Typically, it would be inappropriate to say that Maid, the extraordinary Netflix series about economic insecurity and one mother’s hard choices, is “by the numbers”. The phrase, on its surface, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Maid masterfully employs the tools of onscreen storytelling to tell an age-old story of making ends meet, cutting corners, and counting pennies in a new way. But, just like in the celebrated memoir by Stephanie Land on which it is based, deliverance for its main character comes through a mastery of words and digits. A numerical play on words, then, feels just right.
Maid follows Alex (Margaret Qualley in a career-making performance), a young mom trying to escape an abusive relationship and tumbling through the holes in the social safety net. After leaving her boyfriend Sean (Nick Robinson) and finding herself without a home or a job, Alex discovers that the “handouts” that so many conservative pundits complain about are woefully out of reach. She can’t get on food stamps without an address, she can’t get subsidized housing without two paystubs, she can’t go to a job interview without daycare for her child, Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), and so on. She eventually finds work cleaning houses, exposing the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots, but still the numbers never add up for her.
It’s a deeply American story in the worst ways and the best ways--it taps into the American dream mythology and the idea that true American heroines will go through hell to achieve their goals, while also clearly illustrating what kind of hell we’re talking about here.
Maid is about a lot of things--class, privilege, motherhood, the Sisyphean struggle to work one’s way out of poverty. And, of course, undergirding it all is money: who has it and who doesn’t. Series creator Molly Smith Metzler (who plumbed adjacent territory in her phenomenal play Cry It Out) and director John Wells use an extremely effective device to remind us that money is the string binding and pulling Alex. Every time a potential expense or source of income presents itself to her, figures show up in the upper right corner of the screen, adding or subtracting from a perilously low balance. We watch her do the calculations in real time, seeing the despondence play across Qualley’s face as the numbers tick lower.
More than just a great narrative device, this visual tool also uses a relatively new cinematic language to tell us something essential about Alex. While to Alex the ever-present numbers may mark her failure, in showing them to us as dynamic animation moving around the screen, the creators call to mind the ticking clock on 24 and Holmes’ mysterious mental caseworking in Sherlock. When numbers pop up on TV as a manifestation of the main character’s inner workings, we’re meant to understand that we’re watching genius in real-time.
This is, I believe, exactly what we’re meant to believe of Alex and rightfully so. It’s an exciting choice, and invigorating as most of the desperate, shrewd geniuses that we get on TV are men of some means.
It’s less the confusion of the Math Lady meme...
...and more the surety of a brilliant mind solving the unsolvable.
In cloaking Alex, downtrodden though she may be, in the visual vocabulary of a misunderstood but ultimately heroic prodigy, Smith Metzler deftly sidesteps losing Maid to tragedy porn. We see how impossible the problems Alex faces are, we understand they are systemic and endemic. And in watching her tackle them, more often than not in painfully small ways that will not free her, we know that she and anyone navigating poverty in America is using a superpower. There’s no other way to do it.
Watching Maid, a product of the minds of brilliant women like Smith Metzler, Land, Qualley, and others, I keep coming back to how rarely we get to see this perspective and how much poorer we are as a society for it. The television landscape has had a few notable women characters celebrated for their brains, even some misunderstood geniuses who can crack cases no one else can. But for every Olivia Pope or Peggy Olson or Miriam Maisel, there are probably two or three Houses or Adrian Monks. This shouldn’t be the case. One of the many beauties of Maid is that it exposes the growing edges that we as a society still need to tackle and, in translating a gripping true life story to a fictional space, also illustrates how the television landscape can improve, one character at a time.
Watching a beautiful mind whir to life and set the universe of a film or TV show on its head is never not going to be thrilling. It’s used to less bombastic effect in Maid than in some of its disparate forbearers, but it’s still so exciting. I love watching people math out loud!
I truly cannot get enough of Beautiful Mind-ing, that thing where a character goes to a wall of figures with the delicacy and electric curiosity of Laura Dern approaching a triceratops in Jurassic Park and then just goes to town with numbers.
A top tier Beautiful Mind-ing scene in a movie full of them, made even more incredible by the presence of a farcical number of ladders.
Not as much of a superpower scene as some of the others, but still a thrilling confluence of Mathing and Personal Revelation.
Photo edit: Sean Simon; credit: RICARDO HUBBS/NETFLIX © 2021
Editorial assistant: Sean Simon