REVIEW of The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix, 2020)

The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of orphaned Beth Harmon, sent to live at the ultra-religious Methuen home for girls after the death of her mother in the 1950s. At the age of nine, she learns to play chess from the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, and immediately finds that she has an extraordinary talent for it. Chess becomes her escape, her purpose, and her raison d’être. The seven-episode miniseries on Netflix chronicles her life into early adulthood on her quest to become the world chess champion. (Warning: Spoilers ahead…)

The fictional Beth Harmon is played masterfully by Anna Taylor-Joy (from the lush period piece Emma). The atmosphere of the 1950s and 60s is captured perfectly with costumes, hairstyles, and turn of phrase. The sparsity of dialogue adds atmosphere to a very visual film, with silent shots set to music often saying far more than words could. The artistry of the flashforward and flashback contributes to the tension of the story–the story of Beth’s fractured childhood is unpacked in gradual stages, and the initial episode begins with an intriguing snapshot of Beth’s adult life that is not explained until the sixth episode.

The format of a miniseries (rather than a two-hour film) allows other secondary characters to be developed as well as the main character. Beth makes a strong friendship with Jolene, a young African American woman who mentors her at the orphanage and becomes the closest thing to family that Beth has. When Beth is adopted at the age of fifteen, her new mother Alma Wheatley is initially exposed to the viewer with all her flaws–a vapid housewife, a day drinker, and a “tranquilizer” addict. While she does set Beth up for further problems with substance abuse, Alma proves to be more than just an enabler. After Alma is abandoned by her cold, unloving husband, she becomes a sympathetic and pitiable character who tries her best–however poor that might be–to become a mother to the orphaned teen.

As a young girl coming of age with little guidance in the male-dominated chess world, Beth stumbles into relationships with little idea of how to connect with people. Her ignorance of how sex works is only less awkward than her inability to conduct a normal conversation. Her striking good looks and naivete lead to several affairs with other chess players–although Beth has trouble considering anyone an equal whom she can best in a chess match. (Along with the depiction of the free-love culture of the 1960s, the series also contains frequent profanity and substance abuse which substantiates the “Mature Audiences” rating.)

Ever since the orphanage days, mind-altering drugs have been Beth’s gateway to brilliance. At night, Beth would swallow the green “vitamins” she had stockpiled, and the ceiling would come alive as a chessboard while she ran move after move in her head. An overarching question haunts the series: is it the use of drugs and alcohol that brings Beth to the top of her game, or is the vice actually holding her back from her greatest achievements? At one point, she tells her friend Jolene about an artist who obtained a priceless Michelangelo sketch and then erased it. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve erased my brain,” she says, alluding to the substance abuse that sabotages her matches against the renowned Russian chess player Borgov.

The treatment of Christianity is one-sided throughout. The fanatics who run Methuen are moralists with no understanding of grace. While the Methuen staff disdains alcohol, it is ironically they who first get Beth addicted to tranquilizers (“to even out your temperament”). The one kind soul in the orphanage is Mr. Shaibel, the custodian, and his teachings have nothing to do with religion–they are simply the rules of chess and sportsmanship. Later, the Christian Crusaders who will pay for Beth’s travel to a Russian chess tournament equate Christianity with American nationalism. When called upon to make a public statement about her faith in return for the funding, Beth refuses. She is honest enough to know that she has no belief in God, and at great personal cost, she returns the money and must pay her own way. While the Christians are proud of their own self-righteous charity, it is Mr. Shaibel’s widow’s mite–five dollars that he lends Beth to enter her first chess tournament–that proves to be the most heartfelt gift in the story–five dollars given without expectation of anything in return.

In the end, it’s community that saves Beth Harmon, the community forged from the crucible of the orphanage and the intensity of the chess competition circuit. In the end, a girl whose father didn’t want her finds that an old janitor followed her career as if she were his own daughter. In the end, a girl whose desperate mother committed suicide rather than raise her child finds that a friend cares enough to sacrifice her own college savings to help fulfill Beth’s dream. In the end, a girl who had no people to call her own finds that a motley crew of chess nerds are willing to train her, strategize with her, and root for her as she scrapes and scrabbles her way to victory over her opponents, her circumstances, and her own demons.

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