“Do You See It Now?”

Chess and storytelling in The Queen’s Gambit

Young Beth (Isla Johnston) hallucinates a chessboard on the ceiling

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis (The Hustler), the new Netflix limited series follows Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who claws her way to the top of the sport while fighting — and often, succumbing — to her addiction to pills and alcohol.

In its first fifteen minutes, The Queen’s Gambit presents as many opportunities for terrible things to happen as any horror movie I’ve seen.

A five-year-old girl left orphaned by a car accident remembers her mother’s last words before the impact: “Close your eyes.” Clearly, there’s more to this “accident” than meets the eye. Afterward, this girl is taken to an austere and dusty orphanage run by drably-costumed religious fanatics who force-feed their charges vitamins and tranquilizers every morning. Then, the girl encounters the creepy custodian who seemingly lives in a secluded corner of the orphanage’s grungy basement.

There is a deliberate ambivalence — even ominousness — to so much of the early episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.

We are set up to anticipate a number of dark turns only to be taken down another narrative path. New state law forbids the orphanage from continuing to feed the children tranquilizers; the director of the orphanage is stern and religious, but sympathetic to the girl’s situation; and when the girl finally ventures into the basement, she doesn’t encounter a monster. The creepy custodian, Mr. Shaibel, is just a stoic recluse who enjoys playing chess by himself.

Maybe this orphanage isn’t the cradle of evil it seemed.

Mr. Shaibel teaches Beth the game of chess. The daughter of a brilliant but troubled mathematician, Beth is immediately drawn to the game. She recognizes it as a complex series of patterns, movements, and strategies rather than a game of chance. As she studies the various avenues and pathways to victory, she becomes as close to a master of the game as a girl her age possibly could.

However, a dark side to Beth’s new passion emerges. Her chess excellence seems directly connected to her recreational use of hoarded tranquilizers. A hallucination of a chessboard appears above her bed every night. She uses it to map out the games she plays with the custodian. Her dependence on the pills reaches a fever pitch when she experiences withdrawal symptoms. She overdoses after stealing mouthfuls from the orphanage infirmary. As punishment, her chess privileges are suspended.

As an adolescent, Beth is adopted by the Wheatleys, a deeply miserable middle-class white couple. While Mr. Wheatley maintains a purposeful physical and emotional distance from his wife and Beth (and, in effect, us), the troubled Mrs. Wheatley is equally hard to read.She seems sympathetic to Beth but incapable of being present. It makes her come off as aloof at best and uncaring at worst.

When Beth realizes her adoptive mother has been prescribed the same tranquilizers she became hooked on as a child, Beth’s addiction to both the pills and chess reemerge. When Mrs. Wheatley realizes just how much Beth’s chess playing could benefit her, a self-satisfied smile creeps across her face. Will she become comrade or parasite?

In a way, she becomes both. She allows the underage Beth to live out her dreams of chess supremacy while she benefits from their lavish hotel stays, elegant dinners, and a new sense of self. The two dine well and drink together, trade stories of their new adventures, and eventually enjoy a loving relationship more akin to a close friendship than a mother-daughter bond.

The rest of the series explores Beth’s successes and failures as a player, daughter, and friend. Her dependence on tranquilizers morphs into an addiction to alcohol. This correlation between her chess prowess and her drug use finds her wrestling with the question: must success as a chess player must come at the expense of her sobriety and sanity?

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) Kubrick-staring at us

When I first saw the trailer for the show, I figured the answer to that question would be a seven-episode slow-burn that led to a devastating and resounding “Yes.”

I was wrong.

I know next to nothing about chess. Watching The Queen’s Gambit brought me no closer to being a grandmaster.

But I understood what I needed to. The show familiarizes you with the stakes of chess, the process of the game. It presents chess as a series of possible paths, very different, very many, but finite. There’s only so much you can do within those finite patterns to win a game against masters.

It is a game that has been studied, mastered, and largely “figured out.” Skilled players must take these strategies and use them in creative ways. The more turns you take, the narrower the path to victory becomes. Possibilities become inevitabilities. The content of a game — or a story, for that matter — isn’t nearly as important to a successful conclusion as the way you string it all together.

Chess — at least the way it’s presented in The Queen’s Gambit — is a lot like storytelling. In theory, anything can happen in a story. In practice, there are parameters. The more narrative turns you take, the more narrow the paths to an endpoint become.

The parameters of a story are usually determined by genre or tone. For example, you could have a rom-com where a monster bursts in at the 60-minute mark, but if it completely betrays the world-building you’ve done to that point, it makes you seem less like a master of suspense and shock and more like an amateur.

Every story has its own particular boundaries. The worst thing that could happen in a movie like Legally Blonde (Elle Woods abandoning her newfound passion for law) is miles away from the worst thing that could happen in a movie like The Silence of the Lambs (Clarice Starling failing to save the senator’s daughter, becoming a victim of Buffalo Bill herself). These are the dramatic stakes for these particular protagonists.

Each of Beth’s actions seems to open up new sets of possibilities. If her sobriety is her sacrifice, her king is her sanity. Each choice she makes brings her closer to or further from her own ruin.

What makes The Queen’s Gambit special is how it makes even its cushiest, sweetest narrative turns feel unexpected. As she burns her way through competition after competition, Beth picks up admirers and makes friends out of enemies. They become the family she never knew she had. The humbling act of accepting their help, and also paying them back, is part of her journey.

Hers is a story of hope, told with the modern expectation of fated misery and self-destruction hovering over it.

There is no huge sad reveal. The show telegraphs the true circumstances of her mother’s death from the moment we glimpse it. In so many of these hard-hitting dramas, the past is something miserable, unknowable, and often unbeatable. Beth, at times, is almost determined to live up to her mother’s troubled legacy. If her mother was crazy, maybe she is too. Maybe that explains everything. It certainly gives her an excuse, a fantasy of imperfection, to fall back on.

By undoing our expectations of what the show may be, it instead becomes a meditation on what it means to make a contented life out of a troubled childhood. Beth’s perusal of past chess games allows her to see where she went wrong and how she can improve. Just as she learns, navigates, and adapts to changes in each individual game she plays (or replays), she can do the same in her own life until she sees a future in which she is loved — and capable of loving — more clearly.

They/he. Writer of fiction, screenplays, plays, reviews, essays, and poetry. Chicago. https://linktr.ee/jshetina

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store