Last week featured my first weekend of rest in a long time and I was desperate to do nothing. In conversation with a friend I mentioned that I had not binge-watched anything in a long time and she suggested The Maid (streaming on Netflix) with a warning that it was brilliant but that I might find it traumatic. I consumed the entire season over the weekend, even after I messaged said friend to inform her after episode two that it was a difficult watch and I would need a break. I did not take a break and powered through. If you have ever been through, witnessed or supported someone through abuse, this will be a difficult watch but I also found it quite therapeutic because it was realistic.
The series is about domestic abuse and focuses on emotional abuse, addressing some of the stigma and contested victimhood of those who suffer non-physical abuse. Although based in the US, it addresses the lack of recognition in the legal system for abusive relationships that do not feature physical violence. The show highlighted that many in society do not recognise non-physical domestic abuse as ‘real’ or ‘enough’, and for a while the female lead (Alex) herself did not perceive herself to be victimised enough to warrant support from a refuge or seek help from the police. She later moves through her denial after getting flashbacks as a symptom of PTSD. She realised that having witnessed her father perpetrate violence towards her mother as a child, her daughter was now impacted in exactly the same way, despite this ‘lesser’ form of abuse.
Much of the series showed the struggles of single mothers leaving abusive relationships, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Forcibly displaced, they slowly try to rebuild their lives, applying for state benefits, social housing and childcare. Alex quickly finds a job and still finds it difficult to find a place to live because she needs state support to supplement her rent and deposit. There are few landlords who accept tenants receiving state support, both in the US and the UK. She is repeatedly facing the barriers of an unjust system, stacked against her because of the type of victimisation she suffered.
While facing structural barriers, the maid found help in the most unlikely people: women in the shelter, a social worker helping her to fight the system, a wealthy woman she worked for. Her relationships changed with some people to access support. She was forced to seek help from her father and another male friend when she was left homeless which had difficult gendered dynamics. The father had been abusive to her mother and when she recalled this, it caused conflict in her relationship and she left his home, despite this leaving her homeless once again. Her male friend appeared to be helpful and kind but did so with the expectation she would start a relationship with him and when this did not materialise she was again asked to leave with nowhere to go so she returns to her ex-partner.
The maid does not as much get back into a relationship with him than coexists with him. The relationship he thinks they have is not what her reality is. He thinks she has come home, she is there because she is homeless with nowhere else to go. They live parallel lives. After returning to the ‘family home’, Alex falls into depression and suffers PTSD. Some of the imagery here is intense. In one scene the sofa swallows her up, as if she wished to sink into the cracks of the furniture, not wanting to be seen, wanting to escape but with no means to flee or places to flee to. In other scenes, she tries to go for a walk in the forest, but the trees close in around her, visually representing the isolation her abuser has forced upon her.
My main criticism is in the final episode when Sean tells the maid he will get sober but getting sober will not fix this. Alcohol is not the problem. He was abusive during his sober phases. Quitting alcohol does not transplant men’s attitudes, values and beliefs towards women. Being sober does not remove the need for abusive men to control women. This sends the wrong message to the audience, and it is a dangerous message to send. I would have liked to see the series end with Sean admitting he was a controlling, abusive man and that he would get help for this. Instead he blamed his behaviour on alcohol.
I’m going to play the tape forward and imagine a season 2 because I have witnessed this scenario a few times over the years. He cleans up, gets sober and appears to look like he is doing well. He may have been to rehab or AA where he was taught that he probably should not punch walls or throw objects at people’s heads. He gets in a new relationship and it looks like all is well for a while but he still has not admitted or addressed why he was abusive so his behaviours are there, they are just more subtle. He gaslights, manipulates, controls. But he isn’t outwardly aggressive so he gets away with it for a while. Until he doesn’t.