Volunteer writer, Amie Woodyatt, reviews one of Netflix’s new smash hit shows, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’.
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In two moves Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) had my heart. And it didn’t take long before she had the heart of almost every man she encountered. Netflix’s 2020 hit mini-series takes us on a drug-fuelled, alcoholic joy ride in the wild world of competitive chess.
Titled as the stages of a chess game, each episode moves through the stages of Beth’s journey towards her toughest match at the Moscow Invitational against the best player in the world, Vasily Borgov. The drama’s creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott certainly don’t hold back on the emotional rollercoaster of said journey.
Beth is orphaned at age 9 in a traumatic car crash and quickly becomes addicted to the tranquiliser ‘Xanzolam’ (a suitably made-up drug name, but probably based on chlordiazepoxide) which her orphanage prescribes to the children as “vitamins”.
While learning chess from the caretaker Mr Shaibel, the tranquilisers are removed from the children’s diets. Beth experiences such severe withdrawal symptoms that she eventually breaks into the orphanage storage room and nearly overdoses.
When I say nearly, I’m not actually sure how she survived. She shoves a handful of the pills into her mouth, collapses off a chair, and is then shown alive and functioning in the next scene.
After a few years, Beth is adopted by Alma and Mr Wheatley (who soon separate) and decides to enter a chess tournament. With no prior experience in competitive chess, she takes Kentucky by storm and wins against state champion Harry Beltik, while befriending fellow player D.L. Townes. She also gets re-addicted to Xanzolam, stealing from the stash which Alma is medically prescribed.
Beth rises in fame, playing across the US and eventually beating US National Champion Benny Watts, winning her place at the Moscow Invitational. She reaps the financial rewards of success but forms a debilitating dependency on her pills and alcohol.
Before she has turned 18, she loses her virginity to an older student in her Russian class after they smoke marijuana. It’s super predatory, but her reaction of “is that it?” did make me laugh.
There was also a candle in the shape of a purple penis.
In Mexico City, Beth loses to Vasily Bergov for the first time, and returns to her room to find Alma dead. It’s suggested she had hepatitis, worsened by her own alcohol abuse. The defeat by Bergov and loss of her adopted mother hit Beth hard, but she recovers to eventually make it to the Paris Invitational (after receiving coaching from Benny Watts).
In a hungover mess she loses a second time to Bergov, and returns to Kentucky where she completely loses herself in a days-long alcohol and drug binge, eventually blacking out.
As if losing two mothers, two career-defining losses, and struggling with addiction weren’t enough, in the final episode, Beth learns that her father figure and the man who started it all, Mr Shaibel, has passed away. Her orphanage best-friend Jolene informs her of, and takes her to, the funeral, and then funds Beth’s travel costs for the Moscow Invitational.
Jolene is hands-down one of the best characters in the mini-series. I wish we’d seen more of her.
I’d be spoiling it if I told you how the Moscow International went, but trust me when I say it keeps you on the edge of your seat. You and the huge crowd outside the venue. And the boys in New York.
Essentially, I’d really recommend giving The Queen’s Gambit a watch. There were some themes which could have been explored more (is Townes gay? Bi? Is Beth bi? What actually happened to her parents? Give us more Jolene!), but it’s great nonetheless, and I’ve not had a day where I don’t play chess since.
Edited by Sophie Alexander – Entertainment Editor
Header Image by Amie Woodyatt