Fair Use: Netflix
Suppose Amelie from the film Amelie was a redhead, a chess master, and born in Kentucky. In that case, I am confident she would resemble plenty like Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon from Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit.
Full of unique characters and stunning scenery, the limited series, released Oct. 23, follows the struggles and triumphs of a peculiar orphan, Beth (the distinct and cat-like Anya Taylor-Joy), and her rise to fame as a genius chess player. In just seven episodes, the show manages to capture Beth’s storyline in so much detail that I often had to remind myself that Ms. Harmon is, indeed, a fictional character.
The story opens in the mid-1950s, with a nine-year-old Beth Harmon arriving at the Methuen Home for Girls following her mother’s death by a car crash. At Methuen, Harmon first meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), one of the only Black girls at the orphanage who she quickly befriends. Jolene becomes a sister figure to Harmon, affectionately referring to her as “Cracker” every day. As her time at Methuen continues, Harmon meets Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the orphanage’s janitor, who becomes her mentor upon realizing Harmon’s full genius as a chess player. Some years pass, and Mrs. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), an equal to Harmon in quirkiness, and her husband adopt Harmon. After discovering Harmon’s adeptness for chess (and her ability to make money out of it), Mrs. Wheatley helps Harmon skyrocket through tournaments to fame.
In addition to depicting the game of chess in such a captivating way that someone like myself — who tends to find it incredibly tedious and dry — is on the edge of their seat, The Queen’s Gambit also manages to tackle the difficult, taboo subject of drug and alcohol dependency. While at Methuen, Jolene warns young Harmon about the tranquilizers, in the form of two-toned green pills, the orphanage officials distribute to the girls every day. Despite Jolene’s advice, Harmon hoards and uses the drugs at night to help her visualize chess games on the dormitory ceiling. Even after she’s adopted, Harmon continues to use and abuse tranquilizers to aid her chess tournament performances, quickly developing an addiction. While on the road for competitions, Harmon also develops an alcohol dependency, as it heightens the potency of the drugs. Her addictions continue until she hits rock bottom when Jolene arrives to pick her up out of the gutter.
Despite the rarely seen authenticity of addiction in The Queen’s Gambit, some issues still arrive with Harmon’s road to recovery. For one, the writer’s tiptoe precariously close to the stereotypical plotline of the Black best friend’s only role is to “save” the white protagonist in their darkest hour. Throughout the show, we frustratingly lose touch with Jolene from the story’s departure from Methuen to when Jolene arrives to help. Even then, we only get a brief catch-up with what’s happened to her so far (she’s working at a successful law firm as a paralegal while saving up for law school). However, I will commend the writers for their blatant awareness of how overworked said trope is with Jolene’s line, “I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me.”
While sometimes playing into antiquated tropes or minimizing the countless struggles faced by minorities during the 1950s and 60s, I still believe that The Queen’s Gambit may be the best Netflix original series of this year (besides documentaries, of course). Through captivating visuals and composition, and an even more enthralling storyline, the limited series portrays a unique and exciting perspective rarely seen in television. And that’s exactly what we need right now.