Published on November 29th, 2020 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
The Queen’s Gambit
Kim discovers The Queen’s Gambit only sounds like a snooty bore about Her Majesty’s favourite jewelled coin-purse. It might actually be the Netflix series of the year.
The surface story of The Queen’s Gambit (2020) is how a beautiful young girl from a orphanage becomes the most brilliant chess player in the world. That makes it sound like Rocky (1976), but pretty boring because it seems unlikely a movie about chess could be thrilling. Not true – this is a great story, layered with sub-plot and delivered at F1 speed through the 1960s, braking only occasionally to dazzle us with sauntering fashion, retro modern furniture design and impeccable soundtrack. You might want to get a glass of red or fix a Gibson before beginning.
Our hero of the story, Beth Harmon (b. Nov, 2, 1948), is only 9-years-old when social services drops her off at the Methuen Home for wayward girls. At this time, real life facilities such as the fictional Methuen Home regularly dispensed pills to “steady nerves” or “even the disposition” of patients. Those little green pills are Lithium, a brand of benzodiazepines, tranquilizers we know today as Valium or Xanax. Dependance and abuse are common with these pills, but even more so for Beth. We soon see that she already suffers from the predisposition of epigenetic imprinting from her parents.
The Queen’s Gambit is about more than chess. It’s about trauma, abandonment, and dealing with the apprehension and misunderstanding of love after. It’s about risk and trust, money and fame from gritty determination, the American dream. And it’s about epigenetics, the study of inherited trauma. Trauma can leave a chemical mark on your genes that is then passed along to the next generation. Simply put, a parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. This idea may have been smirked at twenty years ago, but since the Human Genome Project in 2003, this field has rapidly accelerated with convincing results. This theory pertains to The Queen’s Gambit as Beth confronts her past and we the viewers become to understand it. The layers of story depth unfold like origami, a complicated creation by way of a step-by-step, systematic process. We learn that Beth’s mother was a gifted, published mathematician who had mental health issues and severe trauma of her own. Cold parents of her own. Passed down to Beth, it is so apparent that Mr. Shaibel gravely warns her, “People like you have a hard time. Two sides of the same coin. You have your gift, [turns over coin] and you have what it costs. Hard to say what that will be for you, but you’ve got so much anger in you, you’ll have to be careful.”
Beth swaggers through the series like a rock star dressed as a shy girl. The little green pills, her booze and her lovers play a part, as does her genius, obsession and trauma. She struggles to bond with the people around her in a meaningful way. Her friends are misfits and outliers who revere Beth, even while they pity her, and it tasks them. It all creates a maudlin joy to The Queen’s Gambit. You won’t know exactly what I mean by that until you watch it, but think of ice over concrete. Only a thin veneer, painted white with coloured designs, sets the stage for a magnificent presentation of battle and ballet. The surface layer is where you see what you what to see – the glamour, the style, the success – but beneath lies the hard, underlying reasons it can even exist. In other words, this maudlin joy is the result of seeing Beth triumph despite her foundation of anguish and grief.
But what a slick surface it is! Series director Scott Frank must have a bionic eye, because every single frame looks like it could be a photograph on exhibit. The story, as lean as a cheetah, sometimes pausing and swishing her tail as though she’s not really up to anything at all – just standing there being beautiful – suddenly lunges forward without warning. As the Vogues You’re the One plays over images without dialogue, the story reveals so much, so fast, it starts to feel like a frolicking romp rather than a cautionary tale of obsession and addiction.
As if to make my point for me, retail studies in the United States show that the sale of chess sets has increased by over one-hundred-twenty-five percent since the Netflix series arrived last month. Viewers are clearly mesmerized by Beth’s genius ability to dominate chess on a world stage (the feel-good orphan-to-champion part of the story), rather than being staggered by her dangerous demons. In fact, the show somehow implies that the pills unlocked Beth’s genius, and continues to show her succeeding where most addicts would have lost it all. It would be nice to see a statistic from the US indicating that addiction awareness and help programs surged since release of The Queen’s Gambit, but I could find no such article.
This limited series absotively delivers more verve and vogue than addiction warning, but the depths of it all hold enough dark secrets for contemplation. And hovering just above her dispair, Beth glides and glows, her pretty eyes gleaming as the clocks click, the pieces clack, and the chess board swirls and dances as though it were full-contact ballet. The film style and song choices are whip-smart, and that’s how most viewers will appreciate these seven, all-too-short episodes.