5 out of 5
Created by: Molly Smith Metzler
What makes watching a tragedy compelling? There is the curiosity factor, something intertwined with thoughts of our own mortality – slowing down to view a traffic accident – and then, perhaps, some crossroads of “that could never be me” and “I’m glad that’s not me,” giving us a safety bubble of comfort that’s generally further supported by, in TV and movie tragedies, a happy ending. There’s also inspirational tragedies, of course, in which we watch someone scramble from nothing to something and we get to twiddle our widdle hope impulses when that someone overcomes, and also punish ourselves a for surely not having the same dedication as our narrative heroes.
A lot of this can boil down to different takes on so-called tragedy porn: I wouldn’t consider this stuff necessarily enriching, so much as playing in to any of the psychological factors above, and depending on which version you prefer – self-congratulating, self-punishing – maybe there’s a specific tragedy porn subgenre for you.
…And I realize there’s judgement in those words. There’s some irony in that, I suppose, as my preferred subgenre is the one which tends to push past self-reflection or projection, and make you identify with the subject of the tragedies. That identifying might be easier for those with familiarity with the goings-on, but a very strong piece of work can push past even that: in Maid, I can identify, wholly, with single mother Alex (Margaret Qualley), despite not being a single mother, and despite not having had any situations in my life even remotely close to hers. And by identify, I don’t mean equating – that Qualley brings such humanity to the screen (she absolutely does) and the writers do such a good job of presenting the realities of her life (they do) – that I’m able to correlate to my own experiences, rather that I fully forgot that I existed when watching Maid; I was fully immersed – I was hit with the ups and downs of Alex’s life, caring for my child (toddler Maddy – played by Rylea Nevaeh Whittet), and distraught over making single dollars stretch for weeks.
Qualley really is the key to this. The rogerebert review, I think, captures it best: the actress truly seems like she’s responding to things as they happen, and not “acting” them; she is just as immersed in her role as I became in her character. There’s not the clear-cut reaction we get with typical dialogue, or the pause-for-effect of statements and teaching moments; Alex’s life is messy, and cluttered, and she follows what makes the most sense at the time. When she’s sinking – into an emotionally abusive relationship with Sean (Nick Robinson, also very giving and raw in the role), or when trying to care for her bipolar, wild flower mother (Andie MacDowell) – we don’t question her decisions or shake our head with our noses turned up: we’re just in it with her, sinking as well. And the tethers – her love for her daughter, a need to survive and keep a clear head, expressed in some creative writing she does – are also ours. This naturalism is what prevents the show from becoming straight up tragedy porn, as episodes are not out to just wreck Alex: she still has her relative joys and reprieves.
But things are stacked against her. Some of this is the system: when Alex runs out into the night with Maddy after a frightening lashing out from a drunken Sean, she stumbles from failed support to failed support (friends, family, who either don’t quite understand how the charming Sean is a problem, or, like her mother Paula, are too wrapped up in their own lives to care) until she finds a shelter, but trying to crawl out of that with a job and a safe place to live puts her behind multiple overlapping and seemingly contradicting regulations – how much you can earn, and work, and how you legally prove X, Y, or Z that should be obvious to anyone paying attention. And some of is less transparent, and it’s to the immense credit of Maid’s writers that they kept these factors consistent: that humans are often transactional beasts, even when they have “good” intentions, and that alcohol isn’t always just the magical ingredient that can turn someone evil. Alex is consistently forging some positive bonds, but seeded within those will be some unspoken quid pro quo; not necessarily because the person is manipulative or bad, but because it’s just how a lot of our relations are established. And Sean, at various points, is sober and a good dad, but coded within his language are little barbs that don’t even give Alex pause but are clearly signs of how emotional abuse stacks up. We don’t focus on these in the episodes – episodes are interestingly fairly bottled, step-by-step triumphs (or not) for Alex in getting child care setup, finding a new home, etc. – but they are always present, just as they’re not isolated events in any of our lives.
The show does occasionally tip-toe towards overwrought “entertainment” fare, but it always peels back before it piles on too much, or is too cutesy. It also absolutely scores with little Whittet, who is ridiculously natural and believable on screen – and I’d say the series wisely kept the mommy / daughter relationship pretty clean-cut and happy; she’s a well-behaved girl, allowing us to focus moreso on Alex, because in all cases, Qualley’s presence grounds us. This is also the rare streaming series that nails its runtime: we’re left in a good place, and the path to get there never feels hurried or padded. And because we – or I – identify with the lead so strongly, it’s a wonderfully bittersweet ending in that we wish we could spend more time with Alex, but are also proud of what feels like the journey we’ve taken, together.