Note: This article contains spoilers to the Netflix series, "The Queen's Gambit."
Watch the discussion with the author here:
If you haven’t already binged “The Queen’s Gambit,” or are currently in the middle of binging the new uber-popular Netflix mini-series, then certainly someone has suggested that you do. For most viewers, the seven-part show is as satisfying as checkmate after a long, grueling game. (Literally or metaphorically speaking.)
If you’ve ever tried to explain to someone why they should watch “The Queen’s Gambit,” it’s not an easy sell. A show about a female chess prodigy from Lexington, Kentucky in the 1950s and 1960s? It doesn’t sound captivating, exciting or sexy; it might conjure a faint whiff of boring. And it’s not even based on a validating true story – it’s derived from a 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis.
And yet, viewers are sucking down this show like sweet tea in the South – even if we can’t tell the difference between a rook and a knight. The Queen’s Gambit is a show about chess that’s not about chess. So why is this show wooing us so hard? The answer is multi-layered, and definitely not as dark and light as the squares on the board.
Here are six reasons why we love the show, and one reason why some question it.
1. The fashion / style
From the opening scene, protagonist Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnston and later Anya Taylor-Joy) is a one-woman parade of mod minidresses, statement head scarves, cool coats and sunglasses that hiss “the cat’s meow.” (Anyone else even love her dorky baby bangs? My hair stylist doesn’t, but I found them adorable.) The extraordinary style of the show goes beyond wardrobe. Every scene is a vintage, nostalgic photo come to life. Whether Harmon is in a swanky, mid-century hotel in Paris and Moscow or in her mother’s wallpapered,”Mad Men”-ish dream of a living room, every physical detail is delicious. Once again, I was flooded with nostalgia for an era in which I never lived.
2. The escapism
Many of us haven't traveled in 2020, so seeing airports and ice buckets in faraway hotel rooms is painfully appealing. Thus, “The Queen’s Gambit” gives us literal escapism, something many of us desperately need during a world pandemic. Both the visual and the narrative suggests a fairy tale in a storybook while also being extremely relatable and timeless in theme. The "happily ever after" ending comes from Harmon's predictable-but-preferred victory in both the game of chess and with her demons. It creates a feel-good reality we want to dwell in for long periods of time. At least for the rest of 2020.
3. The passion
Beth Harmon loves chess. She is obsessed with chess. She eats, drinks, sleeps and hallucinates the game on a level that most of us will never experience for anything – or anyone. Such focused, compulsory desire consumes her life – giving it deep meaning and reason– and leads her to enchanting and stimulating places (Las Vegas in the 60s? Paris? Yes, please!) It also brings her monetary success (which affords her to buy gorgeous clothing and home decor), fame and romance. While most of us toil away wondering what this is all for, the Beth Harmons of the World have a clear-cut purpose that’s extremely enviable.
4. The celebration of smartness
The Queen's Gambit takes place in a world that seems the opposite of our own these days: one where intellect is glamorous, where math and science are fact and where people behave honorably and respectfully, even when they lose. Harmon's competitors were steely and aggressive (as was she), but when one of them finally resigned, they extended a handshake and a few words of awe.
5. The wrestling of demons
“Gambit” is a rags-to-riches story about a woman overcoming great odds. Harmon is brilliant and driven, but she also struggles with addiction – to pills, alcohol and winning. Throughout the series, we watch her go in and out of losing control of her life, but she always rallies in a way that’s refreshing – never predictable or judgy and always believable for her character. Harmon dangles from the edge, but she never falls. And in the end, she does win – in more ways than one.
6. The lack of stereotypes
Harmon’s demons are most likely born from the darkness of her childhood. Her mother’s death forces Harmon to live in an oppressive orphanage where parentless young girls are fed tranquilizers to keep them “agreeable.” She discovers chess from the school janitor in the basement of the orphanage, perhaps the only man to truly believe in her, but she then enters the competitive chess scene which is dominated by the males who are skeptical of her talents (although they never physically or emotionally attempt to dominate her; there are no #metoo moments in "Gambit", thankfully). And yet, Harmon persists. With saucer-sized widespread eyes and a willowy frame, she is delicate in appearance, but never weak. Nor is she “nice” – an artificial, unsustainable quality demanded of women then and now.
Harmon’s relationship with her mother, Alma (the splendid Marielle Heller), bucks every mother-daughter stereotype. Alma adopts Harmon when she is a teenager after losing a biological child. Her husband leaves her shortly after, broke and alone. Like many housewives of the 1950s, Alma is a functional alcoholic and miserable with her uneventful life. At first, she has visions of her new daughter joining school clubs designed for girls. When Alma learns of Harmon's chess skills, and that she can make large amounts of money competing, we are led to believe she is going to take advantage of her adoptive daughter as her agent. But she doesn't. Instead, the two embark on adventures together and both grow in real and different ways.
The relationship between the two is loving, inspiring and empathetic. It not only defies the common stereotype that teen girls don't get along with their mothers, but that adoptive mothers aren't "real" mothers.
And yet, despite all the praise, we have one critical question at the end:
1. Would we love the show as much if the protagonist wasn’t thin and pretty?
I soul-searched this one and came up with no, probably not. The beauty and grace of the actor was very much a part of the appeal of the show's entirety. Does her likeness to a porcelain doll undercut the story of a strong, undefinable woman? Or does it play against the stereotype that chess players can’t look like models? There are scenes where she is gratuitously filmed in her undies, but for me, it all worked toward developing a character who is both feminine and fragile as well as independent, confident and tough. The beauty of the show transcends Harmon's face and body. I enjoyed eyeing up her sweetheart necklines and tight turtleneck sweaters as much as I did her watching her long fingers float above the chess board before settling on exactly the right piece.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.