The story of an orphan-girl-chess-prodigy might not seem like the formula for a runaway television hit. But Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, which premiered in October is just that. According to Netflix’s metrics, the show garnered 62 million “views” in its first 28 days, outstripping Netflix hits like Stranger Things and close on the heels of the outrageous Tiger King. Perhaps the show’s success is at least partially explained by increased demand: as cold weather sets in, everyone’s looking for some good home-streamable entertainment. But it’s also just plain good. It’s one of the best series I’ve seen in years.
The story of The Queen’s Gambit is written with such intention and care, in fact, that I finished the series not just with the satisfaction that comes from having enjoyed good entertainment, but with hope for screenwriting today. As an arts lover with a critical eye for how the media depicts women in imagery and story, I can tell you this isn’t always easy to find.
What’s great about The Queen’s Gambit is how its script not only avoids pitfalls of objectifying media, it simultaneously advances greater understanding of uniquely female issues. Perhaps best of all, the series does all these things, while telling a human story set in the iconic sixties that is interesting and impactful to viewers, male and female alike. And its most climactic lesson is one that discourages isolation, a villain as present as ever in our modern times.
Who is Beth Harmon?
Viewers meet chess prodigy Beth Harmon as a young girl (Isla Johnston), just after her biological mother dies in a car accident, and just before she’s taken to a Christian-run orphanage called Methuen. While some of Beth’s childhood is shrouded in mystery, we learn early on that her mother was a brilliant mathematician who suffered from psychosis. It’s fair to say Beth hasn’t had a normal, healthy childhood up until this point, despite her well-meaning but sick mother. As her new orphanage guardians administer “vitamins” that include tranquilizing pills to keep the kids in line, it’s clear she won’t experience much of a normal childhood at Methuen either.
It’s within this desolate context that Beth develops an interest in chess, the game she sees the janitor Mr. Shaibel playing on his downtime. Much as children in developing countries will make a soccer ball out of whatever materials they have in order to find an outlet for play, Beth moves her imaginary pieces across the checkered chess board in her mind, and she grows a strong desire to learn and excel at the game.
A different kind of feminist heroine
Beth quickly befriends Jolene (Moses Ingram), a fellow orphan who gives her tips on getting by amid the pitfalls of orphanage life. Some years later, older Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted by Alma (Marielle Heller) who is another insightful lead in the story and Beth’s life. While these women of The Queen’s Gambit all have checkered experiences and behavior to different degrees, what the series does well is show them as having dignity and being worthy of respect despite their flaws—and, indeed, this view is precisely what helps them to rise above these flaws.
In an interview with TV Insider, Taylor-Joy explains how Beth portrays a fresh kind of feminist protagonist because she’s imperfect, as opposed to a fictional version of a wonder woman with no flaws. “She’s not a perfect person; she’s working on herself . . . We are all human beings desperately working on ourselves; if you’re not growing, you’re not alive anymore.”
The story of The Queen’s Gambit, Taylor-Joy admits, “is of course about a woman who is brilliant at chess and rises to the top of a male-dominated field—but pretty much every field is male-dominated, so it’s more about a really brilliant person who struggles with herself and overcomes that internal struggle; that’s really what it’s about. . . . Yes, she’s a female underdog, but she’s also an underdog, period.”
For me, this element of Beth working to overcome her internal struggle is what makes the story so successful. The story achieves this by developing four great lessons within the story—elements that I would say make Beth an excellent protagonist despite her flaws, and that many of us, no matter where we are on our journeys, can use reminding of.
Know where you’re going
Often growing up, my father would recite a quotation from British writer James Allen: “The world steps aside for the man who knows where he is going.” He said it repeatedly to my sisters and me, knowing we could replace man with woman and apply it no differently. The main focus was on the concept of resolve: know where you’re going, act like it, and doors will open for you.
Watching Beth devour chess books, take Russian lessons in night classes, excel in chess tournaments and move to the next level, viewers see a woman who is driven toward the goals of higher and higher chess play. She pushes herself to work harder, and she grows in confidence along the way, because she is earning her success.
