The Queen's Gambit: Series recap and reactions

The Queen's Gambit is a beautifully produced, fictionalized story about a genius female chess player named Beth Harmon in the 1960s. We follow her from her troubled childhood at an orphanage to her eventual rise as a world-renowned chess champion. The series is an easily bingeable 7-episodes (the standard for Netflix limited series) and is worth a watch even on the basis of its high production value alone. That said, I personally had a number of qualms with its story and this won't be going into any of my favorites lists (although I found myself fully engaged while watching).

You can also listen to my live discussion on it below or on Spotify/Apple:

Series recap (contains spoilers)

The story opens with an 8-year-old Beth, who has been left an orphan following her mother's death in a car accident. As we quickly learn, it's clear this was no accident but rather the purposeful action of her mentally ill mother (we never quite figure out if her mother intended to kill them both or just herself). Either way, she ends up surviving and is shipped off to a religious orphanage called Methuen. 

It's here that Beth starts to learn chess, playing with a cantankerous but ultimately good-hearted custodian in the basement named Mr. Shaidel. It's also unfortunately where her substance-abuse takes a foothold, as she learns to rely on the tranquilizers the orphanage doles out to its youth in order to enter a trance that allows her to play chess in her mind.

It's here that she's revealed to be essentially a chess prodigy, able to quickly calculate the moves required to win multiple simultaneous rounds against much older and more experienced opponents. Her mother at one point was revealed to be a former PhD in mathematics, so we can only surmise that her genius is at least partly the result of this. 

Beth's adoption into a troubled couple's household marks the beginning of her career as a chess champion. She asks Mr. Shaidel for the $5 required to enter the Kentucky championship, and proceeds to roundly defeat the existing champion Harry Beltik (played by Harry Welling, or Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter). Harry later becomes one of her many chess-playing wooers, clearly won over by her genius. He also seeks to provide her support in her darkest time.

She rapidly rises through tournament after tournament, supported by her adopted mother who clearly finds it amazing how a young woman can earn so much money against men in this sport. Alas for Beth, her mother is herself an addict (to tranquilizers and increasingly to alcohol), and this exposure only serves to revive Beth's own childhood dependence on substances. She starts with the green tranquilizers similar to those she consumed as a child, and rapidly moves on to alcohol (spurred by her mother's own willing offerings). 

As she rises in stature and wealth, so does her consumption and reliance on substances. This culminates in her Paris showdown against the best chess player of the time, Borgov, a Russian who's been playing since childhood. She essentially loses her resistance the night before the key game, and arrives clearly hungover to the big show-off game, proceeding to lose.

Like all good storylines though, Beth is able to recover, thanks to the support of those around her. Those include her childhood friend from the orphanage, Jolene, and her fellow chess competitors, who in an uplifting move at the end rally together to help her defeat Borgov at last in Russia. 

My reactions

Overall, I did enjoy The Queen's Gambit, but found it distinctly predictable. The pros to this show are its clear story arc, its overall showcasing of an incredibly intelligent female protagonist (even if fictional), and its gorgeous sets and costumes. The 1960s always have a classic feel when portrayed on the screen, from the sets to the timeless dresses and this doesn't disappoint.

Anya Taylor-Joy also brings this exotic feel to the drama - one can hardly believe she's meant to represent a typical Kentucky girl in this time. Her features are striking, and she plays Beth as cold and emotionless through most scenes, with pain and raw anger in her moments of weakness and addiction.

The main issue for me is that I found Beth extremely difficult to sympathize with, which made it laborious to watch during her moments of supreme weakness and poor willpower. Addiction dramas are also by nature relatively predictable - you know there will be a major climactic falling before a sort of redemption, and this script stuck closely with that playbook. 

