Opinions & Features Workshop (Oct 26th)

Photo of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Queen's Gambit (2020). // Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The Queen’s Gambit is necessary winter-break watching

By Anna Olesen, January 5 2020—

The Queen’s Gambit. If you haven’t seen this new Netflix series yet, pull out your planner or phone and schedule it in because seriously, you won’t want to miss this one. There’s still some time left before classes start and there has never been a better year to get cozy at home with a warm blanket and a great show.

Based on a book of the same name by Walter Tevis, and named after a common chess opening, The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon — a fiery chess prodigy who unlocks her brilliance after playing in the basement with her orphanage’s janitor, William Shaibel. In the years that follow, we get to watch Beth’s journey as she grows from a sharp-mannered chess amateur into a cunning grandmaster. The ending shots of her after she’s achieved this goal are absolutely stunning. They depict Beth wandering the streets, dressed for the cold all in white with a hat that has a little pom-pom on it. With her coat done up and her hands at her sides she really resembles the queen piece — which is a beautiful visual metaphor to wrap up the series with. However, despite the fact that the whole show is centered around the game of chess, this series tackles a lot of deeper themes and is anything but black-and-white.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that The Queen’s Gambit addresses issues of gender inequality and representation. Chess was and still is a male dominated game, and even currently there is only one female chess player within the top hundred in the world. ONE! I won’t delve too deep into it — I’m sure there are loads of podcasts out there for that. But I do want to highlight the way The Queen’s Gambit has handled female empowerment and strength, because it is honestly one of the best interpretations in modern media that I have ever seen.

For starters, there’s this weird, prevailing idea in Hollywood that to be a strong individual you have to possess traditionally masculine characteristics. It’s like, ‘Oh look, she can punch through a wall, she must be a strong woman.’ The end result of which has been a plethora of female characters who have god-tier fighting abilities, are forcibly stoic and have about as much personality as a walking brick — I’m looking at you Mulan 2020. Beth from The Queen’s Gambit is nothing like that. She’s just a human with her own vices and desires who happens to be incredibly talented at chess, and I love it. The fact that she’s the only major female chess player in this world is never really shoved down your throat in the preachy way that a lot of shows tend to do either. Rather, it’s just remarked upon from time to time, and Beth generally responds to it in the same way I’d hope that the audience would: by acknowledging it and moving on. To her, the physical characteristics of the person sitting across from her don’t matter. What matters are all the mental gymnastics happening on the board, in which physicality has absolutely zero role. Chess is a great medium through which to express this message, being the purely logical battle that it is. 

Another, perhaps less obvious concept that the show portrays very well is the reality of being so talented, put best by Mr. Shaibel when talking to Beth: “You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs.” This is another idea that is explored in the media, but often not to the depth presented by The Queen’s Gambit. To be clear, there’s no real shortage of protagonists who are a combination of blessed and cursed by their abilities — I’m sure you could think of tons off the top of your head — it’s just that most stories stop with ostracization and never explore beyond that. Where The Queen’s Gambit differs is in its authentic depiction of the life of child prodigies, and the interesting dynamic that forms between the child and their caregivers. Enter Alma, Beth’s adoptive mother.

When Alma first came onto the scene I was sure that somewhere down the line she would cause problems for Beth. She spends all of her money on smokes, there’s obvious problems in her marriage (which Beth was ostensibly adopted to fix), and she only really encourages Beth’s love for chess once she discovers that Beth can make money in it. I didn’t expect her story to play out the way it did, but I was pleasantly surprised by the truth in it. Throughout the series, Alma and Beth’s relationship walks a fine line between love and exploitation, much in the same way that a lot of parents spur on gifted children — either looking for gain or projecting their desires onto them. On the one hand, it didn’t come as a shock when Alma requested a commission of Beth’s chess winnings for escorting her around. On the other, her request was unexpectedly small, so much so that Beth actually offered to give her more, quite happily I might add. Their relationship keeps this duality for the remainder of their travels together; with Alma simultaneously making the questionable decision to keep Beth out of school so she could participate in chess tournaments, but then also taking the time to personally watch almost every one of her chess matches. There’s equal parts love and greed in almost every action that she takes and it’s precisely this combination that propels Beth so far in the chess world. It’s a team effort and they’re both in it to win. There are not a lot of other shows willing to display both sides of the coin this way.

So, hopefully you’re convinced now to give this show a shot and if you’re not, that’s fine. Before this ends off though, there’s one last thing about The Queen’s Gambit that’s kind of interesting. Now, Beth Harmon may not be real (I know, I was sad about that too), but that doesn’t mean you can’t play against her. If you go on chess.com, they’ve created some bot representations of her at different stages in her chess career. Just another great option to check out if you’re feeling cooped up over this winter break!


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