Posted on: November 17, 2020 Posted by: Madi Apthorpe Comments: 0

With Lockdown 2.0 in full swing, there’s never been a better time to have some guilt-free tv binges. Netflix is rarely one to disappoint with their originals, and ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is no exception. 

Set in America during the fifties and sixties, it takes viewers on a journey through the life of Beth Harmon; from her troubled childhood to the sometimes questionable, yet nonchalant, love affairs she finds herself in. But the one constant of the programme is Beth’s passion and unwavering skill for the age-old game, chess.

The show is bursting with time-fitting political and social comments, such as the American view on communism and their relationship with the U.S.S.R, and the rise of the Black Panther Party. The era in which it’s set is culturally significant, and the show is full of countless nods to this; not only the score, but the brilliant set design and an unbeatable range of costumes which reflect the transition from the reserved fifties into the relaxed, individual-centric sixties.

Scott Frank and Allan Scott developed the show from the novel, the former being an Academy Award winning screenplay writer behind the adaptations of critically acclaimed films ‘Get Shorty’ and ‘Marley & Me’. Obviously, the success of the show isn’t just down to the screenplay, the original novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis in 1983 combines the themes of feminism, addiction and, of course, chess – a trifecta that’s atypical but insanely interesting and gripping.

Being a woman in the world of chess, Beth finds herself battling with men who think she’s ridiculous for even attempting to play (“girls don’t play chess”) and mad for entering top tier competitions without having competed before. And they’re not wrong. The era that the show is set in is a time where women were mainly seen and not heard, using their free time to engage in “social clubs” or other activities fit for the abilities of a dainty soon-to-be housewife. However, Beth defies these boundaries and proves herself to be a more than competent chess player, going on to beat everyone she plays – repeatedly.

It’s not just Beth’s character that defies boundaries that we usually see in TV and film tropes. The way that most of the men react to their loss to Beth is admirable and honourable, showing an understanding that it doesn’t matter who their opponent is and simply appreciating the skill of the player. This was refreshing to watch, countering the common narrative in TV where men throw a huff or deny the outcome when a woman can do something better than they can. Maybe this is because of Beth’s fierce, take-no-shit attitude, or maybe the world of chess is filled with more progressive players and observers than something like football where it is sadly still a popular idea that male players are better than female players.

Flashbacks are tied to issues that Beth faces later on down the line in a highly detailed and admirable manner. For example, when Beth’s biological mother is burning books and clothes outside their trailer, Beth picks up a book called ‘Monomial Representations and Symmetric Presentations’ by Alice Harmon, her mother. Earlier in that scene you see a vial of pills fall from her mother’s hand, probably the same pills that Beth later finds herself addicted to.

The theme of addiction in this show is very clear, with many characters having their own substance problem that they work through (Jolene, who is clean later on, but realises Beth still takes the tranquilisers) or continues to suffer with. However, the root of addiction is not really pinpointed as different characters have their own histories with alcohol and drugs. In Beth’s case, she began taking them as prescribed by the orphanage nurse, just like every other orphan there. The idea that a nine-year-old, albeit one that has had a traumatic past, should be given a benzodiazepine is ludicrous in this day and age, but in the fifties it was the norm to remedy anything with a pill. The little green pills are recurring throughout the show, with Beth’s adoptive mother taking them after being told she needs “more tranquillity”, even though she is clearly depressed. 

Beth’s introduction to the world of the “green one” is to numb her mind. This numbness seems to be something that Beth chases for the rest of the show through drugs and alcohol. It relaxes her, helping her forget the memories that trouble her but also brings a part of her mind to life, a part that allows her to play chess in her mind. The way the chess pieces dance across the ceiling at night brings a sense of magic to the game and for the viewer, a true understanding of just how talented Beth really is.

The detail in the show is as intricate and carefully selected as an opening move by a grand-master chess player. Transitions between the present and childhood flashbacks are immaculate, tying scenes together seamlessly. The way the production and editorial team executed this show leaves you with an understanding of Beth, her passion, her relationship with drugs and alcohol, and definitely a burning desire to learn to play chess.

By Madi Apthorpe

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Madi Apthorpe
Author: Madi Apthorpe

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