In her high school years, there were times when classmates scoffed at her because she didn’t wear cool clothes or shoes; rather than changing her focus to fit in, she kept her eye on her goals to grow in chess knowledge and practice, and, achieving that, her confidence returned. She got to a point where she could literally shrug off the haters, and before she knew it, those insecurities were in the rearview.
This happens over and over again in the story: later there are competitors and journalists who don’t take Beth Harmon seriously, or treat her unequally to men. Keeping her eye on where she’s going, Beth breezes past those who don’t get her, on toward her goals.
Find your own style
Speaking of popular clothes and shoes, despite not coming from money or having a large wardrobe, Beth ultimately grew interested in fashion and, as she earned tournament prizes, made her own sartorial choices that set her apart—both in school and in chess tournaments. While she does so, viewers see just another example of Beth discovering and forging her own path.
She also has her own chess approach that is unique to her. Beth’s mother says in a flashback, “Men are going to try to teach you things; doesn’t make them any smarter”; one gathers watching The Queen’s Gambit that Beth has internalized this and doesn’t mind being a woman in the man’s world of chess. In that flashback, her mother gives her a dress with “Beth” embroidered on it, which she holds up to her daughter saying, “So you never forget who you are.”
Work on yourself
Yes, self-care makes it into the script of The Queen’s Gambit. Needless to say, growing up with a mentally ill mother, witnessing the trauma of her death, being drugged as a part of Methuen’s regimen—Beth has inherited some mental health issues herself, and along her journey toward excellence, she needs to find healthy coping mechanisms.
While viewers see Beth struggle with an addiction that starts in her formative years, we also see moments where Beth seeks healthier outlets—a warm bath, a night swim, redecorating, and working on saying “no” when temptation strikes. What Beth aims to do with her chess game—continually growing in skill—she ultimately needs to do with herself as well.
Accept support from others—we all need it
As anyone close to addiction, trauma, or deep grief knows, isolation is an enemy to healing; finding good support and help is the key to growth. So, given all that Beth’s gone through, it’s powerful that The Queen’s Gambit sets up its climax to spotlight the importance of leaning on others. Beth has from her earliest years struggled to find people she can reliably lean on and be loved by; as a result, it requires leaving her comfort zone (her status quo as a loner) to learn to rely on others. As the seventh dense episode comes to a close, the choices Beth makes regarding her addiction recovery mirror her path to recovering a chess game during an adjournment.
There are numerous other positive messages in the series that I found very important and that I rarely see conveyed so well. Even if these lessons are not as relatable to all viewers, they point toward hard truths. One such lesson is that one-night stands and casual sex are rushed attempts at intimacy that fail to appreciate the other person in their fullness, and are actually a little sad. The “it was fun while it lasted” mentality usually ends in heartbreak. And when one party has romantic feelings and the other doesn’t, the result is a cringeworthy aftermath that is vividly displayed more than a couple times in the series—even while nearly all sexual activity happens off-screen.
Indeed this last point is worthy of comment given how regularly TV shows insert plot-unnecessary nude scenes in scripts these days, and Netflix has been one of the worst offenders (pushing the envelope, most recently to the point of breaking laws). The Queen’s Gambit is evidence that good stories can be told, even stories with sexual elements in the script, without indulging in explicit imagery.
Another important modern message embedded in the show touches on the dreadful danger of substance addiction, how it’s easier to fall into addiction than to get out, and how those suffering from addiction must undertake a remarkable odyssey of recovery to be freed from it.
Beth shares with a journalist mid-series that she likes chess as an opportunity to face what she can on the board within the limits of 64 squares. When playing chess, she can filter out all the elements of her life she can’t control. But as she learns later, reality is stubborn, and she can’t ignore her problems forever. Just as the recovery community clings to the Serenity Prayer, Beth is challenged to let go of trying to control things she can’t, and ultimately face her greatest demons head-on.
Altogether, the important lessons knit tightly into the series’ fiber are what make The Queen’s Gambit such a remarkable story. No matter one’s unique personal demons, the internal struggle to overcome them and accomplish what you were made to do in life is a universal one. The quest to find your personal stride along the way and to stay true to yourself is a common modern challenge as well. For capturing these realities so well in an entertaining story, The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years.