One of the most cathartic television moments of the year comes at the end of Netflixs The Queens Gambit, a seven-part drama about chess. For the past six and a half hours we have watched chess prodigy Beth Harmon struggle to make connections with people, pushing them away and seeking solace in the game she excels at because I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And its predictable, so if I get hurt, I have only myself to blame.
Now, for the first time, she is able to admit that she has people who support her. As she settles down to play the most important game of her life, surrounded by friends and good wishes, she is finally at peace with herself. It is strikingly affecting and has rung such a chord with viewers the show has become a word-of-mouth hit.
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Walter Teviss much-loved 1983 novel follows a young orphan with an almost preternatural ability to read a chess board, who juggles an addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs with a desire to become the greatest player in the world. Scott Frank and Allan Scotts adaptation, with a nuanced and near-perfect performance from Anya Taylor-Joy in the central role, is thoughtful, superior television, asking interesting questions about power, addiction and the nature of genius.While popular culture is full of depictions of male genius, from Matt Damons Will Hunting to The Big Bang Theorys Sheldon, brilliant women are rarely shown on our screens.
Indeed, The Queens Gambit has so resonated with viewers that a report in Vanity Fair recently suggested more girls and women were enquiring about the game in the US while sites from Amazon to Debenhams have started listing the best chess sets with which to channel your inner Beth. Meanwhile, fans have written about how they were inspired by the series to try and teach their children the game, and a recent Sunday Times article covered the rise of women players.
I first picked up Teviss book as a bored teenager browsing the second hand shelves of my local charity shop in Edinburgh. At the time, I had no idea that the author had also written The Hustler and The Colour of Money. Beth learned of her mothers death from a woman with a clipboard, begins Tevis. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. He goes on to quote from the subsequent article, which concludes: Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say. Instantly, I was hooked.
The complicated Beth, unapologetic in her desire to win, holds interest from the beginning. Orphaned at a young age after her mother deliberately crashes her car, she finds herself struggling in the childrens home she is sent to until she comes across the janitor Mr Shaibel playing chess in the basement. Drawn to the game, she convinces him to teach it to her and swiftly proves to be that rarest of things, a natural.
But the real excitement came because I had never seen this story told before. In the 1980s, geniuses in books, in film, on television, and, it often seemed, in real life, were always men. The world was full of stories of clever young men battling their demons while delivering off-the-cuff one-liners, but the notion that a woman could be at the centre of such a tale had never occurred to me.
Tevis was advised in the chess scenes by the great Russian master, Garry Kasparov. He modelled some of Beths early life on his own: as a young boy he spent time in a convalescent home with a rheumatic heart. While there, he both learnt to play chess and developed an addiction to the Phenobarbitals he and the other children were regularly dosed with. He would eventually find an outlet in playing pool, the game he made famous in his first novel, The Hustler.
Doubly rare is that this is no predictable tale of a woman having to battle sexism and injustice Beth is not only accepted but often embraced by the men she plays against.When she defeats an early competitor Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), he stays around to support her, while the two competition organisers who initially dismiss her later become good friends, cheering her on in competitions across the world.
Nor does this series trot out the standard clichs about grief and addiction: Beth might suffer many losses throughout her young life but the series is clear that her addiction is not born from the grief but rather from a (misguided) conviction that it is what fuels her talent, that without them she wouldnt be half the player she is. Beth is her own worst enemy: consistently sabotaging her own career, drinking heavily before her most important game, hoarding pills, but she doesnt turn to drugs as a way of escape but rather as a way of facing her fears. It is how many addicts initially feel that they are in control of their addiction, rather than the other way around.
It is a careful exploration of what makes a genius, and more interestingly, how it feels to try and live with that talent. We are used to seeing troubled male geniuses blowing people out, offending those who are trying to help them and doing their own thing regardless of cost, but is rare to see a woman in the role. Beth never pretends that she doesnt want to win. Neither the book nor the show sand away her edges, there is no attempt to disguise the ruthlessness at her heart, driven by her belief that she is alone in the world with only her talent to help her.
But thats not true, as she comes to learn. The most resonant dramas of this year, from Normal People to I May Destroy You, have been about humanitys need to make connections, our desire to reach out to other people, the importance of friendship and love. In The Queens Gambit, Beth is both drawn to and repulsed by the need for connection. Having lost her mother to suicideas an eight-year-old child, she is unable to trust overtures of friendship, yet at the same time tries desperately to form a bond with the fragile woman who adopts her (a touchingly vulnerable Marielle Heller).
Then there isJolene (a scene-stealing Moses Ingram), Beths fellow orphan who, in the early days, shares her love of prescription pills (although in Jolenes case she takes the pills to cope with the fact that as a young black girl in 1950s America, she will never be adopted by the smiling families queuing at the orphanage doors).
Jolene offers Beth friendship and help as a child, covering for her when she plays chess and making her laugh when she feels alone. Yet the shows depiction of that friendship is perhaps its biggest misstep. In the book Jolene is a fully fleshed out character with space given to the girls childhood friendship and reliance on each other. A minor falling out devastates Beth and fuels her distrust of becoming too close to people later on. And it is Beth who reaches out to Jolene for help when her life is falling apart. She will understand her she is her equal.
In the series, though, that friendship is downplayed and Jolene all but disappears until the final episode when she appears out of the blue to help Beth. It might seem like a small change but its an important one: the shows only black character becomes little more than a prop to help the white lead.
It is pivotal, though: the moment at which Beth realises that she is loved. Throughout the series Beth both reaches out for and rejects other friendships, from the awkward reconciliation with early opponent Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) to her competitive relationship her the equally driven rival Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), but it is only at the end, when everything seems entirely against her, that Benny offers to help her, Jolene arrives, and the rest of the opponents she has conquered over the years turn up to support her in her game against Russian master Borgov.
It is an emotional denouement to a beautifully paced, wonderful-looking and surprisingly subversive drama that explores grief, addiction and success, but is most poignantly of all a story about friendship. This year of all years, it speaks to us more than ever.
The Queens Gambit is available on Netflix
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