After watching Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, Sophie and I found that we had much to discuss – and disagree about. I suggested we put our contrasting views into writing and publish them side-by-side. What follows is the result. Enjoy, and be sure to let us know what you think in the comments below.
Alone, but not lonely anymore
By Sophie Huang
Despite the cool and sometimes dark hue throughout the series, the messages behind Queen’s Gambit are beautiful and heart-warming, like the shade dancing in harmony with the light, not only accompanying but complementing it. Among the various reasons to fall in love with this series, no other single element mesmerizes me more than the protagonist Beth, and her journey of self-development.
To begin with, Beth is the only female with a choice in her hands. Compared to the other main female characters, she’s the one able to follow and thrive in her passion. This is essentially challenging already, let alone the fact that chess was (and perhaps still is) a male-dominated profession and there were more expectations on women fulfilling their gender roles in her time. Margaret, the leader of “Apple π”, used to be the Queen Bee at high school with her flamboyant disposition; yet, she ended up as a housewife taking care of a new-born, shopping at a supermarket with loads of alcohol in her stroller. (Just a quick sidetrack. It cracked me up when they revealed that the sorority was named after the Greek alphabet whereas the club itself has nothing to do with learning. Wouldn’t it be more suitable to use the word “pie” instead? Yes, I AM mean. You’re welcome.) Alma, the adopted mother, is like the adult version of Margaret. Unable to fulfill her dream as a pianist, she fell victim to an unhappy marriage where she couldn’t trade herself out due to a lack of economic independence. Both of them don’t really have a chance to explore themselves as Beth could. “The window of opportunities slams shut.”, says Margaret with slight bitterness and helplessness behind her sweet-as-usual smile.
Additionally, the art of dealing with loneliness is another, if not the most captivating, aspect that highly resonates with me, lingering at the bottom of my heart long after the show. Beth has been fighting alone, during the loss of family members, the nights she lost in fierce matches, and the time she’s indulged in substance abuse. Anya-Taylor Joy, in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes TV, shares her insight on Beth’s internal struggle. “She’s both terrified to be alone and also feels like it’s the place she feels safe. The fighting of these two impulses is what causes her such pain and she’s desperate to connect, and yet has been told through her childhood that everybody will abandon her… That’s why she got so involved with chess. A sense of security. Being able to predict what’s gonna happen. If she gets hurt, she only has herself to blame.” But interestingly, as the story develops, the audience can actually see the nearly unconditionally supportive crowd behind this lonely soul. Mr. Shaibel collects news about every single match of hers. Jolene shows up during her biggest depression. Alma, albeit a layman to chess, is a reliable company in Beth’s teenage years. Admittedly, I thought Alma was nothing but a shallow, money-oriented step-mother in the beginning; however, she shows Beth not only about the meaning of enjoying life but a strength that the young girl herself is never aware of – being an intuitive player. Alma and Beth are like the yin and yang. In spite of their totally opposite personalities, the two females, sharing loneliness in common, found comfort and warmth in each other. From my point of view, they’re more like friends than mother and daughter. And of course, how can we forget all the boys that help Beth become a chess grandmaster? At the final match with Borgrov, they rack their brains for hours to come up with corresponding measures for Beth. As Benny Watts puts it in an earlier episode, “Russians play as a group, but we Americans fight alone.” This time, Beth is not a lone wolf in the match anymore, not with all these people, alive or dead, having her back. “I’m not your guardian angel. I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me. I’m here because you need me to be here. That’s what family does.” These words from Jolene hit hard… Tearjerker? Hell yes.
Queen’s Gambit is an outstanding piece of work, while there are still several drawbacks. Starting from the gradually increasing number of people cheering for Beth outside of the building in Moscow, to the huge crowd standing and listening to the live broadcast of the final match, I can’t help but wonder about their necessity. Without a doubt, it does add emotional intensity to the drama, but isn’t it a little far-fetched? Just by imagining how many background actors needed for these scenes, I can’t help worrying about the crew’s budget. So is the reappearance of Beth’s unrequited love, Townes. Personally speaking, I don’t mind him coming back because he’s the most appealing male actor of all, and his return drops a period to the misunderstanding between him and Beth. Nonetheless, it robs the audience of the opportunities for imagination. Queen’s Gambit comes to an end where everything is explained or solved, which most of the audience are happy to see, but wouldn’t it be more intriguing if some parts are left untold? Just like the margin of a page.
Overall, Queen’s Gambit deeply strikes a chord with me, particularly the part of Beth’s self-growth. When interviewed by TV insider, Anya-Taylor Joy shares her opinion with enthusiasm, “It’s more about a really brilliant person who struggles with herself and overcomes that internal struggle.” Beth’s story is like a song with uplifting music but melancholic lyrics. She has been through gains and losses at a scale hardly unrivalled by others at her similar age. Yet, it is these experiences that facilitates her getting to know her inner self more, as peeling an onion layer by layer. I rarely change the wallpaper of my cell phone, but now Queen’s Gambit has made it to appear on the screen every time I unlock my phone. With Beth staring straight back at me, she represents a constant reminder. Of staying fearless and independent. Of confronting one’s own issues. And last but not least, of ongoing pursuit of self-development.
Totally Addicted to Chess
by Lorenzo Gaertner
One dark, frigid January a few years ago, I spent an afternoon wandering around my local toy shops looking for a chess set. I had suddenly got the urge to play but realised that I didn’t own a set. I poked around shelves lined with Barbies and Lego kits, trying to ignore the suspicious looks I was getting from staff members and mothers. I found one at last: a crappy, foldout plastic board with roughly cut pieces. Something you could spill beer on. In our house that was important.
