'The Queen’s Gambit' focuses on the psychological and moral growth of a chess prodigy

Category: Television and Streaming

Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, Netflix’s new limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) from the age of 8 to 22 (in the 1950s to ‘60s) as she struggles to pave her way into the male-dominated world of competitive chess while striving for self-reliance to a fault and fighting her addiction.

When Beth is admitted to a Kentucky orphanage at the tender age of 8, the damage has already been done. The ramifications of her father’s betrayal and abandonment and mother’s overt/covert messages baked deeply into her psyche are unmistakable. She subconsciously follows her mother’s life lessons — “Men never fail to disappoint you.” “Men cannot be trusted.” “Stay strong and learn to take care of yourself.” And she allows herself to fall victim to this self-fulfilling prophecy.

She is quiet and sullen, but once underestimated or brushed away, she is feisty enough to return a cold glare of “Oh yeah, I’ll show you!” In the basement of the orphanage, Beth stumbles on the only gift from her mother with a doctorate from Cornell in mathematics. When Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor, allows her to play the first game of chess, she suddenly finds herself in the driver’s seat for the first time in her life! With the help from tranquilizers (‘the sedatives of the ’60s’) dispensed daily at the school infirmary, she learns to play chess brilliantly and creatively. Little does she know the price she has to pay for her sensational talent. Ascending steeply through the Grandmaster ranks is a lonely, solitary endeavor.

Weighed down heavily by crippling insight into the predicament of well-educated women trapped in unhappy marriages, Beth does not know what she’s missing until she is adopted. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) is yet another ‘60s housewife whose musical talent is stifled by her mundane homemaker duties. Alma is neither a perfect mother nor a role model; she enables Beth to engage in all kinds of addictive behavior. However, her mere presence as an ally, advocate, and confidante gives Beth a glimpse of what life could be like with more freedom and self-confidence. In other words, Alma gives Beth wings to fly. As the Dalai Lama XIV says, “Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back, and reasons to stay.” Will this marvel ever find the “roots to come back and reasons to stay”?

Don’t be discouraged by the title. This masterful narrative will let you experience Beth’s tumultuous life on autopilot for self-destruction thanks to her “crazy” mother and absent father. Now isn’t that relatable?

The Queen’s Gambit premieres Friday, October 23 on Netflix.

About the Author

Meg Mimura is a TV critic who actually watches shows zealously in search of thought-provoking and paradigm shifting human drama worth our precious time. She is a member of Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter.