“The Queen’s Gambit” Is a Chessboard of Struggle, Addiction and Triumph


Anya Taylor-Joy stars in the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit.” (Courtesy of Facebook)

Sarah Sulc, Contributing Writer

About two weeks ago, on Oct. 23, a new limited series called “The Queen’s Gambit,” starring Anya Taylor Joy as main character Beth Harmon, premiered on Netflix. The adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name rose to Netflix’s number one spot almost as soon as it was released. When my friend recommended a show about chess, addiction and mental illness, I was compelled to head over to her apartment, hunker down on the couch and tune in. I did not leave that couch until the seven-hour series was finished. 

The series opens up with a pivotal sceneI won’t reveal too much, but I will say that the scene occurs again later in the show, perfectly tying together Beth Harmon’s character arc from age nine to 22. Beth Harmon is an orphan who finds herself in the Methuen Home for Girls after her mother takes her own life. While in the orphanage, she struggles with addiction to sedatives (something along the lines of 1950s Xanax) that are force-fed to every orphan while learning chess from the irritable but astute custodian Mr. Shaibel. Her time at Methuen is captured entirely in episode one, while the six consecutive episodes detail her life from age 15 to 22 after she is adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatly. 

One of the most captivating components of the show is Joy’s acting skills. She admirably captures a 15-year-old’s struggle in a new school in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky after being shut away from the world for six years in Methuen. She perfects the evolution of a young chess prodigy to a 22-year-old leading champion in a male-dominated sport. Addiction plays a role throughout all of Beth’s years, aiding her intuitive and impressive chess-playing skills. Beth’s addiction seems to be the most compelling theme of the show, but be careful not to miss the several other thematic breakthroughs hidden under the surface. 

We never quite understand everything we’d like to know about the people in Beth’s life. There seems to always be something left unsaid about her deceased mother, Mr. Shaibel, her love interests, her orphanage friend Jolene and the endless number of people who intellectually challenge her during the lengths of her career. Yet somehow, this is not a detriment to the show at all. In fact, it only encourages us to further focus our attention towards Beth and her development. 

As we focus our efforts towards understanding the agonizing intricacies of Beth Harmon, we are sucked into her world. What I really mean to say here is that “The Queen’s Gambit” is a wonderful period piece. Not only are the sets breathtaking, but the encapsulating and intense shots of Beth and her chess games allow us to transcend reality and find ourselves walking in her Mary Janes. What’s impressive about this is the set and costume designers’ ability to capture not only 1960s rural America, but also locations like Cincinnati, New York City, Paris, Mexico City and Russia. Viewers of “The Queen’s Gambit” can live through and experience 1960s world travel in just seven episodes. I think I speak for most of us when I say that this may be exactly what we need in the midst of 2020 America. 

If you’re looking for a way to time travel with little effort, I highly recommend you tune into “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix. Through Beth’s eyes, you’ll learn about trauma, addiction, the importance of having a support system and maybe even a little chess. Perhaps I can blame it on my failure to take a single break between episodes, but “The Queen’s Gambit” sucked me into the convoluted, frenetic and harrowing world that is Beth Harmon’s story, and I have zero regrets.