The Queen’s Gambit — Review

Like its protagonist, the show nearly jeopardizes a masterful opening with a foolish endgame fumble.

Official trailer | Source: Netflix

Part of me doubts that the average viewer can glean a complete understanding of the games on display throughout The Queen’s Gambit, not just for lack of ability but due to the speed with which they are portrayed. When I watched the show, I did so not from the perspective of its protagonist Beth Harmon, who can visualize games and play them by memory (albeit with the aid of tranquilizers which she’s introduced to as a child), but from the perspective of the high school chess players she defeats in a simultaneous game at the mere age of nine. Which is to say that I watched the show knowing full well that while I could study Beth’s games against the titans that her prowess brings her against, it’d likely take decades to see the board the way she does, if that is at all possible. In that sense the show, even as an adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, tempts the danger of trying to humanize a character smarter than the writer and yet evades it through its depiction of the players themselves.

In the show’s opening scene the audience is introduced to Beth shuffling about her hotel room with urgency to make her departure. She takes two tranquilizer pills shortly after waking, chasing them with a swig of alcohol while taking note of a person asleep in her bed, surely prompting the viewer to question why she’d awoken in room’s bathtub but nevertheless assuring them that Beth, for all the brilliance that the show’s description alludes to, is a bit of a mess. When she reaches her destination downstairs in the hotel’s lobby, she’s bombarded by the flare of flashing cameras which are tamed only by her sitting across from her opponent before a chessboard that he studies intently prior to her arrival, proceeding to shift his attention to her to determine what her first move will be. All the while, a sea of men sits inches away looking on in concert, within which only one or two other women are visible.

With all this being laid out only five minutes into the pilot, the viewer can tell that Beth is remarkable. So when the show whiplashes back to her childhood revealing her as the sole survivor of a car crash that has presumably taken her parents’ lives, we’re invested enough to persist to see how she comes to sit at that table. All of which goes to show the merits of the show’s execution, for rather than starting with a proper opening move which would present the viewer with endless possibilities, the show-makers opted to present the audience with an endgame puzzle, leaving the audience in a place where they knew something pivotal was about to happen while also showing that the complexity of these games would be divulged by the people playing them as much as they would by the moves being made.

When depicted on screen most professional sports have convenient means of communicating to the viewer the nature of the game as well as the nature of the characters playing it. Even someone with minimal exposure to football need only really know that to score points the ball needs to make it to the opposite end of the field. But on a show like The Game or Friday Night Lights seeing the plays that the quarterbacks call and their team’s execution of said calls can define a group’s interactions well enough to suggest what their character dynamics are like off the field. The issue with chess is that it’s rarely so indiscreet, and Hollywood will often take up its own liberties to keep unfamiliar audiences engaged. In Tobey Maguire’s 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, some viewers commented on the first game between Boris Spassky and protagonist Bobby Fischer, stating that the move that marks the end of the game on screen was inaccurate to the actual game in which Bobby persisted for a few more turns instead of surrendering immediately as he does in the film. The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t deviate from this tradition, but it does benefit from the fact that it’s not based on a historical source.

In that regard, the show can indulge the dramatic movements of its characters regardless of whether they break chess etiquette. Any advantages are better conveyed through a player’s eyes darting across a chessboard frantically searching for the next best move instead of the rapid movement of the pieces themselves. To this end Anya Taylor-Joy, who portrays Beth, plays her part masterfully. Whether she’s theorizing all the possible ways her games might play out or literally leaving the table with each move her opponent makes, she consistently gives the impression that she puts all her effort into the role just as Beth throws her all into the game. The echo of a king toppling over as Beth’s opponents surrender is one of the most profound throughout the show, symbolic of her aggressive play style in which she usually manages to overwhelm her opponents in less than 30 moves.

The attention she gives to chess during her games offers a strong contrast to her life outside of her matches, which I wouldn’t describe as hollow but can easily say is primarily driven by her passion for the game. After being prohibited from playing at her orphanage, the Methuen Home, she throws herself back into chess years later when she’s adopted, winning her first tournament against the state champion Harry Beltik and using her tournament winnings to support herself and her mother in the absence of her adoptive father. Nearly all of the relationships that she forges are based on her experiences playing chess, even the language class she’s a part of extends from her desire to go to Russia to play against the Soviets.