I played mostly against Jack, my friend from uni. Our matches would often go on for two hours or more. I soon learned that Jack was a much better player than I was; he beat me handily almost every time. It was fun all the same. But like all phases, it ended quickly. Jack finished his studies and moved on, and the chess set went on the shelf to join the dusty poker set and the history books I was always threatening to read.
Now, thanks to The Queen’s Gambit, I can’t stop playing. The chess set – the same one Jack used to whoop me on years ago – stays out in view of anyone who visits my apartment (few as they may be right now) in case they share my urge to play. I play online over days – sometimes weeks – with friends living in other countries. I have three or four games running at once, and I check them every morning as compulsively as people check their emails.
What gripped me about The Queen’s Gambit, and what stayed with me after I finished watching it, is the show’s contagious love of chess. There are many chess sequences in the show, and although towards the end it struggles to present the game in new and interesting ways, the makers manage to convey the game well without lingering on it. Chess as a spectator sport does not easily lend itself to the dramatic, heroic sequences we’ve seen in countless movies about baseball and boxing. I’m thankful that they resisted the use of slow motion to indicate a vital moment in the game. Chess already seems like it’s being played in slow motion. Nor does the show try to overstate chess – it is intense, elegant and cerebral enough not to need this – or bog us down with long, technical explanations of the different moves and strategies. There’s enough jargon here to speak to the fanatics, but not enough to overwhelm the rest of us. I still didn’t know what a queen’s gambit was after finishing the show, but I went straight to Wikipedia to look it up.
This love for the subject is vital. Someone with only a passing interest in chess couldn’t– and shouldn’t – make a show like The Queen’s Gambit. I read that Walter Tevis, who wrote the 1983 novel the show is based on and named after, was a keen player himself. He improved his game by reading Modern Chess Openings and tested his skills in local tournaments, just as main character Beth Harmon does. But unlike Beth, Tevis wasn’t preoccupied with being the best chess player around. That doesn’t matter – what matters is that Tevis was passionate about chess. I will happily read or watch anything if I know that the person who made it was passionate. You can give your main character a drive to win that you don’t have and still write a convincing story. You can’t pretend to love the game.
But although The Queen’s Gambit excels as a love letter to chess, it falls short elsewhere. The Netflix tagline paints Beth as a precocious, orphaned chess whizz who struggles with addiction, the source of which, we quickly learn, are the sedative pills the orphanage doles out to keep her and the other orphaned girls in check. But after taking such pains to establish Beth’s addiction – including an in medias res opening in which she rouses herself awake with pills and vodka and flies, ruffled and barefoot, through a swanky Parisian hotel to play a chess match she’s late for – the series never explores her addiction in much detail. That Beth is suffering is implied by the frequent shots of her swallowing pills and guzzling booze, but it’s a plot point that feels badly underfed. When towards the end of the series she finally confides in a friend that she can’t function without the pills and alcohol, it’s unconvincing. Beth eventually overcomes her addiction by flushing her pills down the toilet, confirming what had become clear throughout the series: that other than using it as a device to generate tension around the main character, The Queen’s Gambit has nothing to say about addiction itself – what it can do to a person, the extent to which it can ravage their mental health and their relationships with the people around them.
Speaking of the people around her, Beth’s friends are also written with painfully little depth. Jolene, an older orphan whom Beth befriends early in the series, is left behind when Beth gets adopted, only to return towards the end. It was a nice surprise to see her again – I’d forgotten she even existed – but by the time she gives Beth the line about how the two girls are family and will always have each other’s back, she’s been absent for so long and her arc is so underdeveloped that the moment carries none of the emotional weight it tries to land with.
Then there’s the string of young men, fellow chess players, who circle around Beth the entire series either coaching her, worrying about her or trying to fuck her. Harry Beltik and Benny Watts appear without ever doing much of anything. There’s also Townes, who turns out to be Beth’s love interest. The only thing to indicate a romance between them is a weird, intimate encounter in a hotel room that gets interrupted. Then Townes disappears and, like Jolene, is thrown back in in the final episode for an emotional reunion that just doesn’t work.
I enjoyed watching The Queen’s Gambit, though. It wasn’t gripping; I often hopped up to get something to eat or wash the dishes during episodes. But other than the chess sequences it survives on the strength of the acting – Anya Taylor-Joy is superb as Beth – and the set and costume design. The show recreates the 60s with increasingly stylish outfits for Beth as her wealth and reputation grow, and exquisitely designed building interiors that are as memorable as the characters themselves (I’ll let you decide whether this is a good or a bad thing). The story is well crafted, but it begins to drag; by the final episode we know how it’s going to end. There’s also a corny finale in which characters and tropes from earlier in the series all come back to save the day. I cringed when Beth did her trademark thing of hallucinating a chessboard on the ceiling and had commentators and fellow players gawking after her.
It’s not the ending I had expected at first. Given how much emphasis was put on Beth’s addiction in the early episodes, I thought she would die of an overdose (I was going in blind having not read the book). But as I kept watching I realised that The Queen’s Gambit is not that kind of story. It’s not a fresh, honest take on addiction, and it’s not an insightful look at the destructive effects of wealth and fame on a teenager. It’s a play-it-safe adventure where no real tension or drama occurs and then everything is wrapped up neatly in the end. At least as a tribute to chess it makes some solid moves. If you finish The Queen’s Gambit eager to play chess, as I did, it will have been worth your time.