While the chess angle brought a freshness and supreme intelligence to the story, the addiction storyline ultimately overshadows that. In some ways, I wish we could have just watched the rise of a female powerhouse chess player without the undercurrent of self-sabotage and frustration brought on by the substance-abuse arc. Indeed, for every moment Beth delivers a storybook win, there's a corresponding scene of abuse and personal destruction that more than undermines the victory. For that reason, it was a very trying drama to get through, as you spend much of its run feeling impatient and waiting for her to get through her tortured plot moments.

A large part of this frustration was also owed to the character Beth is. From the very first childhood scene, we're shown that she's fairly emotionless and unattached to others. She is incredibly self-centered for most of the story's run, rarely showing compassion for others (even those sacrificing their own time and worth to help her, a la Harry Beltik). I find this sort of behavior generally off-putting, even if I understand the perhaps necessity of showing her this way for us to buy into her cold and natural "genius."

Just a few examples of this self-absorption include:

  1. She never paid back or so much as thanked Mr. Shaidel for his help in training her and giving her the initial $5. It isn't until his death that she seems to even remember his existence in her life and the $10 promise (which she tells Jolene she owes him at his funeral). Meanwhile, we're shown that Mr. Shaidel closely tracked her career with a love and care that certainly warranted more than the casual disinterest Beth showed him back. 

  2. She treats Harry Beltik's interest in her with this cavalier disinterest, and spurns his (many) outreaches to her later on. The guy freaking redid all of his teeth for her, come on!! The scene that sticks out to me is when they are both on her bed and he asks her if she would like him to leave or stay. Without even giving him the courtesy of eye contact, she stays glued to her chess book and gives a disheartened "whatever you prefer." There if ever is the sign of someone who doesn't give a crap about the other person - if you ever enter a relationship where the other party treats you like that after intimacy, run as fast as you can

  3. She never expresses much concern for any of her chess colleagues, through the entire series' run. Never once does she show more than casual interest in them. They end up banding together to help her, but frankly I find it very doubtful that she would have ever on her own accord done something like that for them. I'd like to think so based on the show's warm conclusion, but based on everything we saw in the story, I am highly skeptical.
I do recognize that there are moments when the story humanizes her, such as her subdued affection for her adopted mother (and her grief at her loss). They were just very few and far between.

I certainly don't doubt that she underwent a lot of traumatizing moments in her youth (her mother certainly seemed crazed enough to mess up any kid). But ultimately her petulant behavior as a young adult can only be blamed on herself - there were plenty of people that did show her love and regard in her youth (Mr. Shaidel, Jolene, her mother, all of her chess colleagues). Her disregard for most of them time and time again ultimately can only be attributed to her own behavior.

That said, the finale episode and ending was satisfying and fulfilled most of the requirements I've ascribed to good endings. For that, I do hold The Queen's Gambit in higher regard. No doubt it'll receive more than its share of accolades come awards seasons. 

I do wish we had closed out some of the loose ends - for example, we never are told exactly how her adopted mother dies. One can presume it was liver failure of some sort, but we are shown in her last scene that she appeared generally fine and was even trying on dresses. She also died in her bed, so perhaps she felt ill and then upon lying down her liver failed? We'll never know. 

I also wish we'd learned more about Beth's past - what ever happened to Paul? Why did her mother lose all of her wealth such that they were stuck in a trailer? Did she give it to Paul? And lastly, I didn't quite understand what offended her so much about Townes during that hotel room incident. My read is that his "roommate" was clearly more than that, which she caught on to and took offense of being led on about. But then what underlay his own clear flirtation with her (I can only surmise he was very taken with her, as he confesses in the last episode)? A pity that their friendship was never more developed as it certainly was one of the bright spots and a rare moment when Beth showed interest in someone other than herself.

What the show did leave me with more than anything is a strong desire to play chess - what a perfect quarantine activity this winter! I doubt I'll ever have the mental ability to predict moves 5 plays in advance, but it certainly looks fun and suspenseful from the on-screen activity.

Let me know your thoughts on the show if you watched!


Popular Posts