By Gabrielle London
Like many over winter break, I took to watching The Queen’s Gambit, one of Netflix’s most popular, binge-worthy shows. The series has completely swept the internet, despite being about something as inconspicuous as chess. It skillfully applies the fall-from-grace trope to main character Beth Harmon and realistically depicts difficult topics such as sexism and substance abuse. Watching it felt fulfilling; the perfect show for a rainy day.
The Queen’s Gambit follows orphan Beth Harmon as she realizes her talent for chess, signs up for a tournament, and is quickly swept into a world that revolves entirely around the game. Despite a struggle with substance abuse and the emotional baggage that comes with being an orphan, Beth rises quickly to the top, defeating some of the most skilled players in the Western hemisphere. Although the show follows a basic storyline—a protagonist with a sad backstory discovers a hidden skill, succeeds greatly, hits a major downfall, and recovers beautifully—it offers intriguing, likeable characters and a kind of comfort not often found in dramas.
The show gracefully depicts several difficult topics, including alcoholism and prescription drug addiction, as well as emotional trauma. As I watched, I developed an appreciation for how the show handled these subjects. Rather than being entirely focused on Beth’s vices, the story depicts her life in the chess world and how she resorts to drugs and alcohol when she’s stressed or overwhelmed. She initially uses these things as an aid, something to destress with, but she soon becomes addicted. That storyline plays out in the background until it needs to become important, to serve its purpose as her initial downfall. Beth’s childhood trauma also lurks in the shadows, being brought occasionally into the light as an explanation for some of her actions. Even before she became an orphan, she lived with her mother who suffered severely from mental illnesses. The show cleverly introduces us to this idea through flashbacks that occur when Beth is struggling the most; for example, one occurs her first night at the Methuen Home Orphanage and another soon after her adoptive mother dies and she realizes that she is on her own. Often walking a fine line between genius and madness, Beth’s mental state can be defined largely by childhood trauma.
The Queen’s Gambit also touches on sexism. It is set in the ‘60s, an era where the woman’s role was expected to be either housewife or mother, and nothing else. Sexism through the show isn’t always blatant, and it’s not the ugly monster in disguise. Instead, it presents itself as an issue in subtle ways, such as reporters ignoring Beth’s background and focusing only on her sex, or backhanded comments about how unusual it is that she’s a woman in a “man’s game.” The approach it takes to this topic is realistic and even relatable in today’s context. The show executed these difficult topics skillfully. I loved that Beth’s struggles were clearly there but in an underlying way until they finally consumed her.
The series also utilizes one of the most popular and most difficult to achieve tropes in media—the fall from grace. The trope has existed in media and literature for thousands of years, observable even in ancient greek tragedies such as Oedipus Rex. It is difficult to execute, requiring a stable buildup, a moment where everything comes crashing down, and a spectacular albeit sometimes ugly recovery. The Queen’s Gambit uses the fall from grace in relation to Beth’s struggle with drugs and alcohol, achieving an incredible character arc and application of the trope. At the beginning of the show, her relationship with drugs is established. She is forced to take them at the orphanage and begins to use them as stimulants to learn chess. When she is adopted, she is completely cut off—that is, until she learns that her adoptive mother has a prescription. She then begins to use them, as well as alcohol, casually in everyday life and at tournaments. Only when her life becomes difficult and her internal struggle deepens does her relationship with these things become destructive. Specifically in the 6th episode, the result of her addiction becomes obvious. She not only slips into a mental dependency but also into a physical state of uncleanliness. She acts harshly and lashes out at minor occurrences and turns away from the distant people who still care about her. This is her fall from grace, her moment where everything falls apart.
It is only when a visit from a longtime friend knocks a sense of reality into Beth, “And let’s look at where you’re at, which looks like it’s at the bottom of a f****** hole. And it’s looking a lot like you dug it yourself.” Beth’s self-realization is key to ending her destructive state. Here we see the recovery part of the fall-from-grace trope. She quits drugs and drinking cold turkey and begins to rebuild positive relationships with not only her friends, but with her mental state as well. This miraculous reformation leads her to her most important victory, completing the show with a satisfactory ending.
The Queen’s Gambit offers viewers a dramatic cinematic experience. It explores a world unbeknownst to most and brings light to the exciting wonders of chess. Beth Harmon’s character struggles are deep and intriguing, and I found myself hooked, waiting to see what would happen next and how her issues would be resolved. The show takes a common storyline and a difficult trope, pulling them together to create an incredible dynamic and gripping narrative. Simply put, The Queen’s Gambit is an incredible show worthy of praise, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.