A World of Possibility in 64 Squares: Finding Nuance in The Queen’s Gambit
In all my years watching Netflix, (on my sister’s boyfriend’s account of course) I cannot remember giving a series a round of applause. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) deserved this and more. Based on the 1983 novel of the same name, written by Walter Trevis, the series centres around a young woman, Elizabeth Harmon (played by Anna Taylor-Joy), and her rise to stardom as a chess Grandmaster. But this series is more than a rags-to-riches tale of a young woman who rises through the ranks of a male-dominated playing field, it is also the story of an imperfect, intelligent person who knows loss and trauma, and who, in spite of it, is determined to find ways to win in a world that would otherwise have her lose.
Director Scott Frank traces Beth’s life from her mother’s death to her career defining moment, where she faces off with World Chess Champion and USSR Grandmaster Vasily Borgov. Beth is a chess prodigy, having mastered the game at the age of eight by playing in the washed-out basement of the Methuen Home for Girls with Mr Shaibel the caretaker, played by Bill Camp. Beth swiftly defeats opponent after opponent in electric montages accompanied by a dynamic piano-led soundtrack. The piano notes flow as the pieces move across the board, and Beth waltzes her opponents into checkmate to the rhythm of the ticking chess clock. Although my year 6-level chess skills could never compete with the masters on screen, I took great pleasure in watching each of Beth’s male opponents deflate with defeat. I found myself silently (and occasionally loudly) cheering Beth on as she commanded the board with a cool and quiet confidence. As one commentator remarks, ‘the one thing we know about Elizabeth Harmon is that she loves to win.’
Supposedly, ‘girls do not play chess,’ or at least this is what Mr Shaibel tells a curious young Beth when she asks to play a game with him. Just like our protagonist, we should take this declaration with a pinch of salt. For me, the most noteworthy aspect of this series is how the issue of gender is minimised, in favour of a more holistic approach. “It shouldn’t be that important,” Beth contends, criticising the media’s focus on her gender, as opposed to her raw ability. Gambit’s brilliance is that it acknowledges Beth’s identity as a woman without placing it front and centre. Her womanhood is an integral part of who she is, but it is not what makes her extraordinary. Beth is more than just a ‘female chess genius’: she is awkward, witty, determined, confident, short-tempered and fundamentally imperfect. Taylor-Joy deserves commendation for her portrayal of Beth as a multifaceted individual - much more than a novelty headline to be splashed across magazine covers.
Frank creates a show that is conscious of the many elements of Beth’s identity and works hard to shine a light on each of them. She is as flawed as any of us, carrying both a painful past and an extraordinary talent. Beth struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, fuelled by a dependency she developed as a child. As she grows older, Beth starts to believe that the green pills she takes will help her to see the chess board more clearly. I found myself urging Beth to win, not just because she was a woman, or because she had lost her mother, or because of her ongoing battle with addiction, but because she had lived and survived trauma and had still retained her tenacity and drive. Though it seems that the key to beating Borgov in the final match is for her to overcome her addiction, it is actually about Beth learning to trust her own mind, to trust in her abilities and to recognise that her greatest power comes from herself and not from the little green pills stored in the glass jar.
Having said this, The Queen’s Gambit is not without its flaws, and Frank’s’ handling of race comes across as indulgent rather than meaningful. Moses Ingram delivers a stellar performance as Jolene, Beth’s childhood friend from the orphanage, but her character deserves more than just a clumsy addition at the end of the series. Several of Jolene’s lines skirt over the surface of racial issues which merit more than the five minutes offered to them.
The show’s handling of gender is also at risk of this same indulgence, leaving out many of the patriarchal realities that a young woman like Beth may have encountered. Aside from the occasional snide remark or raised eyebrow, Beth enters and navigates male-dominated spaces unscathed by much of the misogyny of a male cis-het world. Is this a fantasy? Yes - but I can forgive Frank this, because in doing so, he leaves room for possibility. He brings to life a world where women can rise to the top with no obstacle to overcome but themselves, (and, of course, funding - because yikes will capitalism ever let us rest?!) In its utopian worldview, The Queen’s Gambit allows for an escapism that is grounded in the successes of the underestimated and the unseen. A world that isn’t impossible, but nonetheless often appears out of reach.
Dear reader, as you now delve into the intricate world of Elizabeth Harmon and her chess board, I hope that you too may feel that sense of possibility. Now, where did I put that chess set?
Melissa is our resident sass queen, with a low tolerance for bullsh*t. This means that she has seen through your feeble choice of The Help (2011) as your “favourite black film”. If she isn’t trying to guess your star sign based off your Netflix list, she can either be found becoming yet again far too emotionally invested in the characters of a series, binge-watching something everyone else watched months ago (she hates following the trend!) or fulfilling her love for queer black cinema.