Netflix’s new limited series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” leads the site’s top ten most popular list for the third straight week since its late October premiere, making it one of the platform’s most-watched shows of 2020. This feat is all the more impressive considering the steep competition among streaming providers this year.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel and brought to life by veteran screenwriters Scott Frank and Allan Scott, the mini-series depicts the unexpectedly cutthroat world of 1960s chess against the lavish backdrop of the Cold War era, when chess boards were just another arena in which rival nations competed for hegemony. “Gambit” shines brightest in Anya Taylor-Joy’s mesmerizing performance as enigmatic orphan Beth Harmon, a chess wunderkind who takes the male-dominated sport by storm as she blossoms from a peculiar teenage phenom into a beguiling, international superstar.
Throughout her rise, Beth fights addiction to little green “tranquilizer” pills first given to her by her Kentucky orphanage, which likely imitate the highly addictive benzodiazepines that were all the rage back then. Although these tablets give Beth a competitive edge by helping her remember complex moves and replay past games in her head, she abuses them into her adulthood to suppress childhood trauma.
Despite her character’s darkness, Taylor-Joy infuses a great deal of excitement and sex appeal through her portrayal of an older Beth who challenges the conventions of the chess world and even makes bedfellows with her formal rivals. Indeed, this display of personal autonomy, coupled with her character’s profound ambition, has led the press to laud the show for its feminist overtones that have sparked debates about sexism in sports.
While these are not without merit, as Beth does face obstacles due to her sex—at one point she’s told she is “too glamorous to be a serious chess player”—the show’s central theme lies in her struggle to overcome the tinge of madness that accompanies her genius.
Beth is first warned about this burden by the orphanage’s gruff janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her the game. “You’ve got your gift and you’ve got what it costs,” he says, and across the seven episodes we learn just what that tradeoff is: Beth’s extraordinary intellect isolates those closest to her, driving her to the brink of self-destruction. It is only when she chooses to let people in that Beth curbs her dangerous obsessive impulses.
Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, masterfully portrayed by Hollywood director Marielle Heller, is a highlight of the series that spotlights this theme. Shortly after the adoption, Alma’s husband abandons the family, throwing Alma into an alcoholic depression.
When Beth asks Alma if the orphanage will reclaim her since she no longer has a father, Alma suggests they lie, telling Beth: “Though I’m no longer a wife… I believe I can learn to be a mother.”
With this commitment, Alma becomes the first person in Beth’s life to stick by her. In return, Beth—no stranger to abandonment or addiction—accepts her new mother’s love and support. The affinity they develop for one another propels Beth forward in chess, with Alma acting as both agent and confidant until her untimely death at Beth’s first international tournament.
Left motherless for a second time while on the precipice of global fame, Beth grows more dependent on her tranquilizers as a young adult. From here the story shifts to her burgeoning obsession with defeating reigning champ Vasily Borgov, an austere Soviet twice her age.
In pursuit of that end, Beth accepts the guidance of fellow chess masters Harry Beltik and Benny Watts. Here “Gambit” introduces another major point: sometimes, even geniuses need help.
“You know why they’re the best players in the world?” Benny asks a reluctant Beth during practice, referring to the Soviets. “It’s because they play together as a team. They help each other out.”
Still Beth gets in her own way at her next showdown with Borgov in Paris, indulging in a pre-competition bender that sabotages her match the next morning. Humiliated, Beth retreats to Lexington and drinks herself into a prolonged stupor that lasts until childhood friend Jolene shows up at her door. As a black woman and fellow orphan, Jolene understands Beth’s isolation and pain as no one else does, and with some tough love she forces Beth to finally reckon with her troubled past.
“You’re like my guardian angel,” Beth tells her. Jolene gently rebuffs her: “I’m not here to save you,” she responds. “I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does. That’s what we are.”
Jolene finances Beth’s last chance at redemption against Borgov at the preeminent Moscow Invitational, and it seems that this final act of service—taken with the efforts of Benny, Harry, and Alma before her—provides the antidote Beth needs to cast off her anguish and addiction once and for all. Knowing others are equally invested in her success, she discards her pills and soberly defeats her Russian rival, integrity intact.
With its tidy ending, “Gambit” feels almost like a fairy tale. But unlike Cinderella, there’s no glass slipper, no magic element responsible for Beth’s triumph. There is only her ragtag troupe of friends and former adversaries who show her a genuine love that empowers her to surpass what she can accomplish alone. For a coming-of-age story, what could be more enchanting than that?
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