SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Maid,” streaming now on Netflix.
After playwright Molly Smith Metzler read Stephanie Land’s memoir, “Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive,” she began to look at the world differently.
Specifically, this was because of the passage in which Land described a time in her life when she and her daughter were living in an apartment that got so damp it was growing black mold, resulting in her daughter becoming chronically ill. She brought her daughter to a doctor who told her, “You have to do better.”
That moment “really rattled” Smith Metzler because of she, also a mother, could imagine working hard to do everything you can for your child and still being helpless to get out of a bad situation. It was a moment she knew she had to include verbatim in her limited series adaptation of Land’s story, also titled “Maid.”
However, for every small detail Smith Metzler kept in her version of the story, she greatly fictionalized something else in the 10 episodes — or, as she calls it, “10 plays” — of the season. This includes changing all of the names: Land is now Alex Russell (played by Margaret Qualley), her daughter is Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet) and her ex is Sean (Nick Robinson), for example. It also meant altering the relationship between the protagonist and her parents. In Land’s memoir, she describes parents who divorced when she was young, but she seems to have had relationships with both parents through the years — even if oftentimes strained ones. In the show, Alex is close to her mother, Paula (Andie MacDowell), who lives with mental illness that makes her unreliable when she is off her meds, but she spent most of her life not seeing her father (Billy Burke). Throughout the course of the season, Alex unearths repressed memories of her father’s abuse of her mother, which caused her to leave with Alex when Alex was young.
“It was a primary interest of mine to explore generational abuse and how these things get passed down, and then you wake up in that moment reliving your own trauma because of a new relationship. It’s something I think a lot of our viewers can relate to,” Smith Metzler tells Variety.
Generational trauma and abuse was not limited to Alex’s story in “Maid.” Smith Metzler expanded Sean’s story from the memoir, giving him a more fully fleshed out world, which included a drug addict mother, some friends and a backstory that included raising his younger brother.
“They’re both coming from what’s been modeled and normalized for them,” the showrunner says of Alex and Sean. “And if you come from a ton of emotional abuse or physical abuse, it’s what you’re used to. And I felt the only way to talk about that was to experience it with this character, so that is the thing I’m most proud of with ‘Maid’ — you actually do experience the cycle of it and getting trapped in the cycle. The challenge is to find the humor and the joy in the world because I don’t think anyone wants to watch 10 hours of suffering.”
Land’s memoir spans a number of years, beginning when her daughter is just learning to walk while they are living in a homeless shelter, showcasing that she left her own abusive ex early on in their child’s life. In the limited series, Maddy is a toddler when Alex leaves Sean.
“There’s something about her starting to talk and starting to have an identity of her own and also having an awareness of the behavior around her. There’s that moment in the pilot where you just see her see her dad, and it’s a much scarier thing,” Smith Metzler says of aging up the child from the start of her story. “It’s no longer safe and it’s no longer excusable when her daughter’s being traumatized the same way she was as a toddler.”
As Alex struggles with staying away from Sean, it is recovering the repressed memories of childhood abuse that helps her leave him for good. She hid in a cabinet when her father was railing against her mother, and after a particularly bad fight in their trailer, Alex finds Maddy doing the same thing.
But Sean never physically abuses either Alex or Maddy, which was a very intentional choice in Smith Metzler’s storytelling.
“I wanted him to be emotionally abusive and have him live in that space of hard to put your finger on if she has a bruise on her, in the court of law it’s very clear. But without one, in the court of law, it’s just her word against his,” she explains. “There’s this moment in the pilot when a social worker is talking about a domestic violence shelter and she says, ‘I haven’t been abused.’ She doesn’t even know that emotional abuse is a form of abuse, and I think a lot of people don’t know. In fact, part of my research for the project taught me that in the state of Washington, it’s not considered illegal. So I wanted to put this question on the screen. I dare you to watch ‘Maid’ and tell me that’s not abuse.”
Still, Smith Metzler was cognizant not to make Sean a mustache-twirling villain because, as she puts it, “these people who abuse us, they don’t have a cape and devil horns; they’re sexy, kind, smart people who have their own generational trauma and can be victims of their own. It doesn’t excuse it, but I think it explains it.”
Sean has a problem with alcohol that often leads him to throw things around his family. He is also controlling about money and work hours and even Alex’s cell phone. But he is the one person Alex has used as support — especially for a roof over her head — which is part of what keeps them entangled even outside of their daughter. Part of how alone Alex is came directly from Land’s memoir, Smith Metzler notes, calling Land “the loneliest character in the American canon of literature.”
“The houses [she cleans] are characters in and of themselves, but the people who live in them aren’t,” she explains.
However, the show does introduce a few people for Alex to at least bounce things off of and have important conversations with, even if they cannot be true safety nets. Most notably, there is Regina (Anika Noni Rose), a wealthy homeowner and soon-to-be mother whose house Alex gets hired to clean. Although to many clients Alex is invisible or interchangeable, she develops an unexpected friendship with Regina, and Regina even becomes someone Alex calls when she needs a ride to the shelter.
The houses Alex cleans in the series — from Regina’s to the Barefoot Bandit’s — were specially selected by Smith Metzler to inform the story and what Alex is going through in “some unique way.” Regina’s house offers an alternative look at providing for a child, while the Barefoot Bandit’s house becomes a place Alex has a breakthrough memory about her own tumultuous childhood.
“We all want to see how others live so that’s certainly part of the show, But I didn’t want it to become about that,” Smith Metzler says.
Instead, she “really wanted to focus on it being a love story between a mother and a daughter.” While the main love story is certainly between Alex and Maddy, as a tribute to Land and her daughter, there is also a secondary piece about Alex and Paula.
In Land’s memoir, she juggles school with her job as a domestic worker and being a single mother, but in Smith Metzler’s series, Alex’s dream of enrolling in a writing collective has been deferred. It isn’t until the end of the series that she is able to put all of the pieces together for it to happen. When she does, she offers her mother the chance to move with her, but while Paula at first accepts, she ends up making an excuse and backing out.
“It is so hard to leave. And it’s not just financially hard. It’s so hard to leave someone who’s not going to be well. I think it’s very heartbreaking that she has to go without her mom and she knows it, but I also think it’s beautiful that Paula lets her off the hook. It’s maybe one of the only selfless things she does in the show. We have to go on this journey alone,” Smith Metzler says.