The Queens Gambit

The Queens Gambit, a Netflix limited series was released on October 23rd, 2020. There were eight episodes and I watched the whole thing in a couple days. In a word, it was brilliant, and last night at the Golden Globe awards it won Best Picture in a limited series, and Anya Taylor-Joy won best actress in a limited series for the show. As you may know from my writing, I’m a movie buff, always have been. I like movies not only for the entertainment value but also for the art of movie making. During this pandemic when we’ve all found ourselves confined to our homes, I’ve found a list of television series’ that I’ve liked. I’m not actually much of a TV watcher, but it seems I’ve become one, inadvertently.

The Queens Gambit was originally a novel released in 1983 by Walter Tevis and is about a young orphan who discovers at the age of nine that she is a chess genius. The story covers a variety of subjects including treatment of orphans in the 1950’s, genius, madness, drug addiction, and misogyny. The plot centers around Beth Harmon, a nine year old girl who is abandoned by her father, and her math genius mother tries to kill herself and Beth by driving her car into an oncoming truck. The mother dies, and Beth is sent to an orphanage. The orphanage gives the children barbiturates to keep them calm (something that actually used to take place) and Beth becomes addicted. At the orphanage she meets the janitor who plays chess. He teaches her to play and it soon becomes obvious that she’s a prodigy.

The children are given two pills each day. One is a barbiturate, the other is a vitamin and they are expected to take them immediately. Some of the kids hold them under their tongues and take them at night to help them sleep. Instead of helping her sleep, Beth finds that the drug helps her concentrate and she envisions a chess board on the ceiling of her dorm room. She is able to go through the chess moves and play games while “seeing” the board in her mind on the ceiling. When the laws change about giving kids drugs, the children are cut off from the barbiturates and Beth finds she’s addicted. She breaks into the locked drug room and swallows a handful of pills. Winding up in the hospital and having her stomach pumped, she is punished by the orphanage by having chess taken away from her. She then finds that she can envision the chess board on the ceiling without the drugs and continues to play in her mind.

Beth is adopted at thirteen years old by a women who’s looking for a companion, and her uncaring husband. The husband abandons them and the mother has a drinking and drug problem. Beth begins to play chess again, and soon becomes a state champion. The rest of the series is about Beth and her struggles with drugs, and acceptance as a young girl/women in a traditionally boys/men’s activity and her meteoric rise to her goal of U.S. champion. At the end of the series she beats the Russian champion with the help of several male chess players she meets during her chess career. You are left to wonder what happens next. Does she go on to become world champion, does she kick her drug habit for good and find acceptance from her peers and herself?

The directing, the acting, the cinematography, set decoration, costumes, and virtually everything about the series is superb. I hope it goes on to win more awards. The social issues for me at least, are what’s important here. The relationship of genius and madness (here’s a good article about that), acceptance of women in traditionally men’s activities, sports, etc., the treatment of children, drug and alcohol addiction, coming of age, friendship, and sex. Beth’s teen years are in the 1960’s and while much of that time period’s social upheaval is not covered in the movie, we all know it was taking place. If you’re interested in these social issues, I urge you to watch the series. It is beautifully done. Most of it was filmed in Canada and Germany while the series takes place in the U.S., France, Mexico, and Russia. The set’s are fantastic and the lighting is superb, while the acting is second to none. Even if you’re not much of a TV watcher, give it a try. I loved it.


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