfriend with her little daughter in tow and ends up trying to figure out how to survive on public assistance while picking up work as, you guessed it, a maid. Andie MacDowell, who is Margaret Qualley's mom, plays her mother who struggles with mental health issues, and Anika Noni Rose plays a wealthy client who comes to play a big part in Alex's life. Nick Robinson, who you might know as the very sweet kid in "Love, Simon," shows up here as Sean, who's the father of Alex's daughter. Monica, you and I - I'm just going to get to this right off the top. You and I both really admired the show and liked it a lot.

CASTILLO: Oh, absolutely. I was so riveted from the very first episode. I laughed. I cried. I was absolutely anxious. I ran the gamut of emotions in just one series. And the performances I thought really hit their mark, even though maybe all of the writing doesn't quite, you know, land for me throughout the series. But I would highly recommend this to anyone who's asking for a new TV show to watch.

HOLMES: For sure. And I - one of the things - you know, I discovered this, the previews of this, when I really didn't know anything about it. And one of the things that impressed me about it first was how much it is about the logistics of being poor. It's absolutely worth noting, you know, this is a character who - she's a white, able-bodied, straight woman, conventionally attractive. She has a lot of things that make - you know, that give her not as many challenges as a lot of other people have. And yet she finds the - you know, when they start to get into, like, that to get the housing you have to already have the job and to get the job, you already have to have the housing, and you can't figure out what kind of job you're going to be able to take until you know where you're going to be able to live. There is a real attention, I think, to those details of how these programs that she's trying to get into. And it's something that certainly I know intellectually, but it's a really, I think, smart and effective dramatization of all that stuff.

CASTILLO: Oh, absolutely. It actually brought up a lot of memories for me because I, you know, had to scrimp and save starting out. I have bought groceries on EBT cards before, been through some of that process and the frustration of, like, this magical cut-off line that then all of a sudden, like, you can afford groceries and then you can't afford groceries if you fall, like, a couple dollars below that. It is absolutely infuriating. And it could - you know, it's really stressful to be waiting for, you know, assistance to come through, however long it will take to come through. And the show does a really, really great job of showing that frustration, showing that sort of, like, purgatory that you're stuck in while trying to, you know, get out of those situations. And it kind of does show, like, the holes in the safety net all the way through.

HOLMES: Oh, for sure. And, like, you know, it'll show you things. Like, she winds up at one point getting a housing subsidy, you know, that she's really waited for and worked hard to get this housing subsidy, and then she gets it. And once she gets the housing subsidy, then you have to actually go get a landlord to take it. And there is a sequence where she goes out and is almost kind of selling herself and selling this subsidy to landlords trying to get somebody to take it.


MARGARET QUALLEY: (As Alex) You have such kind eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are you trying to get me to take a TBR (ph) voucher?

QUALLEY: (As Alex) Can I walk you through the TBR guidelines? It's very flexible.

Oh, no, no, no. It's not Monopoly money, ma'am. It's rent assistance.

Oh, no, I do have a job. I would be paying 70% of it with...

Help a broke bitch out.

HOLMES: One of the things that can happen when you're in that situation is that you can wind up in an illegal rental because you have no power, so the landlord has all the power, so you wind up in a kind of an illegal rental where you have no rights. And it follows you through so many pieces of how these things, as I said, fit together and things like if you leave your job to go pick up your kid, are you going to lose your job? And if you don't leave your job to go pick up your kid, are you going to lose your kid, especially in a situation like she's in where there's a contentious relationship with an abusive other parent - these impossible choices that she winds up getting put to.

CASTILLO: And I think - I've talked to a few folks, and they have told me that it almost makes them too anxious to watch. And I completely understand because these are, like, the situation that no one wants to find themselves in. And it does take you to that step-to-step process. And the tension, it starts at the beginning and it goes all the way through the end of the series. And I think it's done really wonderfully. I think it, you know, explored her emotions through that, too, you know, and also the frustration and, you know, the impossible choices, like you said, that she has to make sometimes. And, you know, as a viewer, there's moments where I was holding on to my head, like, oh, gosh, I really hope this doesn't happen to her. And maybe it will, maybe it won't.


CASTILLO: So you don't even know while you're watching it, like, how is this going to play out? And it did kind of bring to mind, you know, all those different studies we've read over the years how many Americans live paycheck to paycheck or one financial disaster away from losing their house or housing - all those, like, really precarious situations that could put someone in her shoes.

The series brought up a lot of memories for me because I have done some of the things that she's had to do. I cleaned houses when I was in college, and I mentioned I already had to, you know, figure out, you know, the EBT system when I was younger 'cause I couldn't afford groceries and just sifting through, like, wow, you really have to figure out how to survive and sort of navigate these different systems. And it doesn't always make sense, and there's not always someone there to help you. There's a lot of people who just assume that people can go and rely on their social networks. You assume that people can, you know, rely on their parents' money or their parents', you know, time, resources. And that's not always a given for a lot of people.


