In chess, a gambit is an opening sequence in which one side sacrifices material in hopes of gaining a positional advantage, the queen’s gambit being the most famous among them. Now, if you don’t know anything about chess, you should still watch the Netflix miniseries "The Queen’s Gambit" for a multitude of reasons — the fact that it has become a global sensation being just one. I bring up the concept of a gambit, however, because the story of Beth Harmon — the central character in "The Queen’s Gambit" — is just that, a gambit, and the series certainly offers no shortage of the thrill and suspense that one would expect to accompany a gambit — and if you don’t play chess just take my word for it that gambits peak the scale on the chess excitement-o-meter.
Set in the 1960s, "The Queen’s Gambit" follows the story of Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor Joy (“The Witch,” “Emma”), as she grows up in a Kentucky orphanage, learning to play chess at a young age from the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel. Beth quickly proves herself to be a chess prodigy, exemplifying, in addition to her skill, the kind of no-frills attitude and dedication to the game necessary for greatness. While Beth certainly possesses an incredible natural affinity for the game of chess, her playing is also heavily aided by the use of tranquilizer pills which were handed out in the orphanage, presumably to keep the children calm and obedient.
The series takes us through Beth’s chess journey as she takes on increasingly tougher opponents and continues to defy the odds in the male-dominated sport. As much as the series is the story of success and empowerment, however, it is perhaps even more so a story about personal struggle. Along with her grand success, Beth also battles addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and intense feelings of personal isolation, and all these factors seem to get worse the higher she rises in the world of chess, further burying the baggage of a challenging upbringing with each new victory. As a viewer you can’t help but root for Beth Harmon while simultaneously wincing in horror at the price she pays as a result of genius.
In addition to motifs of personal struggle, “The Queen’s Gambit,” aptly named, is also a story of feminism and empowerment. Not only does Beth rise to the challenge of beating her male opponents, she also portrays a vision of sex and beauty in the game of chess, leaving her opponents breathless by her seductive poise. Her confidence is apparent both on and off the board, where she fearlessly takes on any opponent — whether it be a Grand Master or reporter — without a glimpse of fear showing. In a time when women were taught to be docile and subservient to their male counterparts, her confidence in herself is unwavered by the men who think they own the game.
Beth’s determination renders her a fiery female figure whose tenacity overpowers any criticisms she receives, sometimes to her detriment, as her confidence and strength is also a double edged sword. Despite her stern exterior, Beth’s need to prove her worth to those around her makes any failure in her eyes unacceptable. The inevitable losses lead to alcohol and drug infused benders and crippled relationships as she attempts to come to terms with imperfection. Her character’s tough exterior slowly breaks away as the story continues, and we begin to find that the true enemy to Beth is not her opponents, but herself.
While much of the series is dark and intense, perhaps what makes it so powerful is it’s empowering ending (warning: spoilers). Beth wins the big game against Borgov, but it is more of a personal victory than a chess victory, and as much a beginning as it is an ending. There is a lot to unpack in the final episode, and there are many heartwarming moments to pick from, but what comes to mind is the call Beth receives from her former chess tutors and friends. That’s the moment Beth is no longer alone; she is able to accept help and love. From Jolene, from Townes, from Benny, Harry and everyone on the phone and, eventually, even from Borgov.
What’s for sure is that "The Queen’s Gambit" is a story worth knowing, relevant for the current day. And whether you can spot a blackburne’s mate from eight moves away or you call the rook a ‘castle,’ "The Queen’s Gambit" has something for everyone. It’s an emotional roller coaster that’s worth the ride.