Chess isn’t a classic sport. There’s none of the sweaty jerseys or Friday night lights. But watch Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) at work over a board—her large eyes drinking in the pieces and her opponent; her hands thoughtfully clasped together—and you’ll feel a palpable heat in the air. It’s enough to make her chess rival pull at his collar. The viewer squirms.
The Queen’s Gambit deserves every kudos for crafting this type of tension for a game such as chess. In turning chess, a battle of wits, inside out, the thrill of the match becomes accessible. Clever editing cracks the door open for the viewer. Bishops and castles and queens scurry around the chessboard in lightning succession; the audience situated from Harmon’s point of view benefits: we feel in control, invincible. We’re in the game. We’re ready to win.
But the editing alone doesn’t account for The Queen’s Gambit’s ability to make chess thrilling or laden with emotion. Instead, the character-directed approach of the series cinches this: Beth Harmon’s characterization actualizes the show’s potential. Her backstory as crafted (by screenwriter Scott Frank and originally by book’s author, Walter Tevis) elevates a tale about just chess to a warm-blooded tale of a life mediated through chess—but lived well beyond it. If The Queen’s Gambit qualifies as a sport story, then I’d argue one step further: at the core, it functions as a trauma redemption story.
Like many stories about prodigies, the series issues numerous warnings about genius. Many of these, while true, can feel like overworn cliches: the curse of being singularly gifted, the pitfalls of obsession, the risk of hopelessness after world domination too young. But The Queen’s Gambit was more clever; it braids together the stories of Beth’s chess obsession and her unresolved post-traumatic stress—with each aspect of her psyche feeding the other. With this move, the series’s creative promise widens beyond bromide. From the opening sequence, we know Beth’s must have seen something horrible; the questions of her mother’s sanity and death come early. But rather than succumb to the cheap masturbatory qualities of a sob story, The Queen’s Gambit pushes the opportunities within trauma to their fullest creative and narrative potentials.
Sedative pills operate as a key tool for flipping Beth’s internal world outward. Her dependency on benzos to play chess in her head through projections of the game on the ceiling serves a twofold purpose: one part pragmatism, the other thematic. For one, the pills allow a simple way for the audience into the mind of Beth Harmon without the access seeming unearned. Unlike Sherlock’s flirtations with a “mind palace,” where the viewer accepts the title character’s genius mostly through cultural familiarity with Sherlock’s story, The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t take lazy shortcuts. The visual narrative devices are justified: Harmon’s severe trauma is known and her steps to curb it—excessive drug use—feel understandable. As her addiction solidifies, the consistency of this visual method makes sense: the frame hardens with the character’s choices.
More importantly, is how the show leverages the story behind the pills and the chess performance driven by taking them. From her first tournament, Beth exhibits self hatred. “Come on, you ugly piece of trash. You can beat that fucker,” she speaks to herself in the bathroom mirror. And she does. To that end, this narrative charts as a sport story: the rookie trials, the early wins, the setbacks, the ultimate victory. Tracing the arc of her wins and losses and her development as a player, this storyline completely scans. But Harmon’s impetus for playing chess roots itself even deeper than fulfilling her supernatural skill at the game. In truth, competing at chess really operates as Harmon’s desperation for love.
Beth only learns how to play chess because of the stoic yet kindly janitor’s efforts to teach her. He’s her first example of an adult that shows her true care. As Beth’s skills sharpen, she outpaces him on the chessboard, but arguably keeps searching for him throughout her entire adult life. While her ghostly mother lurks in her subconscious, she slowly collects a constellation of chess players who show her world beyond abandonment. The champions she strips of their laurels pivot to becoming her mentors: Shaibel, Beltek, Townes, Watts. When Beth spins out on booze and pills, the love of the game isn’t enough—but familial love is. Jolene’s returned presence and Mr Shaibel’s funeral snaps her priorities into focus. Picking through the basement when her chess adventures began, a collage of her accomplishments plaster the wall. Harmon crumples at the proof of love from afar, and it powers her through to the final Russian contest.
Pinpointing the true victory moment of The Queen’s Gambit may seem obvious: the triumph over Borgov. But truthfully, the understated win may be the moment Beth flushes her final blue capsules down the toilet. Armed with security through her support network, Beth’s previous dependence on drugs is placed in check. The king she topples was the wounded child within, flaying for emotional foothold. The game with Borgov becomes winnable through quietude of her mind released from the past.
From the moment she picks up the phone during the recess of her final match, the swelling of some kind of pride occurs. Her assembly of a chosen family cheers for her on one end of the line. Something clicks behind Harmon’s eyes and a smile forms on her face without its usual underlying tension. It’s the kind of self ease that doesn’t need the imposition of 8×8 squares. And while she’s able to master the board within the tight confines of the chess world, her ability to walk away into the city for street game rings as the real prize. From the pills that gave viewers the beautiful descending shadows of pieces on her ceiling flitting from move to move, there’s stillness in their absence. Harmon’s life still possesses these long shadows. But playing in the pavement as daylight steams down, she can see the faces of those who love her in her opponents. Beth’s life, she realizes, is without a ceiling.
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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