The success of Allan Scott’s Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit has been a surprise in many aspects. It took the Scottish TV-producer 30 years and 9 rewrites to finally find a company willing to produce the show. The most frequent reason given when studios rejected the project, was that “nobody would be interested in chess.”
Before The Queen’s Gambit came out on Netflix, nobody could have expected that a tv-series about chess would become so popular as to ignite a downright chess-boom. In the first 3 weeks after The Queen’s Gambit first aired, retailers reported that sales of chess sets rose by almost 90%, while sales for books about chess skyrocketed by over 600%.
Why has Queen’s Gambit been so successful?
One reason is certainly the masterful cinematographical portrayal of the chess games. As a game that requires a lot of thinking and, most of all, a lot of patience, chess stands in the (mistaken) reputation of being boring. Hence, making chess look compelling, exciting and inspiring on the screen is no small feat – especially in a way that would excite such a broad audience.
The other reason for its huge success is that The Queen’s Gambit isn’t primarily about chess. I mean, it is. But it’s not.
The Queen’s Gambit is the story of the orphaned girl Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), for whom the game of chess becomes the means to manage her genius on the one hand, and her mother-inherited demons on the other. As the orphanage’s janitor William Shaibel (Bill Camp), who first taught Beth to play chess, said: “Two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs.” And handling these two big pieces is no easy task – especially for an orphaned girl with no substantial emotional support.
There is no doubt that Beth’s conflict is essentially moulded by her relationship with her mother. Alice Harmon (Chloe Pirrie) was a highly intelligent woman from a good family, who had actually written her PhD in mathematics (an outstandingly rare feat for a woman in the 1950s). We see this in a scene where mother and daughter stand in front of a camp fire, throwing in various objects from their past. But she was also strongly self-sabotaging – what eventually led her into committing suicide, trying to take her own daughter with her into death. Luckily, Beth survived without a scratch, but with a giant bag of demons in her soul left to fight instead.
At the orphanage, these demons do not hesitate to manifest themselves. At the age of 8, Beth becomes addicted to the tranquilizers that children were being given in US-orphanages back in the 1960s. At the same time, she starts to develop an obsession for chess – which she secretly plays in the basement with Mr. Shaibel. Both practices start to influence each other. When she takes the tranquilizers, she appears to be better able to imagine and replay chess games – which she pictures on the ceiling of the sleeping hall. And because she loves to play chess so much, she needs the pills so she can imagine the chess games more vividly.
Why does it have to be chess?
Thankfully, this is not over-explained in the series. But it is thoroughly conveyed throughout the plot. Chess is the game on the ordered, self-contained chessboard. It consists of 64 squares, no more, no less. The rules are clear, everybody starts with the same pieces. There is no such thing as bad luck. Every move has its consequence, nothing is random. The chessboard is the structured space in which Beth can influence and arrange every single move by her own choice.
The chessboard is the ordered space, in contrast to the chaos in her own life.
Adding to the beforementioned heritage and pill addiction, Beths adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) is by no means a role model of nurturing and caring. Quite the opposite, she is depressed and codependent. She first takes emotional advantage of Beth, who has to take up the role of the mother and caretaker of her adoptive mother (a psychological phenomenon called parentification). And later, when Beth starts becoming successful, Alma also starts taking advantage financially of her. To make things even worse, Alma is an alcoholic, and enables a 15-year old Beth into the habit of drinking. In combination with the pills, drinking becomes Beths go-to self-sabotaging mechanism that brings her close to ruining her career.
What Beth has most been lacking is a healthy female attachment figure. With exception for Jolene (Moses Ingram), her older friend at the orphanage, every close female character in Beth’s life has had an unhealthy influence on her. We’ve already mentioned the influences of her biological mother, and her adoptive mother. But there is also the savvy French girl Cleo (Millie Brady) whom she meets in New York while visiting Benny Watts. She’s the one who leads Beth into temptation to drink the night before her first match against Vassily Borgov, the Russian champion (played by Marcin Dorociński).
