“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just sixty-four 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.”
I try to keep Reading, Listening, Vieweing limited to media I’ve recently consumed so as to get my most visceral thoughts on each work I cover, but I had to make a small exception for The Queen’s Gambit. While I finished this show back in mid-December, it’s still spinning around in my mind, because that’s just how awesome it was.
This Netflix miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name follows the life of young chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she navigates the male-dominated 1950s-1960s American chess scene. Over the course of seven episodes, we watch as she hones her gift, from learning to play chess in the orphanage basement to becoming a skilled tournament player.
Alongside her chess career, however, we witness Beth’s maladaptive coping with the serious trauma she experiences before, while, and after growing up in an orphanage where tranquilizers are distributed to all the children, and she develops a long-lasting addiction. As we wait on the edge of our seats for the outcomes to her brilliant chess matches, we’re biting our nails, asking ourselves when she might just collapse from the weight of all the misfortune and misery that have befallen her life.
Before anything else, The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing character study. Beth is a complex and nuanced character, and although opinions on her are apparently mixed, I personally loved her instantly.
As I’ve said before, I love character-driven stories, including ones that only feature one prominent character. However, in my opinion, for such a story to work: 1) the character must be well-developed, 2) the worldbuilding or setting has to be airtight and appealing, and 3) the story must know and capitalize on the fact that it’s a single-character study.
That last aspect is crucial, because nothing bothers me quite like a story that clearly thinks itself far-ranging and filled with multiple complex character arcs, but that can only really deliver one (maybe two) good character(s) (for more on that, see last week’s blog post on Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, which suffered from this very problem).
The Queen’s Gambit fulfils all three of these “requirements” easily, and I respect the fuck out of it for never trying to be something it’s not. The show doesn’t try to bullshit you by pulling you in ten different directions other than Beth’s; it’s honest about the story it’s trying to tell and what it wants to make you feel, and as a result, you get a great character-driven story.
The acting and soundtrack are strong as well, and thinking back, I still marvel at the fact that so much great material was fit into a miniseries without major pacing problems. I don’t recall ever feeling like we were rushing through a phase of Beth’s life, or that we took too long on another.
That being said, The Queen’s Gambit is not an action-packed show geared towards viewers who like drama and excitement. It has lots of dramatic and exciting moments for sure, but ultimately this show is a slower-paced character study about a chess prodigy who is trying to cope with her issues and be the best she can be. If you’re not that kind of viewer, you might find yourself bored or disappointed. I recommended the show to a family member because he likes chess, but I should’ve known that as a fan of action-packed media, he wouldn’t get past the second episode.
All that to say, you know yourself as a viewer, and if this description of the show’s vibe resembles what you usually watch, then I can confidently say that you’ll love The Queen’s Gambit, because it’s just so well-done.
(Also, if you’re a writer, which I know some of my readers are, this show is a brilliant example of how to write a complex character – I’ve also heard that it can apparently be understood as a deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype (stock character?) which I didn’t notice myself while watching, but in hindsight totally agree with, so that’s pretty cool).
*End of spoiler-free section*
From that opening scene where we’re introduced to Beth as she scrambles to get out of bed for her match against Borgov, I knew I was going to like this story. When I learned soon after that that was a snapshot of the future and that we were going to be shown exactly how Beth got there, I knew I was going to fall head-over-heels for The Queen’s Gambit.
(I’m an absolute sucker for the “starting on a flash-forward and the story builds up to it” device, I just think it’s so smart when done right).
In terms of the show’s highlights, as discussed already above, Beth’s character is number one. I love that every quality of hers has a realistically offsetting flaw. She’s brilliant, but perfectionist in a toxic way, where she’s desperately trying to maintain that very specific and difficult-to-attain self-concept, and she’s doing that through substance use.
She’s pleasant to talk to and be around in everyday situations, but as soon as she has to be vulnerable, she goes cold and she infuriatingly pushes away those who want to help her. She’s resilient, but she also mistreats people who don’t necessarily deserve it, like Harry and Benny, and she refuses to confront her personal problems, like her addiction to tranquilizers, her grief, her loneliness, and her abandonment issues, and instead she lashes out at others and hurts herself.
Yet I couldn’t help but empathize with her in almost every situation and think “well, no wonder she’s doing that” because each of her actions and personality traits can be so directly linked back to her trauma. That doesn’t excuse the way she hurts others and herself, and yet the painful, bitter realism of it all is what really made me feel for her.
Moving on so as not to beat a dead horse, I found the chess match scenes to be really well done. Even though you know Beth is often the smartest and the best when she sits down to play, the scenes are always tense, because she’s so unpredictable. You know she could win pretty much any match, but can she, at that given time, in that given mental state?
Using Beth’s flaws as the source of her own problems in chess matches to create tension was a great idea. If they hadn’t done this, the scenes wouldn’t have been as tense, because again, we know she’s the best and she could win anything. This helped up the ante even more every time she played Borgov and in the final matches at the world championships in Russia, and it makes her final win that much more satisfying.
Even though there were a ton of good memes making fun of it, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes where Beth would play chess in her mind on the ceiling. It was a cool way to show the extent of her visualization skills on-screen.
I was so happy when she eventually realized that she didn’t need the drugs to help her visualize or uphold that idealized fantasy version of herself, because she’s always been good enough. It was a powerful moment.
Another aspect I loved was the nuance in the final message: while you don’t need your blood-related family or even a tight-knit “found family” to be whole or good enough to achieve what you want, that doesn’t mean you can’t lean on other human beings in a time of need or that you shouldn’t make strides towards vulnerability and healing.
The story encourages the viewer to process trauma and to have some kind of support system by showing that these things are beneficial to Beth, but the narrative doesn’t shame her either in the moments where she craves solitude and chooses to process her emotions alone. It’s not framed as the best thing to do considering her alcohol and drug problems, but I think it’s a refreshing change from the usual urgency of the “you need to be vulnerable now or you’re doomed” message, because I find that that often lacks nuance. (Hopefully that makes sense).
This sort of brings me to the ending, with which I’m absolutely enamoured. I think it’s perfect and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I love that Beth goes off alone, finding peace in what she loves to do and in herself. She’s still a bit of a lone wolf, but she’s leaning on people now rather than drugs.
What better way to end the series than to come full circle like that and simply play chess in the park, for the fun of it like she used to with Shaibel, without that pressure and that damn drug-fueled self-concept demanding she be this impossible level of genius? Just beautiful.
All this to say, I absolutely loved The Queen’s Gambit. An excellent combination of a great, complex character and amazing execution on the story, setting, and message made for a miniseries that I will definitely be rewatching and that I think will stand the test of time.