“The Queen’s Gambit” achieves checkmate
Content Warning: This article mentions addiction and substance abuse.
Following a genius obsessed with his craft is not new to television or cinema – quite the contrary, it has proven to be a recurring formula for success in “Black Swan” (2010), “Whiplash” (2014) and “The Birdman” (2014), Just to name a few. The Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Wager” (2020) is no exception. Impressive in itself, “The Queen’s Wager” take on a new perspective by diving into the intersections of failures with substance abuse and gender discrimination.
The show follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) from car accident who leaves her orphaned at the age of nine to his rise to world fame as a master chess player. Despite its fictional plot adapted from 1983 novel of the same name from Walter Tevis, “The Queen’s Wager” has been applauded for his accurate description of competitive failures. He even the references real players and games of the 1950s and 1960s and attacks the male dominated nature of the sport by placing a wonder woman in its center.
from her first tournament, Harmon is unfazed by defying expectations. Her geeky clumsiness frankly contrasts other girls at her high school who seem to value shopping and social clubs above all else. However, it is Harmon’s glamorous as she rises through the ranks of the chess game that most juxtaposes her male-centric surroundings. Although her trajectory from ugly duckling to swan sometimes seems a little exaggerated and banal, it challenges the assumption that her femininity should keep her from belonging in competitive chess. With its luxurious coats, collared dresses and elegant scarves, she stands out from a crowd of drab costumes in the best possible way. Thanks to stellar costume design, her outfits are authentic to the era, but at the same time so timeless.
Beyond pretty clothes and chess sets, the show explores more serious substance abuse and mental health issues. Harmon, played as a child by Isla Johnston, first gets addicted tranquilizers after receive them at his orphanage – one of the most memorable scenes occurs when she flies over at the end of the first episode. While everyone is distracted watching the movie “The Robe” (1953), Harmon, age 9, breakage in the pharmacy and swallows handfuls of pills. With strange and angelic music, her the images are intertwined with the film’s climactic scene, where a woman asks to be realized with the man she loves believing that they will enter the new kingdom of heaven together.
In the same way, Harmon’s the action catapults her into a new stage of addiction from which she cannot easily return. Like the woman who dies for her love, Harmony is in love by the substances that will be the source of his undoing for the rest of the show. The addiction clashes directly with her obsession with chess, as she gets high just to spend hours mentally playing through games.
Interestingly though, unlike other work that investigates the self-destructive aspects of perfectionist obsession, mental health and addiction issues extend beyond the protagonist to other characters. This goes for both Harmon’s Adopter mother Alma (Marielle Heller) and she biological mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie), pointing to possible biological and social factors Harmon’s difficulties beyond his genius. In fact, just like Harmony struggle as a woman in chess, the mental health and addiction issues of these other women are powered at least in part by sex discrimination. from Alice the husband seems give up and leave when he doesn’t know how to deal with his mental health issues. Alma’s Experiences an existential crisis of becoming a housewife instead of following his dreams of becoming concert pianist after her husband left her.
Furthermore, flashbacks of Alice struggle as an independent woman to start most episodes, framing Alma and Harmon’s similar struggles. Episode 5 begins with a particularly intense shot of young Harmon’s perspective looking while Alice firmly tells her that she will have to quickly learn how to survive alone in the world. Indeed, Harmony must soon grow up without her biological mother, and this memory foreshadows the episode where she must learn to survive after the death of her adoptive mother as well. By showing the legacy of persevering women in a world of men behind Harmon, the series portrays its problems as far more complicated than the destructive side of genius. In light of this intergenerational gender oppression, his obsession with overcoming the male-dominated world of chess takes on new meaning.
The show becomes less effective when it focuses too much on particular chess games, losing sight of their connection to Harmon’s more complex fight against Addiction and sexism. These scenes drag on and become repetitive over time. The ending also feels far too clean to resolve the complex struggle the show laid so much groundwork for. That being said, “The Queen’s Wager” still deserves note for the way it continues – and adds deeper commentary – to the destructive genius theme of earlier works.