From intense power plays over chess pieces to amazing women claiming their place in the chessboard of life, The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix has it all. Released this year, it has quickly become a hit because of its interesting storyline, with an even more interesting protagonist who is unlike anything you have ever seen.
The Queen’s Gambit is a miniseries, created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, based on the novel of the same name (1983) written by Walter Trevis. The story is centered on an orphaned girl by the name of Elizabeth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor Joy), who discovers a surprising relationship with chess in the basement of her orphanage. We follow her journey into embracing herself as a prodigy, while also coming to terms with past ghosts.
Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit dives into the highs and lows of the world of competitive chess through the eyes of a young woman marching into male-dominated grounds while battling substance misuse at the same time. It not only showcases the dazzling wonders that are hidden within the 8×8 monochromatic board but also lays bare the darker side of power and success.
It is more than just a story about victory over the other side. It is a story about finding a place within yourself.
1. The life of a chess prodigy
The Queen’s Gambit starts in 1950s Kentucky, where we meet our young heroine, Elizabeth Harmon, also known as Beth. Beth is nine-years-old and just orphaned after her mother got them in an accident which resulted in Beth as the only survivor.
Beth is placed in Methuen’s Home For Young Girls, where she has her first encounter with the game of chess, as she observes the janitor, Mr Shaibel, playing by himself in the basement. Becoming curious, she eventually convinces him to teach her.
That is how her journey begins, with her slowly discovering her inner potential for chess and the sheer power she exudes when sits in front of the board. A lone child entering matches against those much older than her, managing to win without breaking a sweat.
Small in height she may be, but there is something terrifyingly intense in the way she grips the chess pieces and moves them along. It is a sight that leaves even the toughest adults in awe.
Her love for chess only grows as she becomes older, continuing even after she gets adopted by the Wheatleys. We observe her transform from a sombre child to a confident adult, being so comfortable in her game.
She sits in front of men twice and thrice her age, most of whom often underestimate. Yet, she remains strong, her gaze unwavering as she conquers piece after piece, almost as if she is leading a dance.
Anya-Taylor-Joy has talked about her process of becoming Beth in front of the camera. She trained under world-renowned chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini. As the games were complex, she memorised the moves before each scene, almost like choreography.
Trained in ballet, her experience in dancing helped us recreate the same finesse in chess. For someone who is not a professional player herself, Anya-Taylor-Joy fits into her role flawlessly.
From the start, we can see that chess is must more than just a game for Beth. In an interview with Life Magazine, Beth says, “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful.”
Her love for chess is more than just about winning. It’s enthralling to her, every move, every match, every single piece. It almost consumes her, till she can no longer set her life apart from that of Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy.
This is where Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit becomes captivating. It not only shows us the strength of genius, but also the consequences that one must suffer with it. We see Beth trying to find connection and intimacy in other people, only to quickly lose interest in them. Through the series, she keeps growing at a scary rate, to the point that fellow chess player and sometimes-lover Harry Beltik warns her about it.
In perhaps one of the most chilling scenes, Harry gives Beth the example of Paul Morphy, an American chess player who was good at chess from a young age, eventually getting bored of it when he just kept getting better and better.
It left him unable to do anything else with his life. Hearing this, Beth scoffs, asking, “You think that’s gonna be me?” To this, Harry simply answers, “I think it is you.”
2. Struggle with addiction
Another area that The Queen’s Gambit tackles is the struggle of substance misuse. As a young child, Beth gets addicted to the green tranquillizer pills which are fed to all the children at her orphanage, to keep them subdued.
The pills have a strong effect on Beth’s mind, giving her the ability to visualize chess pieces on the ceiling, calculating and planning moves even in her bed.
This becomes a full-fledged addiction which continues even in her later years, getting worse when Alma Wheatley, Beth’s adoptive mother, uses the same pills too. Alma also gets Beth addicted to alcohol, which later leads to her constantly drinking, to the point of showing up hungover to her match with Vasily Borgov, the Russian Grandmaster and current World Champion. All these habits eventually take a toll on her, bringing her to rock-bottom, from where she eventually has to find her way up again.
However, whether Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit portrays this struggle with addiction properly or not is up to debate. Combining creative endeavours with addiction has been a much-used trope in media.
Perhaps, this topic needs to be researched better so real-life experiences of people can be depicted instead of romanticised notions. Thus, some may find The Queen’s Gambit satisfactory, while others may feel uncomfortable with misrepresentation.
3. A woman in a ‘Man’s’ world
Another major theme of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is the gender prejudice that existed in society. From Beth’s childhood, chess is a game that is occupied by male-figures. Even when she makes her place in that world, most people seem fascinated by her gender, rather than her gameplay. In one episode, we observe Beth trying to talk to an interviewer about Mr Shaibel as her first mentor, but the interviewer seems solely interested in the fact that she is a woman.
People seem more amazed at the fact that a woman is defeating male opponents as if seeing her rise from her “submissive” role is what holds their attention. This often frustrates Beth, who does not see why gender has to matter in a game where all are players, regardless of their identities.
There is great discrimination in the opportunities given to women. From Beth’s adoptive mother being mistreated by her husband to Beth not being taken seriously initially, women are not seen as people.
Had Beth not stumbled upon Mr Shaibel in the basement all those years ago, she might have gone on through the rest of her life, never knowing she had this potential, forced to fit into the stereotype society had in store for her.
Problems with representation
Although The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix seems to have great representation on the surface, whether this is done well or not remains a question. For example, in a significant character in the story is Jolene, a young Black woman Beth meets in her orphanage.
She is an important friend in Beth’s early years, but she soon disappears from the picture as Beth grows up. We only see her again right towards the end when she comes to meet Beth, almost ‘rescuing’ her from her misery.
In this way, Jolene only seems to serve Beth’s purposes. As strong and outspoken as she is, her strength only becomes important to show when it is useful for Beth. Her character is not properly explored by herself. This is often the way
Black characters and other people of colour are represented in media. Rather than being given a chance to act like real people, they are reduced to accessories of the main protagonist.
While Jolene still leaves a strong impression in the minds of viewers and is an incredible character, it would have been nice to see her a constant in Beth’s life.
Another misrepresentation is that of sexuality. Through Benny, Beth becomes acquainted with a Parisienne model named Cleo. Beth drinks with her the night before her match Borgov, their playful bantering quickly turning into flirting.
The next morning, we see Beth running out to her match, with a look at Cleo who is lying in her bed. We can only guess what has happened between them.
Though this is an interesting development, The Queen’s Gambit could have explored Beth’s sexuality more. Her encounters with men are shown in such detail, whereas Cleo completely disappears after that scene. If only Cleo had been given more importance, perhaps we would have gotten more insight on her as well as her connection with Beth.
Hence, The Queen’s Gambit had some rough spots in terms of proper representation.
The king has never been the strongest piece on the board
Ultimately, every show has its pros and cons, as is the case with The Queen’s Gambit. With its problem areas and strong points, it may or may not be the show for you. However, it is hard to deny that it is a very captivating show, especially because of the enthralling main character.
Just the title of the show suggests, taken from the name of an opening move in chess, to gain control over the centre of the board by sacrificing a piece, The Queen’s Gambit is the story of a Queen gaining control, conquering and sacrificing along the way.
It is a reminder that while the game may end with the capturing of the King, the true power and strength always lies in the hands of the queen. So, if you enjoy watching women kick-ass as they do what they are amazing at, this might just be the show for you!