One would be tempted to think that Beth would face more barriers because of her gender based on a comment from her mentor Mr. Shaibel, where he initially rebukes to her attempts to learn the game by stating that girls don’t play chess. However, if him caving almost immediately afterwards provides any suggestion, such issues don’t remain issues for long, and though her skills are often underestimated at the start for being a woman, those social norms are shattered with little to no effort. In official tournaments there’s no point where she’s outright prohibited from playing on the grounds of her gender. As a matter of fact, it’s the very people who initially doubt her abilities that come to her aid following the adjournment during her game with Soviet master Vasily Borgov, brainstorming endgame scenarios together and suggesting the moves that can ultimately defeat him.

Really, any conflict Beth suffers regarding her progression in the game seems self-inflicted as the viewers might note her impatience when it comes to learning the rules and later on applying them to challenge the best players available to her. When set against the revelations of the show’s final episode regarding the relationship of Beth’s parents before she’s placed in the Methuen Home, her style reads as something of a coping mechanism to deal with the lingering traumas of abandonment she endured as a child. We’d be remiss not to notice how chess seems to offer her the main thing she seems to be denied in her long-term relationships: control. Where she would seem most secure, she’s ultimately left stranded. When her father is adamant about staying with his other family, her mother resolves the issue of what to do with her by driving directly into an incoming car.

Even her adoptive father abandons her and her adoptive mother, Mrs. Wheatley, and though Beth and Mrs. Wheatley do forge a bond as mother and daughter in his absence, Beth can’t quite relish the last days she has with her in Mexico because she spends them with a long-time pen pal before unexpectedly dying from hepatitis. Even if one would venture to make the argument that her passion for the game isn’t influenced by her trauma, they’d have more difficulty arguing that her play style isn’t. For her aggressive openings and rapid games might just attest to a subconscious desire to end the game on her terms rather than drag them out and be blindsided as she often is in her relationships with other people. Thus the more obvious danger of her actions lies in the fact that adhering to them risks pushing away most if not everyone in her circle, and on a more subtle and prevalent note regarding her interactions, it simply tempts losing those people because she doesn’t pay them enough mind.

Of this, Jolene is the greatest victim. Introduced in the pilot shortly after Beth’s arrival at the Methuen Home, it’s hard not to associate her character with crassness as her first lines are spent denigrating one of the housekeepers of the orphanage. Her first conversation with Beth does little to alleviate this as it’s spent asking Beth what her parents’ last words, but she softens with time. The closeness of her and Beth’s relationship is clear as years go by without either of them being adopted, leaving them to appreciate the consistency of one another’s company. If their friendship isn’t clear in the playful nudges they give each other as the story skips to Beth’s teenage years, the viewer can more easily perceive it in Jolene’s reaction to Beth finally getting adopted through her sharp retort to Beth’s question regarding whether she’d seen her chess book only to find out later that she had hid the book as Beth packed to leave. Beyond that however, her character gets no recognition.

Even Mr. Shaibel holds more of a presence in Beth’s mind as she credits him for teaching her chess during one of her early interviews with Time Magazine. When the topic of loneliness is raised though, she doesn’t cite her relationship with Jolene as a reprieve during their time at orphanage and only states that she doesn’t mind being alone. And in that answer the viewer can identify an overture for Beth’s life that defines her relationship with chess as much as it does her relationships with the people around her because, once again, Beth’s prodigious skill in the game affords her a sense of control that she’s denied in most other facets of her life. When it seems that she’s about to lose her match against Beltik, she races to the bathroom and calls her self an “ugly piece of trash,” implying that her sense of self-worth derives from her ability to prevail in chess. Which is somewhat reasonable as we see what becomes of the other women in her life, including Mrs. Wheatley who has the potential to become a skillful piano player but is mostly confined to their home, and perhaps more pertinently a high school bully who Beth meets later in their lives as a housewife who appears to find solace in the alcohol stashed under her grocery cart. Through these allegories, the danger of her being a woman is clearer as it would demand that Beth continue to relinquish whatever control she has if she cannot prove herself formidable in an arena of consequence.

