I’ll start off by saying that I haven’t read the book, so my view is based only on the miniseries. I also don’t play chess, so I can’t comment on that. I will comment on the way the series were made, the themes, the messages and the overall feel. Please have in mind that there will be many spoilers, so if you haven’t watched it yet, don’t read the article now and come back later.
“Queen’s Gambit” appeared on my Netflix feed and, being it was about chess, it intrigued me. In the virtual world where almost everything revolves around rom-coms, zombies, and butts, it was a pleasant surprise that Netflix made a show about chess. And a female chess player on top of it! Sounded like a great premise. Before watching it, I checked the ratings on IMDB and read the synopsis on Wikipedia. It wasn’t one of those long and detailed plots, but a short synopsis where, among other things, it said that the main protagonist, apart from being a chess prodigy, was dealing with addiction to pills and alcohol. Sounded like a gripping character, a genius battling her own demons. It turned out that “battling with her demons” was barely touched, only in one episode and slightly so in a couple of others.
The series is interesting to watch, though. It’s interesting to follow how Elizabeth Harmon, the future grandmaster and the best chess player in the world, found herself on this path. Having lost her mother at a young age, she ended up in an orphanage that wasn’t as bad as the orphanages are usually represented. It had its own things, namely the pills that were being given to the children on daily basis. The pills were passed by as vitamins although they were tranquilizers. The green pill helped Beth focus and visualize whole chess games, which she would do for a long time before she was able to buy herself a chess set. It reminded me of the pills Judy Garland was forced to take to stay awake and fall asleep on command, to which she got addicted. If we take the pills out of the equation, the orphanage was a relatively normal place to live in, compared to how orphanages are usually represented. It was here that the janitor taught her how to play chess.
Later on, Beth gets adopted by a couple that is neither too good nor too bad towards her. The couple soon splits up and she stays with the mother in the house. Even though the mother is not a bad person, she doesn’t particularly cater to Beth’s needs, that is, until she figures out that chess can earn them a lot of money which is pretty much the only reason she became supportive of Beth’s chess-playing.
The rest of the series follows Beth’s journey onto becoming the greatest chess player in the world which, you guessed it, she achieves in the last episode.
Here come the cliches – Beth had to start from the bottom and over the course of the series to become wealthy and world-famous. This is basically another rags-to-riches storyline that revolves around chess. It’s another fine example of the American Dream, so fine that it’s overly clichéd. If you strip away the chess, you get yet another teen-movie where the main protagonist is being shunned by the pretty girls in the high school only to become the most popular one in the last scene. Beth becomes popular much earlier, but the series still follow the same pattern (and we, supposedly, haven’t noticed it).
What to say about Beth’s personality? She is very focused on chess, in fact, she is only focused on chess. Her emotions are bland and she doesn’t appear to be either a good friend or to care too much about anyone. She’s not a bad person but she’s not good either. See the pattern? Characters are usually not good nor bad. They don’t have any nuances to their personalities either. They are just there, as supporting roles to Beth. The good thing is that Beth, apart from being a girl, is depicted as being good looking and fashionable, contrary to how people would imagine a chess player, which is one step away from the cliches.
Here comes the propaganda – first, the American Dream. No matter how small you start, if you’re good enough, you can rule the world. It’s a nice ideal but it’s overused. We need different approaches and different perspectives – the American Dream is not the only way to go.
And of course, Russians. Granted, Russians have always been the best at chess and it wouldn’t be viable to have omitted a powerful Russian player. However, the American girl beating a Russian chess grandmaster in Moscow is brow-raising. Seriously? Another Americans-beat-Russians tv spectacle? The American obsession with the Russians seeping into a Netflix tv show is becoming boring. Sure, one may say that in this case, it’s normal given that Russian are indeed chess masters, so it would be stupid not including them, and that the plot is situated in the 60s. It would all be fine if it was only for the historicity sake, but the way Russians are portrayed in any movie/tv show as either criminals or prostitutes, another tv show that represents Russians as America’s archenemies, albeit a chess player (surrounded by KGB agents) is unnecessary.