Once in a while, I will get recommendations for a book, show, or movie
from multiple independent sources. Once in a great while, those
recommendations will arrive for the same thing consecutively. When that
happens, I take it as a sign from the universe that the work in question
requires my attention. This happened most recently with the Netflix
mini-series Queen’s Gambit, and I found the show’s narrative
composition to be both sophisticated and complex.
Queen’s Gambit is the story of Elizabeth Harmon, who starts as a girl
orphaned at about the age of ten when her mother dies in a car crash.
Elizabeth is sent to an orphanage, which, while not the cruelest
institution imaginable, is notable for elements that, apparently legal
in the 1950’s, grate on modern sensibilities. The most notable example
is that the staff are routinely drugging the children with tranquilizers
to make them more docile.
Shortly after being enrolled, Elizabeth discovers the orphanage’s
janitor playing chess and requests he teach her how to play. He rebuffs
her at first, then later acquiesces, and before long it is discovered
that Elizabeth is a chess-playing prodigy. Also of import is Elizabeth’s
discovery that the tranquilizers allow her to visualize the board, the
pieces, and the moves of the game in her mind, allowing her to learn in
weeks what would take most people years.
At age thirteen, Elizabeth is adopted and from here it only a matter of
time before she catapults herself into the lucrative world of
professional chess-playing. She comes, however, to discover that her
usage of the tranquilizers to make her better at the game has morphed
into an addiction, a behavior that will spill over into alcohol as the
Through flashbacks over the course of the show, we are treated to
vignettes of Elizabeth’s mother, who, before she died, inculcated in
Elizabeth a kind of hyper-individualism, a sense that the world is
filled with people who will use and abuse you, and it is best to learn
how to fend for oneself. Situations in Elizabeth’s life appear to play
into this narrative. Many of the people she could potentially care about
behave terribly towards her, or leave, or simply die. With each of these
events, the draw of addiction grows stronger—if you can’t depend on
anyone else, better the dependence that will give you the illusion of
control. However, Elizabeth also develops this skill as a reflex and
also pushes away the people who genuinely care about her, choosing the
stupor of tranquilizers and alcohol over relationships.
You don’t have be an master story weaver to guess where that road will
end, and Elizabeth struggles to avoid that fate. The show handles her
escape from that pit remarkably well. It is perhaps a bit too
convenient, but it is not entirely unbelievable, with other characters,
for a time, challenging her on the distancing behavior she has exhibited
Queen’s Gambit is a story about who or what we depend on, how those
relationships can be healthy (genuine, with well-intentioned people) or
toxic (with cruel people or with substances). It is a kind of coming of
age story. It is about how the American drive to individualism has some
decidedly unappealing costs if taken too far. Its sets and decor
gorgeously evoke the 1960’s. It is well acted.
I can honestly recommend Queen’s Gambit as a worthwhile viewing
experience. For me, it was a powerful reminder of how thankful I am for
having trustworthy people in my life, people I can depend on.