I typically find myself resisting television dramas, especially ones focused around games like chess, and which have been described by other reviewers using the words ‘trauma,’ ‘obsession,’ and ‘addiction.’ 2020 has been traumatizing enough for high schoolers, has it not? However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the new limited series on Netflix, ‘The Queen’s Gambit.’ In the drama, Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon, a newly parentless eight-year-old. After a horrific car crash that takes her mother’s life, Beth finds herself in an orphanage, where she develops a passion for two things; playing chess in the basement and green tranquilizers. Her only two friends are Jolene (played by Moses Ingram), a non-conformist who is a few years older than Beth, and Mr. Schaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor who teaches her the game of chess and recognizes her natural talent for the game. After being adopted as a 15-year-old, Beth quickly dives into the world of competitive chess, moving upwards from tournaments in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, to the likes of Mexico City, Paris, and Moscow, while navigating rivals, allies, and love.
The show’s beginning was confusing and slightly jumbled at first, but a brilliant script helped blend past, present, and future into a narrative that the viewer could understand. I found that the show was extremely fast-paced, which was overwhelming until enough of the flashbacks had been presented to assemble Beth’s backstory and also to begin to predict her future challenges.
As with many prodigies and geniuses, there was a strong theme of vice, especially alcohol and pills. As early as the first episode, we discovered that Beth was developing a physical and emotional dependency on the tranquilizing pills, or ‘vitamins,’ as they are called by staff, that were being distributed to the girls at the Methuen Home for orphans. Throughout the rest of the show, the struggle with substance addictions was prominent, and in truth, made the show much more riveting.
At one point, Beth says “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it, and it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
This is where we can start to understand that Beth immersed herself in chess to cope with the horrible events of her childhood, and continued to obsess herself with it throughout her life as a way to escape the world. Jean Blake, the Life magazine reporter who interviews Beth for an article, later observes, “Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand. Or, for that matter, genius and madness.”
The frustration of Beth’s actions, relationships, and obsessions draw viewers into the plot, and I found myself thinking about the complex storyline and what I would have done in her place hours after I watched an episode.
In every flashback sequence, her late mother tells a young Beth that she doesn’t need men, but in the world that she later constructs for herself, Beth’s only competition is men. As the story plays out, we see Beth is ahead of her time, breaking boundaries in the world of chess and, simply, doing whatever she wants. It is worth noting that as Beth simultaneously reaches the heights of success in the chess world and spirals out of control personally, it is her renewed friendship with Jolene that grounds her and positions her to play for the ultimate stakes in Moscow.
While I was initially confused as to the dark circumstances that brought Beth to the Methuen Home, the intricate storylines, details, and side-stories were what made the show one of my current favorites. I loved how unique the approach was to the story, and anywhere they could have added another side-story or event, they did. The frantic, fast-paced nature of the show, which was packed with plot twists, mimicked life as a whole, as well as letting viewers experience Beth’s tumultuous life, traumas, and obsessions. Overall, the show and the acting were both amazing, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new series to watch.
By: Allison Caskey, Feature Editor