The Queen’s Gambit can most succinctly be described as a series that explores the two-sided nature of obsession and addiction, and it uses one very engaging young woman and the world of chess to do so.
And it works really well. The seven-episode series is pure entertainment, easy to binge and rewarding if taken slow. It is well made, with beautiful shots and intricate themes that use both imagery and story, as well as a plot rife with conflict and suspense.
I really enjoyed it, and most of the people I have talked to enjoyed it as well.
I am going to repeat how much I liked the show, because the rest of this post is going to nitpick one part of the series that I have trouble wrapping my brain around, and I do not want the takeaway to be that the nitpick invalidated the show or decreased my appreciation for or enjoyment of it.
As I stated, The Queen’s Gambit illuminates the thin veneer between addiction and obsession. Beth Harmon is addicted and obsessed with chess as well as substances. And the two are not mutually exclusive, her substances aided her chess mind and journey, and chess aided her ability to use and experiment with substances. This worked in the negative as well, her obsession with chess deepened her addiction to substances and her reliance on substances harmed her ability to play chess.
This is best seen in the teaser scene in the beginning of the first episode, which is revisited later as a culminating moment in the show. Beth is awakened in her hotel room in Paris, which is a mess of empty alcohol bottles and drugs. She lunges out of a filled bathtub in full dress, scrambles to get ready, leaves her room and runs through a busy hotel, eyes following her as she does so. She enters a room where paparazzi light her up with their flash bulbs. She gains her composure, walks to a chess table and shakes hands with a mysterious and disapproving man, who we later find out is the greatest chess player in the world, as a chess clock already ticks away, indicating that Beth is very late, and the game is already underway. At this point, the teaser at the beginning of the series ends. When we revisit this scene later, in context, we watch Beth implode against the man she had spent her whole life striving for an opportunity to face. She was beyond dehydrated, guzzling pitchers of water. She was scattered and unfocused, her eyes darted everywhere (Her eyes and hands are the ways we understand what is going on in her chess matches, which is a competition without a scoreboard to tell an uneducated audience how it is going. When her eyes are focused and move with purpose and her hands are on the table or under the chin, we know Beth is kicking ass, when her eyes dart about and her hand covers her neck and her body hunches over the board, we know she is losing). She eventually lost the match and spiraled into more substance abuse.
The scene serves as a shorthand illustration of the echo chamber that Beth’s two addictions play in her life. She is in Paris because of chess. She met the person who convinced her to party the night before the big match because of chess. She has the money to afford these things because of chess. On top of that, her drug use has freed her mind to be better at chess, to help her visualize the game during times where she was not allowed to play. But she also uses them as an escape before matches she might lose and after matches she does. They make her irresponsible and absent from this world, because after all, when she was introduced to drugs as a child in a children’s home, that was the point, and now she relies on substances to help her disengage from life when it goes wrong. So Beth’s conflict was to separate her addictions and obsessions, that feel the same, into a healthy obsession with chess and an addiction to drugs and alcohol that she could fight against.
And it is subtle and beautiful and haunting to watch. And in the final scene, after Beth Harmon beat the best chess player in the world and became the best in the world (no drugs needed), she walked the streets of Russia sober in mind and body. She came across some street chess players playing at a park full of old chess boards. She sat down at a board with the old men who play on the streets. She smiles and begins the game, showing her obsession with the game is intact after overcoming her addiction to drugs. In fact, she is better than ever, free to play a meaningless game in the park, not for study or competition but, for the first time in who knows how long, just for the love of chess.
It’s a good ending to the show. It’s cathartic and ties up loose ends, without dragging on forever. But I admit… I struggled with it.
The Queen’s Gambit convinced me for seven excellent episodes that addiction and obsession (at least for Beth) were two sides of the same coin. They were the white and black of a chess board, so thoroughly blended together in the form of chess and drugs that they combined to be the board on which she played life. Beth simultaneously hated and loved drugs and everything they did to and for her ever since she was a child. She used them as an escape from Methuen but became so dependent on them she broke into the nurse’s station and OD’d. And the point of the series was to see her slowly gain control of her drug and alcohol use and, in doing so, gain control of her obsession with chess. This control ultimately creates the serene Beth who decimated her opponents in the Soviet Union, who learned to rely on her friends that helped her along the way to come together and beat Borgov. But could she so easily separate her addiction from her obsession?
Part of the reason the show was fun to watch was because Beth always loved chess. Harry Beltik even told her, that he quit playing because he realized he could never love it like she did. But I struggle to see how she could love something so intricately entangled with her darkest addictions. Her chess enabled her drug use, and her drug use enabled her chess, yet somehow she is able to love one and not the other.
It made for better watching, less frustrating, less dark than an already dark show. But I have trouble understanding how it is possible.
Because to me, based on this relationship the series established so well between her addiction and obsession, either one of two things is true. Either, because chess enables her addictions, she would hate chess the same as her addictions because they will forever be linked in her mind (leading to a much more conflicted journey for Beth as she tries to achieve her purpose while having to overcome it) or since her addictions enabled her chess, she would be unable to continue playing chess because they cannot be extricated from each other (leading to her having to walk away from them both which becomes her victory).
I guess there is a third way to approach this as well, from a bird’s eye view up above. In Beth’s life, what were chess and drugs for?
The answer is as easy as any in television analysis- they were an escape from an awful life. When she was in Methuen, drugs helped her escape the pain of her situation, and chess gave her a purpose and something to occupy her mind, and in this home their relationship to each other became forever linked. As she grew older they helped her escape a bad home life, social awkwardness, a lack of love, her mother’s addictions etc…
So in order to kick her addiction Beth needs to stop trying to escape life. And this happened. She felt the love of Jolene and Harry and Towns and Benny and the twins. She also controlled herself in order to win in the Soviet Union and beat Borgov and achieve her purpose and ultimately feel worthwhile. And she controlled her addictions in the process, both drugs and chess. But what seems strange is that once she achieved this goal and made her life worth living by overcoming her addiction and obsession (she’s the best in the world after all). She walked down the streets of the Soviet Union, sat down at a chess table and immediately fell back into her obsession.
Reading it from a storyline standpoint, this feels almost ominous. Akin to her stopping at a drug store to grab some more green pills to end the series.
But it wasn’t portrayed that way. This was a happy ending, where she overcame her addiction, but was still able to maintain her love for her obsession. I’m just not sure that’s possible.
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