The Queen’s Gambit: Chess, Trauma & Russians

Andrew Bondarev ’22

Netflix original, The Queen’s Gambit, recently won the Golden Globes for best miniseries, after its impressive showing. Following the life of gifted chess player Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the series delves into the protagonist’s adoption, later alcoholism, and her chess rivalries amidst the Cold War. Moreover, it has sparked an increased interest in the game of chess among beginners and Netflix consumers, breathing new life into the games through its cinematography. 

There’s a catch, as Beth Harmon’s chess genius is unlocked by tranquilizers at the start of the show, as she can visualize the chessboard on ceilings before falling asleep. This grants her a sort of obsession with the game and succeeding in it, even at the expense of her mental health. She is compared to Paul Morphy at some point in the show by a supporting character, a chess genius who ended his chess career at 22 due to paranoia. The viewers then eagerly await to see if our hero can persevere through the hardship around her, especially as a woman in a 20th-century male-dominated field and as the only woman playing chess against men. 

The Queen's Gambit – Smaller Pictures Film

A focal point of the season is Beth’s self-medication through sedative pills and alcoholism to deal with the trauma she experiences. Without spoiling the concrete details of what takes place, valuable lessons are learned and mindset shifts are found in order to overcome her addictions. Her orphanage best friend, Jolene, provides the connection and support needed in order to further her chess career and her mental state. Despite the rather problematic tropes the show has been accused of as a result of Jolene’s character and her angelic presence for Beth, Queen’s Gambit demonstrates a nuanced look beyond stereotypes. 

Why The Queen's Gambit Is Such Smart Visual Storytelling - Justin Kownacki

On a refreshing note, Russians within the show are depicted in their Soviet aura without the typical Hollywood antagonism and lack of subtlety. Vasily Borgov is a solidified world champion and Beth Harmon’s dangerous rival. She can’t seem to figure out his strategies, and seemingly no one can, until a certain point in Moscow. Beth enjoys her time in the Soviet Union, and instead of making political and religious statements at the behest of the operatives and people assisting her trip, she decides to play chess with Russian street elders. 

The show illustrates the game of chess in a fresh fashion, and the acting shines through any perceived flaws in the writing or character development. It is absolutely deserving of the Golden Globes for miniseries, and all of the separate nominations it received, due to the groundbreaking fashion in which it encapsulates the game of chess and the women players of it. Through sparking a renewed television interest in this age-old game, the show has ignited a following that is rare for a Netflix miniseries, thus deserving recognition and recommendation.

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