The new Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” reveals the underlying similarity that humans have with the game of chess: complexity. Protagonist Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, played by Anya Taylor Joy, leads the show as a misguided orphan who possesses an elite gift for playing chess. From her early youth growing up with a mentally unstable mother, up until adulthood, Beth struggles with issues of abandonment, self-criticism, mistrust and loneliness, which all lead her down the dark tunnel of drug and alcohol dependence.
The series features seven in-depth episodes, none of which require knowledge of chess to appreciate. The show follows Beth from her entrance into the orphanage to her most important chess match, and includes flashbacks of both her biological mother and father figure, Mr. Shaibel, who first introduced her to chess. “The Queen’s Gambit” surprises audiences with themes of drug use, which is introduced to the protagonist at just 9 years old. The show begins in the 1950s, during a time in which the distribution of tranquilizers to an orphanage was common practice. For Beth, entering the world of pills turns into a dependent tool which she views as necessary toward her successes in chess, as well as for guidance through life’s difficulties. As time progresses and Beth grows older, she gains interest in other drugs, as well as alcohol, a habit seemingly picked up from her adopted mother.
Despite the dark times seen throughout Beth’s journey toward becoming a chess prodigy, these experiences reveal the importance of human connection and companionship. While Beth begins her chess career believing drug use is her secret weapon, she eventually comes to terms with the reality that her success come from internal abilities and a support system that is not always visible for Beth in times of self-doubt. Beth’s mistrust of others mirrors the teachings of her biological mother who, like Beth, possessed a great intellect, yet struggled through mental illness which left her isolated from others. While chess is a way for Beth to express her talents, it is also an outlet for her anger and a way to avoid the complications that come with human complexity. When Beth plays chess, her gift of visualization lets her predict the moves of others, a tool that she knows cannot be utilized with people in the real world.
By the end of the series, Beth’s acceptance of companionship as a replacement for addiction is revealed through the appearances of past friends, opponents, instructors and memories. The resurfacing of Beth’s support system leads her to the realization that she was never alone or forgotten. Despite the absence of important figures in Beth’s life, it becomes apparent that the guardianship of close friends, particularly Mr. Shaibel, had remained strong throughout the course of her coming of age. Her rival-turned-friend, Benny Watts, alludes to the importance of collaboration when describing the teamwork method of the Soviet chess players, the “leaders” of the chess world. This comment is parallel to the lessons of the show and the themes of friendship, companionship and support from others that are especially significant during times of distress in the world.
With the rise of mental illness and addiction as a result of economic despair, isolation, loss and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, “The Queen’s Gambit” shares the importance of remembering one’s worth and the love that they have from others, even when companionship may seem further away than usual. Beth’s success in chess and personal growth both show that there is something special that relationships can provide which addictions cannot. By the closing of the series, it is seen that these feats could not have been possible without confidence in her own abilities and acceptance of the love that came her way.
In addition to topics of addiction and human compassion, Beth’s journey illustrates the unequal expectations of gender roles in the chess world, mirroring life outside of the game. As a woman, she is expected to be less skilled in chess, stray from partaking in employment, require the sponsorship of a man and act weak. Beth defies these expectations by defeating men and women alike, and living in a way that, while troubling at times, was not at the cost of her strengths as a woman. This theme may have been presented as more of a sub-theme to the overarching lessons of the show, but nonetheless recurred as a critical aspect to Beth’s story.
My initial criticism of the show came with questions about Beth’s biological mother and the sparsity of details provided about the past. However, not knowing all of the details about Beth’s past allows the viewer to get a glimpse at how Beth grew up — confused, without a true understanding of her family or the life that she was destined to live. Overall, this is a show that I would recommend to most. It emulates the strength and goodness that lies within each of us, even during dark moments and hardship.