Courtesy of Netflix

November 12, 2020

PERATI | Post-Election Escapism: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

Print More

After the chaos and uncertainty of the election last week, watching The Queen’s Gambit has served as the perfect post-election escapism. “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it,” chess prodigy Beth says, in Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 coming-of-age novel. The seven-part series stars Isla Johnston then Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon and grapples with issues of identity, addiction and loss. Beth is a “female genius” who against the odds manages to beat out her competition in a heavily male-dominated game; yet her ongoing battle with addiction complicates her linear trajectory. 

The opening scene is intentionally displacing. The audience gets a portrait of Beth waking up alarmed in a Paris hotel room, throwing on presentable clothing, kicking back tranquilizer pills and sloshing back liquor. In a harrowing moment of disarray, she grabs her heels and begins to run. When Beth enters the chess tournament room, a posse of cameras flashes in her direction. She sits down, then looks up at World Chess Champion Vasily Borgov with a lost look in her eyes.

The scene changes to a more somber one in which a younger Beth stands still at the side of the road with the same lost look in her eyes. The camera pans to show the audience a glimpse of the wreckage, the police cars, her mother’s body mangled on the road. 

This dramatic framing of the opening mirrors the movement of the queen’s gambit itself. In chess, the queen’s gambit is a move in which a sacrifice of the queen’s bishop’s pawn is offered, in an attempt to gain control of the center of the board. Frank, in this scene, seems to be aiming for something similar, giving away something to the audience at the beginning in an attempt to gain their attention.

As the series continues, Beth, nine years of age and orphaned, arrives at the Methuen Home for Girls. Filmed with a palette of dull blues and browns, the orphanage feels cold and sterile. Isla Johnson portrays Beth as an awkward and quiet girl who is told to take green tranquilizer pills and finish her meals. Later she befriends Jolene (Moses Ingram) who becomes her close companion.

Beth stumbles into the world of chess at first by accident, but as she continues to observe the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess, he eventually caves into teaching her the rules of the game. Mr. Shaibel becomes a mentor to Beth who has an uncanny aptitude for playing chess. Beth quickly develops what seems to be almost an addiction to the game in parallel to her growing addiction to tranquilizers pills. After a traumatic childhood experience of watching her mother take her own life with her child in the car, the pieces on the chess board offer Beth a newfound agency that is comforting.

Eventually, when Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted and leaves behind Mr. Shaibel and Jolene at the orphanage, Beth begins to gain the attention of the public eye at regional, national and then international chess championships. In each chess match, the board is personified and vivified into a vicious battleground in which Beth continues to strike her opponents with graceful prowess.

The series takes place during the Cold War, which raises the stakes for the final match of the series against Soviet chess master Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński).  However, unlike other Cold War narratives, The Queen’s Gambit shys away from an anti-Communism narrative that presents the Soviet’s collectivist approach as unfair by comparison to a more American individualism. The Christian orphanage itself serves as a nod to the institutional oppression that can take place even in America.

Ultimately, the series is less about an American trying to win a world-renowned title but rather a more human narrative about Beth Harmon, orphan, recovering addict and female genius trying to be the best chess player in the world. The series reveals to the audience just enough about Beth to know that despite being a chess master, she is not invincible, and that her weaknesses could in fact lead to her demise, not only raising the stakes for a narrative about the game itself but creating a dynamic in which the audience is rooting for Beth’s path to recovery until the end.

For those seeking to watch a short series that combines elements of a traditional bildungsroman with the thrilling adrenaline rush of a sports movie and the emotional resonances of A Star is Born, The Queen’s Gambit is the perfect escapist series to indulge in after weeks of doom-scrolling and paralyzing uncertainty.

Shriya Perati is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at sperati@cornellsun.com. Thought Experiments runs alternate Thursdays this semester.