Recently Netflix began streaming a seven-part series called The Queen’s Gambit which is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis of the same name. Set in the late-1950s and mid-1960s, the serial revolves around fictional chess prodigy Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, played by Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy as the child and adult versions of the character respectively. When Beth is nine her mother is killed in an automobile crash, and she is placed in an orphanage called Methuen Home. There the home’s custodian William Shaibel (played by Bill Camp) teaches her to play chess.
During her stay at Methuen, all of the orphaned girls are administered green tranquilizer pills, which although fictional, reflects the liberally prescribed chlordiazepoxide for anxiety and insomnia during the 60’s, until state authorities demand its discontinuance. When lying awake in bed, Beth is able to visualize chess pieces on the ceiling and play out various scenarios, but senses that it is her dependence on these pills that allows her mind to do this. Thus, Beth ends up raiding the medicinal room to obtain the pills while the staff and other girls are watching The Robe in the auditorium, and she later passes out from over-consumption.
Six years later she is adopted by a married couple in Kentucky and begins to enter chess tournaments and earns a reputation as a solid player. However, her chemical stimulus is reawakened after she is abandoned by her adoptive father, while the adoptive mother resorts to alcohol and tranquilizers as coping mechanisms.
Eventually, Beth spirals out of control, prompting intervention by a former competitor and a former fellow orphan named Jolene who steps in as a fairy godmother. With patient coaxing, Beth returns to the competition and realizes she no longer needs medication to succeed. Finally, after the sting of her humiliating defeats has worn off, her prior adversaries (virtually all young men) encourage and coach Beth, even collaborating on strategy for the final game.
Admittedly, such chivalry is comparatively rare in actual chess matches, but the character's actions demonstrate the very human (and American) propensity to compete and cooperate – often simultaneously- whether the stakes are mass-produced plastic trophies or existential strife on the battlefield.
A Desultory but Engaging Period Piece
On occasion, Hollywood manages to produce engaging if not vapid material to keep viewers attracted to their screens and The Queen’s Gambit certainly falls into that category as it became the most-watched program on Netflix after only four weeks of streaming. While select episodes focus on Beth's desultory dalliances, alcohol and narcotics dependency and religious disdain, the acting, directing, dialogue writing and pacing are all excellent throughout the entire series.
Furthermore, while some critics have complained of the unrealistic and feel-good nature of the narrative, or that the lead actress is too pretty to play the role of Beth Harmon from the novel, Beth’s feminine nature is completely ancillary to her proclivity in chess. And while high-ranking female chess champions have been chronically rare in real life, The Queen’s Gambit provides a refreshing narrative that is devoid of any pseudo-feminist pretense against the patriarchy.
Some traditional-minded individuals might object to some of the language and certain scenes, as well as some of its themes such as narcotics use and religious disdain in particular. However, these particular aspects of the film need to be view within the context of the societal characteristics that were prevalent during the time period portrayed in the series, as well as Beth's story arc of self-improvement.
Thus, for instance, when it comes to the portrayal of the narcotics, their consumption frequently raises ire among the self-disciplined, Beth’s use in the series is a poignant reminder that many people lack the willfulness to inherently negate their desire to escape tedium or pain, especially without consistent example and loving guidance.
As for the series' treatment of religion, the Christian faith practiced at the Methuen Home is a dour rule-based shadow of what most of us experience in our own lives. However, it poignantly demonstrates the difficulty of passing on the faith to one’s own children in a skeptical and distraction-laden era, let alone in a setting like the orphanage where emotional distance must be maintained over one’s charges by necessity because no family relationship exists.
Moreover, Beth’s open disdain towards religion and geopolitics are meant to reveal her character’s independent streak which she has narrowly focused on her interest in playing chess. As individuals with God-given rights, we are free to choose what paths to take and seek the truth under our free will, even if those revelations are restricted to the end game on a checkered board. Subsequent to her sponsorship by an anti-communist Christian society, Beth declines to issue a public statement with which she does not agree, and refunds its previous donations. For unlike baker-harassing bureaucrats in Colorado, the Christian Crusade ladies reluctantly accept that speech cannot be compelled, or purchased in her case, in a free society.
We see this independence streak again, later in the series when Beth flies to Moscow to participate in a tournament. When there she abruptly leaves her State Department chaperone, who has given her strict rules about fraternizing with Soviet citizens, to go play chess in a park with the locals. In real life, Beth’s brand of independence has its risks, and only a handful rise to the pinnacle of achievement. Nevertheless, Beth’s character can be seen as an inspiration towards reaching such goals, even in the form of an anodyne story, still isn’t a bad place to start.
In the End It's an Inspiring Story About Self-Improvement
The title of the novel and the series comes from an opening in chess that dates from the fifteenth century which begins with both white and black queen’s pawns moving forward two spaces followed by the white queen’s bishop also moving forward two spaces. This invites the black queen’s pawn to capture the white bishop’s pawn, but also ends up creating an opening for white to exploit in order to win the game.
The title is a fitting appellation to the series. For although Beth is shown as having cognitive gifts that she presumably inherited from her late mathematically accomplished but psychologically anguished biological mother, The Queen’s Gambit is nonetheless a story about the triumph of merit. Chess is a board game with well-established rules, and unlike poker and other card games that involve probability, the end result depends exclusively on relative skill against one’s opponent--something I learned to appreciate as a youth from playing several games a week against a neighborhood classmate who always won.
In that respect, the series deftly mixes the drama and Beth’s struggle to overcome her wounds and failings to take the board in chess and in her own life. So consider adding it to your playlist, as it is well-worth seeing.
Photo Credit- what's-on-Netflix.com