The following post discusses details from “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix and contains spoilers throughout.
Everyone around me was raving about “The Queen’s Gambit,” the Netflix series that, according to summaries, tells the story of a chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), struggling with addiction.
I confess that I am not fond of “genius” narratives — I find them often quite reductive and misleading about the authentic creative labor that goes into developing talent and perfoming exceptionally well. In a culture that considers itself a meritocracy, the “genius” trope is disconcertingly pervasive and almost always bundled with some uncommonly grave, ostensibly insurmountable obstacles that the genius in question must contend with in cultivating and using their extraordinary talent. These obstacles can be external, imposed upon the prodigious protagonist by a society ill-equipped or unwilling to acommodate the genius as they are; the obstacles can be internal — physiological or psycological challenges that interfere with the protagonist’s ability to thrive; they can also be a combination of the two, often implicating the protagonist’s complicity in thwarting themselves. When handled well in storytelling, any of these types of obstacles can help set the stage for a truly engaging, compelling, and ultimately cathartic experience for the audience.
In “The Queen’s Gambit,” the principle obstacle is clearly intended to be of the third category: the substance abuse and addiction that young Beth Harmon develops as a child in an orphanage and later exacerbates with her adoptive mother’s encouragement. The Netflix series appears to want to compound this hurdle with the wholly external socially constructed challenge that a woman who excels in a male-dominated fields must face. Both are legitimate difficulties to place in the protagonist’s path; somehow, “The Queen’s Gambit” fails in the opening, leaving itself utterly incapable of developing a meaningful endgame based on its stated premise.
Like a wide-eyed beginner thumbing through a rulebook and making each move per convention as they go, “The Queen’s Gambit” is painfully formulaic. It has a cloying paint-by-numbers feel about it and is so riddled with clichés that I started having auditory hallucinations of camera shutters clicking every time another hackneyed trope was trotted out.
Given that it is fiction, the miniseries is phenomenally dull — within the story itself there is zero conflict or challenge of any consequence: the promised “struggle”, per sé, with addiction never materializes; to be clear, there is certainly substance abuse, but Beth is never actually seen to actually struggle with it. Meanwhile the story attempts to ironically contest sexism by sidelining any serious representation of it or its consequences and focusing on the protagonist qua chess phenomenon, making everyone else in her world interested only in outcomes. The result is resoundingly hollow. Other women in the series — Beth’s mother, Beth’s adoptive mother, Beth’s female contemporaries in chess, Beth’s childhood best friend — all endure the indignities of sexism that are part and parcel of the culturally and historically relevant misogyny of the world she inhabits, but Beth herself remains blithely untouched by it.
On this count alone, Aristotle would give “The Queen’s Gambit” a failing grade on verisimilitude, if he even got this far into assessing it. The near-total lack of conflict even from within the story prevents it from establishing any development or sustaining any momentum; Beth never appears to exert any effort as she intuits everything about the game of chess from her first naïve encounter with it, and then proceeds to dispatch every opponent she faces, no matter how skilled, experienced, or indomitable, without even blinking. What, surely, is a protagonist without a meaningfully challenging antagonist? How can there be any progress or resolution without manifest conflict — even if only within oneself if need be?
Devoid of conflict, effort, development, hence zero growth for either the story or the protagonist, “The Queen’s Gambit” burdens its viewer with the responsibility of superimposing this missing substance onto the story: (Drugging children ? Gasp! Inadvertently turning them into addicts ? Bad! Drug & alcohol abuse? Just say NO!) As my friend quipped, it’s not subtle. This “project-your-own-moral-indignation-on-the-character’s-behalf” approach to storytelling does not work, especially when the protagonist herself does not experience any such conflict. The story itself takes pains to undermine the participatory efforts of any viewer who may be willing to play along by showing, time and again, that Beth’s experience bears out her belief that the pills she abuses catalyze her visionary clarity. Not once are we shown Beth performing poorly while under the influence of the pills; not once do we see her do exceptionally well without them until the very last, high stakes challenge, where she roundly defeats the heretofore invincible lifelong veteran grandmaster. Really?
[“Bullshit!” mutters Aristotle, rolling over in his grave.]
There are some lame suggestions of hubris here and there that feel painted on and which might have been engaging to contemplate; but they don’t really go anywhere. Ultimately, the wide-eyed, zero-affect dazed stare with which Beth Harmon blazes through her life from one exceptional height of chess championship to the next may ultimately be the only tenable mimetic representation of anything in this series: a chronically drug-addled persona.
So! Having said ALL that about “The Queen’s Gambit”, I can with good conscience say that the show’s popular appeal is nevertheless perfectly comprehensible:
After the terrifying rollercoaster ride we have all been on, constantly whiplashed by the despotic apathy to the fundamental wellbeing of humanity, nay, of Creation itself, that has been holding us hostage; after learning to cope with the chronic trauma of constantly teetering on the brink of a free-fall into unmitigated chaos, especially in these last few very long months; after finally closing our grasping fingers around the precious vestiges of basic common sense inexorably evanescing into nothing even as we look on; after learning to hold our breath and our babies under water for safety as all over the world malignant, crass, belligerent, narcissistic, mendacious, anti-fact autocrats and their authoritarian-loving enablers dominate and terrorize us all by casually obliterating all sense of security and faith in basic decency; after surviving the exposure and ascendancy of the heretofore vigorously and assiduously whitewashed putrid underbelly of gaslighting whiteness that has for centuries thrived on exploiting, manipulating, and brutalizing us, where chauvinist figures of authority charged with safeguarding the public weal and their help-meets, the unending parade of karens among us, tear through our shared humanity with casual malevolence; after the flagrantly exemplary spectacles of Amy Cooper and Derek Chauvin unleashing their entitled wrath on Black bodies deny us the luxury of averting our eyes and claiming innocent naïveté about the deeply noxious violence of whiteness that we tolerate and appease to get along and to get ahead…
After all that widespread trauma, upheaval, apocalypse, “The Queen’s Gambit” offers a benignly bland anodyne about an inoffensive, very conspicuously white young lady (and an orphan, no less) of safely and unquestionably prodigious talent (so no undue [white] privilege here, folks!); about the kindness of strangers (are you listening, Ms. DuBois!); about the thankless charm of aleatory community (we! are! fa-mileee!); about supportive men galore (I got all my sistahs with me!); with the requisite benevolent magical negro thrown in for good measure (deus ex machina much?). “The Queen’s Gambit” is that palliative palate cleanser of escapist bromides served up in a pleasingly unchallenging Bob-Ross alternate reality where once upon a time five cents could actually buy you something.
Now that I think about it, perhaps its endgame is actually more therapeutic than I had realized, a clever discovered attack. Aristotle takes considerable care to underscore the importance of catharsis “—the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” It took watching “The Queen’s Gambit” for me to finally find a way to purge the psychic toxins that had built up over these past few years into a blockade that, for some time, obstructed my ability to advance.