Like many people in the last few weeks, I started watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and ended up binge-watching it because it is just that good. The seven-episode limited series follows the rise of chess master Beth Harmon from her learning to play from the janitor at her orphanage to playing the Russian world champion. I have loved chess off and on since I was a girl. I was in the chess club in the first grade and grew up playing chess with my dad. One of my life’s regrets is that I didn’t keep playing with him. I gave up in college because I could never, ever beat him and I wasn’t at a place where I wanted to/could put in the time to get better. When I worked as a jail librarian, chess came back onto my radar, because it was popular with the guys and some of them gave me tips to help me beat my husband. Anyway, The Queen’s Gambit is fabulous and in place of doing a cohesive analysis, I just want to do some bullet points of what stood out to me as I watched. Spoilers ahead.
- Of course, I loved the 1960s costumes and interiors and Anya Taylor-Joy is a treasure. When she wore Twiggy-inspired eye makeup, my husband asked, “What is under her eyes?” and I about screamed “Twiggy!”
- The series throws us into the story at two critical points in Beth’s life: right before she blows a match by staying out partying in Paris instead of preparing and then, back in time, when she was orphaned. I think perhaps this is an interesting move on the part of the writers because they position two types of loss together. Losing a parent is not even nearly equal to losing a chess match, but for someone as brilliant and unused to losing as Beth is, there is real grief that comes with the latter. How she handles the embarrassment of losing that match in Paris nearly derails her life in a way that is transformative much like being orphaned was. In both instances, she has to make herself anew.
- As someone who studies girlhood, I enjoyed the depiction of young Beth Harmon. Beth is such an odd, cold girl that her depiction falls out of step with how young girls are expected to behave, and right into tropes more aligned with older male geniuses. It was great. I loved watching her play chess on the ceiling and got a real kick out of the look that passed between her and Mr. Schaibel when the high school chess coach brings Beth a doll—a look that said, “Oh brother; what can you do?”
- Rarely do we see a story about addiction that starts in childhood like Beth’s does. That the orphanage was giving the girls tranquilizers every day (and in the middle of the day!?) is really troubling and hints at a complicated history around children and pharmaceuticals. I think that the show could have done more with Beth’s recovery from the pills, especially since there were so many murky ties between the pills and her grief, and her sense of control over her life, but that these connections are made without getting super explicit or after school special-y is in itself a pretty nuanced take.
- I loved watching Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mom, Alma (played by Marielle Heller), develop. When Alma finds out that Beth has such a talent for chess and that she could make money playing it, I was concerned that it was going to turn into a terrible momager situation. Instead, the relationship grew with such tentative affection that it was oddly suspenseful. I was relieved that Alma seemed to be interested in Beth’s career, not just for the financial opportunity that it afforded them, but also for the way it broadened her horizons. She benefited from Beth, for sure, but she did not just take the money. She supported her and took an interest in her career. There was a lot at work emotionally between the two and it was wonderful to watch a mother-daughter relationship that was not built on cliches. Both had their demons and, well, I was so fascinated.
- Beth endures more than her share of grief in the series and the audience sees this play out throughout the character’s story and in flashbacks. Beth usually handles her grief in an intensely reserved fashion and it does not really come out until she finds Mr. Schaibel’s photo of the two of them. (Side note: I was disturbed to find out that she never sent him the $10.) It would be easy to write Beth off as unfeeling, but I think the series does a great job of portraying how still waters run deep. Her grief does not look like people might expect, but there are tokens along the way that point to how she is feeling: Alma’s housecoat, her watch, the photo. Beth is reserved with all of her emotions, so it is no surprise that her feelings of loss would be similarly muted in their expression, but that does not mean she does not feel them. I think our culture has a lot of expectations for what grief looks like and it was refreshing to see a portrayal off that beaten path.
- Finally, I was delighted when Jolene showed up again and that she was portrayed as having made a successful life for herself in her own right, pursuing her own goals and defining what her success looks like. I think in part this could be an effort to bring a character of color into the very, very white world of chess, but I was glad the effort was made, especially because Jolene is such a fun character.
Did you watch The Queen’s Gambit? What did you think?
The Queen’s Gambit runs for 7 episodes and is rated TV-MA. It was created by Scott Frank, Scott Allan, and Allan Scott.