Male Attachment Figures
Her male attachment figures are decidedly healthier, although not all happy or easy to deal with. Next to Mr. Shaibel, the first male person in Beths life is Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), whom we only know by his last name. She meets him at her first open tournament. Her first tournament is also where Beth has her first menstruation. Just like for a woman coming into menstruation is an initiation rite into physical maturity, so the tournament was an initiation rite into her chess career for Beth aswell. She calls Townes her “unrequieted love” – which is only half-true. He is also clearly fascinated and drawn to her, and in the last episode even admits to her that she broke his heart. The twist here is that Townes is homosexual and has a boyfriend, as Beth finds out in the Las Vegas tournament in Episode 3: Doubled Pawns. We’ll get back to this point in a minute.
The next man in Beth’s life is Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), the Kentucky State champion before Beth dethrones him. Harry is clearly in love with Beth, but the relationship fails for the simple issue that he’s not up to par with her – neither on the chessboard, nor as a man. Yet, he is the first person to become aware of Beth’s drug issues, and he cares deeply about her. She reciprocates the care, but just doesn’t feel the same attraction to him.
Enter Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the National US-Champion. He is probably the male figure who is most up to par with Beth intellectually. For the greatest part of the show, he is even the better chess player. And his cocky demeanour makes him attractive as a man for her. Where does the relationships between her and Benny go south? Probably because Benny is not willing to put up with Beth’s self-sabotage and retreats, after Beth falls into her big drug-and-booze-rampage in Episode 6.
Then there are also the twins (played by Matthew and Russel Dennis Lewis), who don’t really bond with Beth closely, but are present at most major chess events in which she participates. Somehow, they are like pawns in Beth’s life. Eventually, they become her friends, but they feel a bit like extras and without distinct personalities.
While all of these provide some kind of support in Beths life, the only one who actually doesn’t is Townes. He is just the crush, the attraction – like a point of reference that never turns into action. Symbolically, he reminds us a bit of the King piece on a chess board. He has the highest value, but he can’t really act that much. “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” says William Shakespeare in his play Henry IV.
A Girl in the Male-Dominated World of Chess
On the whole, Beth Harmon is a woman in the chess-world dominated by men. Symbolically speaking, the female represents chaos. This adds up with what we’ve said about her mother: Beth’s genius, but also her troubles, are derived from her mother. The enclosed space of the chessboard, together with the immutable rules of the game, offer the counterweight of order to her chaos. We already said that. And order is, symbolically, identified with the male.
Hence, it’s no wonder that her cure and transformation goes hand in hand with her improvement as a chess player, guided by Shaibel, Beltik, and Benny Watts. And in the end, for her final face-off with the Russian champion Vasily Borgov, all the guys team up to support her. Merely Townes, who is now a chess journalist instead of a player, acts as a messenger and emotional support instead of a chess expert. He’s the important, but technically useless king after all. But he is the one who helps her refute the pills and the booze before her last match against Borgov. Neither Harry Beltik nor Benny Watts managed to exert this influence over Beth.
This whole setup is very untypical for a woman. For usually, women are more struggling with overbearing mothers and their exaggerated expectations, instead of neglect. The more typical female struggle is to find the own voice and identity in the midst of social or familiary expectations. It’s more often about finding the individual, contingent chaos of her own identity, and to assert it against the external structures who often force women to merely play a role.
Beth is the exact opposite of this. And so we see Beth’s individuality transform. In her first scenes, little Beth Harmon is dressed in the simple orphanage clothes, looking like a pawn. Discovering her own femininity throughout the episodes, and becoming not merely more successful, but becoming more ordered, in the last scene she marvellously appears in a radiant white dress, looking like the queen on the chessboard. Just like the 7 episodes, Beth Harmon metamorphs in 7 moves from a pawn into a queen.
Because after all, what is a Queen’s Gambit? It is an opening, where the player sacrifices a pawn to obtain a better game. Just so, Beth’s troubled heritage and childhood are the sacrifice for her greatness and success.