CASTILLO: Or that they'll have the friends that could pitch in and, you know, watch their kid. That's not always a given.

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: So it is very heartbreaking to watch, but also a good sort of, like, reality check.

HOLMES: Right. And I think too, like, there's a lot of attention, as you said, to how one event can kind of throw her whole life into a total mess. And it can either be something like, you know, something happens to your car or something - you know, and suddenly you can't get to your job and now everything starts to collapse, or something like, you know, in one of the many places that she lives, if you get, for example, a problem that you need the landlord to fix, do you bring it up, in which case you might lose your housing, or do you not bring it up, in which case now you're A, living in a bad situation, and B, again, your kid is not living in a good situation?

I think the pressures that are placed on her kind of make so much sense to me. And also, I like this Margaret Qualley performance so much, and I think it is so poignant, particularly the way that when she first leaves her boyfriend, she has a conversation with the woman who runs the shelter that she goes to about a friend that she meets. And she kind of says, how can she go back to a situation that is so bad for her?


BJ HARRISON: (As Denise) Danielle might be lying to herself in order to survive. Who knows what she is up against? She might be trying to break a cycle of abuse that's been going on for generations.

HOLMES: But at the same time, you know, most people have heard, I think, the statistic that says it often takes five, seven - something like that - tries before somebody really leaves for good. You sort of learn over the course of this show why that happens, that it's not as simple as you walk away and you just never go back because you would never go back to a bad situation, that both because of the financial stuff, but also that I think through these performances from Qualley and also from Nick Robinson, you get the feeling that, you know, this is not a relationship that has always been terrible at all times, and particularly because of some of the other stuff that she's dealing with, like her mother - he is legitimately very helpful to her in dealing with her mother. And you see the complexity of how that happens that somebody winds up going back.

CASTILLO: Oh, absolutely. I was thinking about that a bit because we do see over the course of the series that Nick Robinson's character - it looks like he's getting his stuff together. It looks like he's doing the right thing, and he comes to her defense and he comes to her rescue more than once. And so we do kind of get the sense, like, oh, maybe they can work this out - very mixed feelings about the whole thing, but also because she's - her back is so against the wall that any sort of relief is just like, oh, please, just help her out.

HOLMES: And it's her daughter's father.

CASTILLO: It's her daughter's father. You know, they can't fully, like, just, you know, separate altogether. And then we see that it sours. We see it fall apart again because this is a cycle, and it hasn't been unbroken. And, oh, it's just so crushing when it happens. And she also realizes, like, she's in the same spot where she ran away from. And I think that was also done very, very well. You singled out Margaret Qualley's performance, and that was the sort of balance of, like, fear and resourcefulness and just - oh, it's so good. It's - you can see her thinking and putting together the pieces like, how do I fix this? How do I make this work? And she's so quick on certain levels. And then when you see that she can't, you know, meet a certain challenge or she's defeated by, you know, a roadblock, it feels even more crushing because of the performance.

HOLMES: Yeah. I want to talk a little bit about this character named Regina, who is played by Anika Noni Rose, who is a wealthy attorney, who has a big, beautiful house that Alex comes to clean. And they start off with this very kind of prickly relationship. And what I found so interesting about this - Regina is kind of a - she's a new mom, but she's kind of conscious of being a slightly older mom. She doesn't necessarily feel like she has a lot of experience with kids. She's not sure if she's going to be comfortable. Alex, on the other hand, became a mother very young, has a little bit of experience with her own daughter and winds up being the one who kind of has a little bit of knowledge about kind of the domestic sphere.

And it was so interesting to me to see a white character like Alex, who becomes kind of the person who understands domestic housekeeping and caretaking for this, like, wealthy Black client. I wasn't sure that I had ever seen that set up that way in a TV or movie situation where it's so often the opposite...


HOLMES: ...Where you have the kind of - the housekeeper, the help kind of, you know, the person who understands how to raise kids and all of that. I was fascinated by that dynamic. I don't know that I reached a final conclusion about how I felt about it, but I thought it was really interesting.

CASTILLO: I did appreciate that their relationship also developed over the course of the series, and we don't just see her as, like, the mean rich lady...

HOLMES: Right. Of course.

CASTILLO: ...Who lets her maid faint from hunger and is like, OK, well...

HOLMES: Right, right. Right.

CASTILLO: ...Can you get that spot on your way out?

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: You know, she does open up to her, but it's not a consistent thing either. It is also very much, like, a cautionary, like, I don't know you.