In the show’s finale, as Beth begins to spiral after her second loss to Borgov, she’s greeted by Jolene who has arrived to inform her that Mr. Shaibel has passed away. It’s not the idea that Jolene would seek to reconnect with Beth that bothered me, that I found somewhat realistic albeit problematic based on the fact that it takes so long for them to do so. Rather what bothered me is the convenience she offers to resolve the issue Beth faces when it concerned her securing transportation to Russia to face Borgov, who’d defeated her twice already. If this show is a chess game, Jolene’s reappearance is a promotion, a move where the player’s pawn breaches the farthest ranks of their opponent’s field and evolves into a stronger one, be it a bishop, a knight, or a queen. I can only imagine the thrill of seeing that move demonstrated during one of Beth’s actual games for her to claim a victory, as it would surely be a very tense and well fought win, but its application to Jolene really highlights a dangerously lazy narrative decision.

When Jolene saves Beth by providing her money that she was saving to go to law school so Beth can travel to Russia and face Borgov for a third time, she demonstrates an immeasurable show of faith, not only based on the fact that she is greeted by a drunken Beth with her house in shambles, but because Beth made no effort in the time that they were apart to reach out to her. It brought to mind the sentiments that Jolene voices in the first episode where she laments the fact that as orphans they’re mostly unwanted and that for her it’s not only an issue because of her age, but because of her race. Considering the amount of time that they spent apart, it’s hard for me to rationalize why she’d seek to reconnect with. Even more so when it seems that her primary intention is to relay to Beth the news of Mr. Shaibel’s passing since Jolene and Mr. Shaibel had no relationship with one another.

Narratively, in attempting to accomplish this kind of move, it would’ve been significantly more effective had Jolene remained a prevalent character throughout the entire show, in which she and Beth could’ve been portrayed with a more mutual relationship that doesn’t make the decision to entrust so much money to Beth feel so random. But instead of feeling like some glorious recovery, it feels more like a deus ex machina, in which an extra queen descends on to the board of Beth’s life to be moved freely according to her will. Really it’s even more ironic to think that Jolene is played by the same actress throughout the show, which isn’t to denigrate Moses Ingram’s performance. That she could shift from an abrasive teenager to the strong shouldered adult that carried Beth’s burdens highlighted for me how much her talents were wasted on a narrative gambit that falls short of its potential.

The viewer isn’t even allowed to indulge a brief moment’s confusion to guess who she is before hearing Beth confirm her identity. Not that that matters, seeing how she’s Beth’s only Black acquaintance of the four Black characters with speaking roles on the show, but that same fact does highlight how much more polarizing the move is when one considers the failure of Beth’s White acquaintances to rise to the occasion. Though this can be chalked up to ignorance for most of them, it can’t for the State Department who, regardless of their financial support, was very keen to see the Russians defeated, and certainly not Benny Watts who was scorned by her decision to stick to her solitude as much as her denying the financial support from the Christian Crusade organization that could’ve easily taken her to Russia.

All of which I think is meant to show just how far Beth could fall without a support network to catch her, a fair lesson considering her early trauma and the ways that she seeks to cope with it. The show depicts her growth through her finally managing to defeat Borgov, which is doubly impressive due to her being known for his prowess with endgames and something that she might not’ve been able to accomplish so cleanly without the support of her friends who came rallying to her side, something that worked considering the acquaintances she made through chess over the years. But it’s a lifeline she hardly earned from the only person that the show suggests had no weight on her mind after their initial parting. The same person who is very much treated like a pawn through her invisibility is elevated to the spotlight just to help the show complete its endgame, and ultimately dashed once more when she loses her value for the overall strategy.

The very least the finale could’ve done was show Beth repaying the favor that Jolene had done for her, but instead the last we see of Jolene is her learning of Beth’s final victory over the phone, to which she states “good for you, cracker” with a satisfied smile. Holistically, it’s almost impressive how strongly the execution of the show mirrors the play style of its own protagonist, because its opening is enthralling. In the endgame, however, all it takes is the slightest fumble to jeopardize an otherwise perfect game, a move that may be imperceptible to most onlookers but for experienced players is clear as day. In this case the use of Jolene falls in line with other T.V. shows and movies that’ve relied on the “strong Black friend” trope, except in this show’s finale that decision highlighted a narrative flaw that left a bad taste in my mouth and tainted an otherwise excellent show.

Joshua Miller is writing about pop culture and literature. He’s also pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in English and Africana Studies at Goucher College.

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