The Queen’s Gambit looks great, but it feels empty and misses the mark

Courtesy of Netflix

One of the most unsurprising aspects of a technological age is the deluge of information that overwhelms you each morning.

At no point in the day does it ever really stop, so even if you find a port in the storm, say, in the form of a particularly captivating television show, the incessant pings and bings emanating from computer and phone soon provide a Harrison Bergeron-ish reset and you quickly forget just what had seemed so captivating and proceed to go about your day, mind fresh as a newborn babe, thinking only of the next product or piece of entertainment you’ll consume.

The Queen’s Gambit has become the hit program du jour, earning phenomenon status applied to past favorites like Tiger King and The Mandalorian. One wonders, scrolling through the breathless testimonials to these programs, whether their actual quality is as important to the parent company producers as the buzz they generate among the masses.

As the Wikipedia page for the show proudly states, chess sales have skyrocketed since the release date. Why, I haven’t the faintest idea. 😜 It’s sort of like NASA becoming so hip in the past few years. I haven’t heard of an uptick in STEM studying, or whether the U.S. has suddenly erased decades of middling scientific scholastic performance. I guess my point is, I don’t feel like you’d ever see Elon Musk wearing a NASA hoodie. If you can actually do it, you’d say it through your work, not your wear, no?

Maybe it’s down to a domestic operation implemented by our national security agencies to bring more youngsters into the sciences, so we can keep pace with the likes of China and Russia in the 21st century tech race. Or maybe that’s just me being paranoid.

It’s just that Queen’s Gambit didn’t exactly set me ablaze; parts of it were interesting, but my attention waned once the show had moved past its beginnings, when newly-orphaned heroine Beth Harmon is whisked away to an orphanage where she is immediately plied with methamphetamines by the management, and miraculously learns the game of chess from a lonely janitor.

The chess instruction made for my favorite sequences, young Beth skipping out of Math class, where she feigns incomprehension and, deemed a dunce, is set to boxing chalkboard erasers down in the basement, a chore she happily agrees to just so she can get back down to playing chess with her new teacher.

The rest of the show, charting her rise as a chess prodigy, combined rote show writing with glossy production value (including some serious ingenuity in re-dressing the same hotel set to fit at least a half-dozen different cities) and some sartorial splendor. One review I read couldn’t get enough of Beth’s dress in the final episode.

All the while, our heroine maintains a suitably woke approach to the world. She is not overwhelmed by the rapid social upheaval at the domestic level, juxtaposed against the glacial pace of the overarching Cold War in the international sphere. She does not condemn communism, hoping instead to approach America’s Soviet enemy with a spirit of understanding.

In some ways, it makes sense—shut up and play chess—but the only real stand she takes is against a fundamentalist Christian organization that offers to pay her way to the Russian championship if Beth will just read a statement condemning the Soviet experiment. A friend of hers used the service, and advises her to swallow her pride and just take the money. Means to an end. But Beth has our modern sensibilities, sixty years in the past, so when she comes up against this crisis of conscience, of course she passes it with flying colors. Which is just about the easiest cop-out you could think of, but then, can’t have Netflix reviewers canceling her, can we?

There is an interesting vein in the new push for the inclusion of heretofore unheard voices that, if these protagonists should possess any personal flaws—and it’s hip to be the antihero these days—they must be derived from a life spent being subjected to toxic masculinity, in whatever way, shape, or form it is decided it should embody. If there is a problem, it is not Beth’s fault. She must fight an eternal uphill battle against these evil forces arrayed against her, so you can forgive her if she missteps every now and again.

Beth is an eager observer of the vast injustices women arrayed against women in the sixties, perhaps most notably in the way it drives them crazy, or to drink—a lot. This bug bites Beth midway through the series, a vestige of her debilitating chemical attachment to those amphetamines as a child and, we’re told, of the mania suffered by her mother, a P.H.D. candidate in some science field at Cornell.

Of course, Beth finally kicks the booze, and never looks any worse for the wear once she decides to dry out. She kicks the pills, too, and suffers not the slightest hitch in her stride after abandoning the crutch she’d carried for years in the belief that it keyed her success in chess by allowing her to enter a mental state in which she could play out the moves in a match by envisioning it on the ceiling of whatever room she was in. The only time we see her suffering a kind of drug tremens is as a child.

At least, as far as changes of pace go, this Vulture piece on the Queen’s Gambit being, basically, the Forrest Gump of chess—a white savior walking on water over the cultural issues of her time—was quite interesting. Perhaps the most interesting point not made in the article was that the show would have been more interesting if it had decided to follow Beth’s best friend, a Black girl named Jolene, who happens to be the first girl she hears upon entering the orphanage, calling some helpless helper a cocksucker.

From the brief synopsis we get of Jolene’s journey, when the two reconnect toward the show’s end, through some ham-handed exposition, it quickly becomes apparent that here is a more interesting lens through which to analyze a rapidly changing America, seeing it through the perspective of the young idealists intent upon bringing about a better world.

Or maybe the story could’ve improved had it been about Waverly Chong from the The Joy Luck Club, my favorite chess prodigy, whose journey in the game offered a fascinating meditation of a child of immigrant parents dealing with precociousness, torn between the old and the new.

But no. What we got was glitzy chess excellence, again seeming to serve only to sell some sets. And inform us of just how useless men are unless they adhere to a very strict set of rules—as in the case of the boys in the show, helping our heroine at any cost. This is all good—of course, we’re well overdue for a turning of the tables in terms of who drives a narrative—but it seems to me that whereas it used to be only straight, white men that got to star in TV shows, now we’re seeing literally every other type of person granted a starring role. With one exception, of course—no white men.

You might think, well, a rising tide raises all ships, or, we’ve evolved past the need to put one demographic down while helping the others, but maybe not. Maybe that’s how it has to be. Maybe in a few generations, we’ll get a cool story about chess that features a young white man fighting against ossified forces that are deadset on seeing him fail. You just never know. History has a strange way of rhyming through the generations.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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