Beth Harmon dares to risk it all as an obsessive chess prodigy in the wildly popular 2020 Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit. Based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel and screenplay by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, this seven part series weaves through hopeful moments of redemption on a journey through unexpected and destructive forces and dangerous addictions. Beth’s character plight resembles a dark, stylized Alice in Wonderland meets Netflix’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Beth and Mrs. Maisel go down the proverbial rabbit hole, traipsing through the 1950s and early 60s as sharp-tongued, brilliant female leads smashing stereotypical gender roles. The big difference, however, is that Beth’s escapades are physically and mentally dangerous, even life-threatening. The comedic moments in Beth story arc are dark, as she climbs the chess rankings one match at a time. Her reliance on “the Queen’s Gambit”, a traditionally aggressive and risky opening move in the chess world, also lends its name to the series.
The Queen’s Gambit is a bold tactic where a player risks sacrificing their white queen to control the center of the board. This confrontational approach, tempting an opponent to make a mistake, mirrors Beth’s high risk-reward lifestyle. Risk is her strength and her Achilles’ heel, as she engages in risky drug and alcohol abuse to fuel her wins and to pacify her depression, loss and loneliness. It’s also a crutch to help her fight the social condemnation of being a woman who dares to become a Grand Master chess champion, let alone an independent thinker or a contrarian voice against religious groups or the government.
The pressure to do this is overwhelming and mounting for a young girl coming of age. In each episode, Beth is singularly focused on winning and meeting the World Champion, Russian Vasily Borgov. But new conflicts and revelations about being a woman in a man’s world take Beth to the precipice. In every sense, The Queen’s Gambit is a modern measure of our gender stalemate that continues to exist today. While we’ve made progress, the challenges for women who have to go-it alone are mirrored in the social ills that befall Beth from gender discrimination, to Cold War politics between countries and a lack of trust in each other.
It’s not a stretch to say many of these grievous social ills have escalated in our age. The groundwork is evident in the opening episode with 9 year-old Beth, when she is forced to move into the Methuen Orphanage Home after surviving her mother’s suicidal car crash. Beth has an obvious aptitude for chess and extraordinary spatial intelligence, but mind-numbing tranquilizers used to keep the children docile are an early coping mechanism for Beth’s feelings of abandonment and sadness.
This drug dependence and cycle continues after Beth overdoses at the Home. Opportunities to take drugs and fuel her addictions emerge after she’s adopted by a suburban couple from Kentucky. They escalate in tandem to Beth’s chess career. As her star soars, so does her drug dependence. It’s shocking to watch Beth spiral out of control as the stakes mount. But it’s equally arresting to see how her addiction mirrors what we already know about teenage drug use in America. Opioids like heroin, fentanyl and hydrocodone are at an all-time high, killing kids more than ever, especially in the wake of COVID-19.
The raw and magnificent acting by Anna Taylor-Joy adds to Beth’s harrowing persona. She is at once intensely competitive and driven to win with the fervor of real-life chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer, while simultaneously doubting her ability to fight for her place in the male-dominated chess arena and a chauvinistic world.
For example, Beth’s relationship with Benny Wexler is both romantic and fiercely competitive. Beth beats Benny repeatedly in speed games and takes his US title. When she moves into his New York apartment to accept his help in preparing to beat the Russian World Champion and Grand Master, Vasily Borgov, she is forced to make tough choices.
Beth wants a seat at the table, as does any woman fighting social stigmas, discrimination and inner doubt. It’s reflected in her evolution of character and the heightened climax when she plays Borgov. Women are as capable and worthy of success as men. But the final test of Beth’s coming of age is being forced to admit that she needs the help of her American chess friends to beat Borgov. His teammates have united for country, mapping out all of Beth’s potential moves.
But in glorious form, Beth realizes her victory beyond the chess board. She defies the political war between America and Russia and wins the hearts of the Russian people and the chess world. Her passion for the game is the greatest equalizer, doubled by the insight that recognizes the corrupting politics of gender and country allegiances that destroy our humanity.
When Beth skips out on the CIA Operative taking her back to America and the President’s request for a press op, she walks into a Russian park to play chess with strangers and her full power. The highest ideals of chess respect the joys of competition, intelligence and freedom.
As the credits roll after the final episode, one wonders what if the Queen’s Gambit was less about forcing a bad play and more about daring to gamble on the real joys of life? It asks us to consider the what if’s of integrity, loving oneself, and daring to believe that happiness comes from within. Whatever the stresses of the world, the loss or the pressures to conform, the best way to live is to exercise your freedom to live and choose. Your 64 squares on the chess board are yours to play.