22 December 2020
The Queen’s Gambit embraces you like a warm marshmallow. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel and set in a flawlessly decorated pastiche of 1960’s America, the newest Netflix sensation tracks the meteoric rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she battles her personal demons and finds a family to fill the void her real one left behind. The Queen’s Gambit installed itself as the most important piece on Netflix’s board and can boast of sparking the biggest chess boom since Bobby Fischer.
This is all the more bizarre as the show really isn’t about chess. Its aesthetic is defined by chess – from the set and books Beth obsesses over to the pieces that dance on the ceiling in her mind in a plane invisible to her mortal foes – and the audience is soaked in enough opaque chess patter to feel immersed in the subculture (with chess grandee Garry Kasparov helping to ensure the details are more accurate than in TV’s usual shabby treatment). Ultimately, though, this is a familiar tale of tragedy and drive reskinned and respun . You can bathe in the show’s ambience without absorbing anything about chess and the plot makes just as much sense with Beth as a backgammon prodigy. Chess as the subject helps to hook a mass audience that at least knows of chess – and may have a dusty set decorating a coffee table – with the implied cultural legitimacy that confers without intruding on the all-important vibe.
Where Beth Harmon succeeds because of her focus on chess, The Queen’s Gambit fails because of its focus on her. In the absence of any clear interiority, her character becomes a vessel for wish fulfilment. Her story is littered with allusions to Bobby Fischer, the archetypal Genius whose social and moral transgressions are excused away as a requirement or reward for being exceptional. The inherent tragedy of the Genius is the looming threat of self-sabotage, the danger of their worst excesses finally having consequences and expelling them from the center of their own universe. Though Beth lacks the Genius’ glaring character flaws that would have us root for her downfall, this isn’t replaced with a compelling reason to root for her success – but it would never occur to you not to. There is a natural order to The Queen’s Gambit, in which Beth’s success is as desirable as it is inevitable. Why are you asking so many questions?
This order is enforced by the world so beautifully rendered in the show. Its pastel dreamland calls to mind the conservative imagination’s pseudo-nostalgic vision of the 1950s – a simpler time when a cheery optimism about yourself and your country could wallpaper over any frightful conflict. A critical reading of that fantasy notes its implicit support for hierarchy and its reassurance that you can overcome it anyway with enough moxie. Beth’s kingdom smothers this tension, and any tension at all, well before it can stand in the way of the Harmon juggernaut. At Beth’s first tournament her male competitors greet her with the expected confusion and hostility – until she proves her worth by beating them at their own game, making them into believers. Any hint of deeper sexism – the gloating and gatekeeping of Bobby Fischer or the insecure flailing of a defeated rookie – is taken off the board. A savvy move with a knight is all she needs to become one of the lads.
The book gives its America, and its Beth Harmon, the honour of a messier realism. The men on the page and across the board are angrier. Book Jolene molests Beth, who fires off a racist slur; their reunion takes time and effort. Show Jolene flits out of existence before falling from heaven to send Beth on her way with her life savings and a pat on the back. Feel-good TV wants no reminder that the game favours the white pieces.
Where Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth has the beauty and charm to revel in her visibility, the Beth of the books is helpfully described by – who else? – Jolene: “”You are the ugliest white girl ever. Your nose is ugly and your face is ugly and your skin is like sandpaper”. Beth finds confirmation every time she looks in the mirror, whenever a more pretty and presentable girl is spirited away from the orphanage instead. The popular girls examining Beth with their menacing politeness is jarring not because of the status anxiety that would afflict Book Beth but because of its absence – former model Taylor-Joy is more radiant than any of them. Beth Harmon is weird – she lacks social graces and can barely hold a conversation that isn’t about chess – but someone who looks and carries herself like Anya Taylor-Joy is not, cannot be – awkward automatically becomes quirky, mysterious, charming. Taylor-Joy makes the lifeless script work through sheer magnetism – a commendable skill in an actress for any other role. She is an easy casting choice for television and the only casting choice for this universe, where being anything less than beautiful just wouldn’t do.
As Beth glides towards the throne, friends and mentors pass through the revolving door. In the show’s most touching scene, Beth returns to the orphanage after Mr Shaibel’s death and learns that he had followed her career with a father’s pride – one wonders if he ever crossed her mind. Jolene (who, you’ll recall, is not a guardian angel) asks, “Someday I might need you. But if I do, you’ll come, won’t you?” – a question that would be rhetorical for anyone else. As her career flourishes, she attracts pawns in a way anyone involved in a competitive scene will recognize – people who know you first as a scoreboard entry, wanting validation that’s suddenly yours to give. Beth isn’t cruel or exploitative to them as a Genius so often is, merely transactional. As Benny goes from rival to friend to lover in her most enduring relationship, it’s unclear why. He’s there. He’s good at chess; she’s better. His ego isn’t too threatened by that. What more could a girl ask for?
Even Beth’s rivals are preparing for her coronation. The Queen’s Gambit shows refreshing restraint in not painting her Russian opponents as sinister drunkards but it’s easy to see this as an allergy to villainy rather than a principled stand against stereotypes. Borgov, Beth’s final boss, is a faceless bowling pin – we have no reason to care about him or think he might win. Just in case, Beth’s chess partners all band together over a long-distance phone call to lend their power to their queen. Against this backdrop, Beth’s addiction and complicated family dynamics seem more like desperate attempts to locate a source of struggle than well-integrated plot points.
Beth’s story is often hailed as at once relatable and aspirational – one wonders how much of this is a longing for the simplicity of The Queen’s Gambit. Any competitive endeavour creates its own toy universe with clear rules and goals that lures players with the promise of achievement – the confounding colours and shapes of the real world are replaced by a two-dimensional checkerboard. Few make the leap from pawn to minor piece and fewer become a king or queen – many have squandered their outside potential trying and failing to rise above their station. Some players in the dim gymnasiums that host Beth’s early tournaments dream of that glory but most can never come close. We are never in any doubt that Beth will make it to Moscow, and neither is she. The world she is successfully escaping from is itself a whitewashed, dream-friendly contrast with both the real world and the world of the source material. We don’t want to be some other Beth, channeling her rage towards the one thing that doesn’t feel alien – we want to be Anya Taylor-Joy, serenely conquering all before her.
Mentioned briefly in this comforting story is a cautionary tale. Perhaps Beth is not a lobotomized Bobby Fischer but, as Beltik warns, a young Paul Morphy. By far the best player of his era and an unofficial World Champion, Morphy retired at the top of his game in his twenties and never again found an engaging pursuit, failing to launch a regular career. He had explored every corner of his universe and achieved the total mastery the Genius aches for. Then he was miserable and died.
Of course, The Queen’s Gambit avoids any existential question by immediately quitting while it’s ahead. If the show were allowed its obligatory second season, you’d expect it to find Harmon on some descent from this peak. Or not. Who cares? Beth Harmon has a game to play.