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: Like, why would you use my address for your kid's preschool? And I do like that it's a - it kind of opens that conversation that, you know, some people just really don't know what it's like to live in poverty, to try to escape that, to survive that, what it takes to even navigate that. One of their first confrontations, Alex loses her car in an accident, and she can't physically make it to the house.


ANIKA NONI ROSE: (As Regina) I am not paying you one dime. You didn't even come back to finish.

QUALLEY: (As Alex) No, I did. I came back to your house. I was on my way back to your house, and I got into a horrible car accident on Route 20. And my 2-year-old daughter and I - we've been living in that car. So we became homeless. And then I couldn't feed her, and I couldn't house her, and I couldn't get her off of the floor of the ferry station.

CASTILLO: The rich character is mad, and she just doesn't see the fact that she just lost her livelihood, essentially, not being able to get to sites.

HOLMES: Yeah, I think it's a fascinating relationship to me, and I think it winds up playing into one of the things that I think is very tricky about a show like this because on the one hand, you are trying to - they're trying to be honest about how difficult her situation is. But on the other hand, I think when you watch the show, you don't feel like they're going to leave this character at the end in a state of despair.

CASTILLO: I don't know that my heart could have taken that (laughter).

HOLMES: Well, right, exactly. And so you kind of have this really complicated thing. You know, how do you give some hope to this character while being really honest about her situation? And I think the way that they sort of resolve that - and you and I were talking a little bit about this before the taping - is that they really are honest about the fact that she has to get very lucky and a lot of things really have to align for her to have any options.

CASTILLO: Yeah. Again, that tension is held all the way till the end, and it really does feel like the planets are aligning for her, for this, like, very small window.

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: And it is nail-biting...

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: ...Just to get, like, the right email, the right text message, the right paper signed, all the way to the end.

HOLMES: And I think they're also very fair about the fact that she has some hope - right? - the fact that perhaps she has a future. Maybe she's going to find a way forward, but what is she going to have to give up and leave behind, essentially, in order to make that possible? I think this show is so good, and it's actually, I think, a really moving, terrific and, as you have pointed out sort of, very entertaining and suspenseful and, like, really gripping show about the story of this woman. And I've talked to so many people who have said I started out to watch this and I just could not stop watching it, which was my exact experience of it when I first discovered it. Just - I am so impressed with this piece of work, and I - as soon as I saw it, I was like, all the awards for this show.

CASTILLO: I would also be very happy if this show took all the awards. I had a slightly different watching experience in which I kind of had to pace myself because I would get so emotionally wrapped up in everything. I would cry. I would get way too anxious. The seeing the mental calculations of, like, money disappearing on the side of the screen was like a countdown clock every episode (laughter).

HOLMES: Right. It is another thing that makes it just feel super, super tense. And a bunch of people are so good in this - not only the actors that we have already talked about, but I am here for the Andie MacDowell renaissance. This is a hard character, I think, because she kind of originally seems like a little bit of, like, a West Coast artsy flake a little bit.

CASTILLO: Yeah, to, like, the nth degree.

HOLMES: Exactly. And I think ultimately you do get a - more of a character from her.

CASTILLO: Yeah, there's this character named Danielle who stands out in my mind, played by Aimee Carrero, who is a survivor at the domestic violence shelter, and she is, like, one of the first, like, sort of coaches for Alex to navigate this system, and you're going to fight for your kid, and this is how you're going to do it. But I think there was also kind of a question of whether or not, you know, the role of Alex could have been played by a woman of color, and would her experiences have been different? I think you can totally do this series with a woman of color, but her experiences would have been different.

HOLMES: Right.

CASTILLO: And the way that people treated her, talked to her, approached her - especially when I think about the scene where Alex, like, went door to door, essentially, offering her maid services.

HOLMES: For sure. For sure.

CASTILLO: I'm like, yeah, I'm not sure that would have gone over so well for a woman of color. But, you know, we do get to see other women in that community. We do get to hear from them, hear some of their experiences in, like, the writers group and in those kinds of spaces. And I was really thankful for those moments too, because it's not just - you know, it's not a small problem. It's very widespread. It goes all across all, you know, demographic information. And I think the show was really cognizant of that as well.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think, you know, it's important to acknowledge with all that I have said about how much I think it shows you about what these programs are and how they operate, that no one story is, like, the story of poverty in America or of being poor, of relying on public assistance. It's just that through this one story, you get a set of insights, I think.

Well, we want to know what you think about "Maid," when you've had a chance to watch it again. It's available on Netflix. Find us at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Monica. It is always a delight to have you to talk about something that we both like.

CASTILLO: Thank you for having me - always a delight to talk about things we like.

HOLMES: And we will see you all tomorrow.


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