“It’s foolish to run the risk of going mad for vanity’s sake,” says former Kentucky chess champion Harry Beltik (Harry Melling, “The Devil All The Time”) in director Scott Frank’s riveting new drama “The Queen’s Gambit.” This quote hints at the price one pays on the journey to be the best and the dangers of the reckless hyperfixation required of all those worthy of the title “genius.” No one seems more familiar with the costs than Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Witch”), an orphan-turned-child-chess-prodigy during the height of the Cold War.
In a captivating performance, Anya Taylor-Joy captures the fire of tunnel-visioned protagonist Beth, as her trauma from losing her mother sets her on a cycle of escapism, filled with substance abuse and pouring herself into the only thing she understands: the game of chess. Beth describes the chess board not only as a place that makes sense to her, but as a place she can dominate.
With the guidance of the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp, “The Outsider”), Beth quickly picks up the game, beating everyone in her path. Mr. Shaibel’s support is crucial to Beth’s development as a chess player, and for the first of many times, we see chess and the camaraderie that comes with it supporting Beth, giving her family and community in the face of loss.
Yet amid her victories, we are reminded of her worsening addiction to tranquilizers. Her addiction is momentarily halted when she is adopted by the Wheatleys, a typical, unhappily married 1960s couple, complete with a husband (Patrick Kennedy, “Mrs. Wilson”) that is constantly taking “business trips” and a housewife (Marielle Heller, “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood”) left to cope with her unhappiness through substance abuse. The series does a thorough analysis of the way battling trauma and addiction go hand-in-hand, particularly when it comes to suffering that otherwise goes unnoticed. Mrs. Wheatley’s trauma and subsequent addiction parallels Beth’s, and as time goes on their relationship blossoms into one of mutual understanding and support that truly functions as the backbone of the entire series.
While the show has powerful dramatic elements throughout, the relationship between Beth and Mrs. Wheatley is what secures “The Queen’s Gambit” as a must-watch. Their sometimes turbulent, always supportive relationship encapsulates love and family between two imperfect individuals. Beth and Mrs. Wheatley are flawed, and at times they act selfishly and enable each other’s addictions. They have also gone through a lot, yet the show reaffirms time and time again that they are worthy of love and beyond that, that their love is a necessity. Their uniquely liberating relationship allows them to be themselves in a world where they otherwise felt trapped in their pain. Even in moments where one of them acts flawed in a way the other recognizes, they realize that you can’t force someone to not make mistakes. While they are a mother and daughter relationship, the relationship lacks any semblance of patronizing behavior. They want the best for the other person, but they never assert what they think is best over the other.
The building of family and support systems grounds this show as much as it grounds Beth. The series questions what it means to be alone versus supported, and what Beth can learn from both of these states of being. As an orphan, Beth has to build family from the ground up, and this goes beyond her relationship with her adoptive mother. There are so many moments that remind Beth she is never truly alone, even when she is at her most isolated: Mr. Shaibel lends Beth the money for her first chess competition; Beth’s friends check on her during her battle with addiction; Beth’s childhood best friend reminds her that they are family. While chess is the focal point of the series, it is obvious that interlaced between countless suspenseful matches, the true magic of “The Queen’s Gambit” lies within the love surrounding Beth and how it transforms her, and ultimately gives her the strength she needs to save herself.
I can’t emphasize this enough: You’ve got to see this show.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at email@example.com.