Warning: Spoilers. (Kind of.)
For a show about chess – a game that depends on your ability to do something your opponent doesn’t expect – The Queen’s Gambit certainly wired the end of it.
The seventh and final episode of Netflix’s limited series ends exactly as everyone expected: Elizabeth Harmon gets a little help from her friends, and in doing so, she manages to stave off her various addictions and elevate her game to her arch rival. beat, Borgov.
It’s cute and saccharine and completely predictable, but it’s also TV that people want right now: according to the streaming service The Queen’s Gambit Watched by 62 million households in the first 28 days, the highest number ever for a scripted limited series on Netflix.
Understandably, the show is irresistibly charming, thanks in large part to Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance in the lead.
But like so many Netflix productions, it largely plays on human emotions without connecting to the human struggle in any significant way. The triumph therefore eventually feels empty.
One of the show’s most glaring shortcomings has already been noted elsewhere: it is utter fantasy to believe that a woman would have allowed herself to play chess like Beth Harmon did in the 1950s and 1960s. More than that, The Queen’s Gambit Insidiously beckons us to imagine a world where young women had been, good and smart and determined enough to play chess. Ah, what a time it would have been! If nothing but women had gathered the audacity and courage!
But here we are, more than half a century later, and just in the process of choosing a woman as vice president.
There is still part of it The Queen’s Gambit that doesn’t even feel vaguely realistic. Critics seemed to love this series because it tries to seriously consider difficult issues. It’s not just any sports movie. But it only faints at reconciling the long tail of mental illness, childhood trauma, and addiction – then wallpaper over it when it’s time for a happy ending.
After a long period of sobriety following her mother’s death from alcohol, Beth falls into a mood at the end of Episode 6. It seemingly happens out of the blue; she is studying old matches and discovers that there is no food in her refrigerator. She takes herself out to dinner, where the waiter offers her a drink. At first she refuses. Then she says yes, and in the last 15 minutes of the episode, she’s at the bottom of a bottle, completely broken.
That’s how it can happen. Anyone who has been around an addict will be associated with that sudden turn. What happens next feels like a lie: Beth’s best friend from the orphanage shows up unannounced. She sees the messy house and the empty bottles and confronts Beth. Together they mourn the death of the janitor who taught Beth to play chess. They dig up part of her past life. Then, after a game of squash, The Magical Black Orphan Friend tells Beth that she’s not there to save her; it is there because people have to rely on each other in this life.
That is apparently enough. Beth travels to Russia and takes a squeeze from a bottle on the plane. She glides past hotel workers who take champagne bottles to other rooms. Says “NyetOn an offering of vodka. And eventually flushes out the sedative pills she has been addicted to for half her life since they were used to tame her and the other children in the orphanage.
She admits to DL Townes, her magical gay friend who surprised her by taking the trip, that she had started inquiring about finding more drugs, but ultimately didn’t. Serious and bright, she wins the event by beating Borgov then breaks away from the Foreign Ministry chaperone and walks through a Moscow park, where the chess players celebrate her and ask her to play – a look back at that simple childhood games in the basement.
“Every time we finished that series, I burst into tears because I was so happy for her,” Taylor-Joy told Refinery29. She has found this sense of satisfaction. Where she wasn’t in pain or fought so hard against anything. “
That is neat and tidy and completely unrealistic. I guess the folks who have struggled with addiction or seen loved ones ruined by it are going to find the whole thing quite lighthearted. Addicts so rarely get those moments – and when they do, they’re earned through diligent work, not because an old friend’s reassuring words helped them draw on previously untapped reserves of willpower. Addicts don’t simply have no friends to rely on, or have a certain inability to understand how to get the support of those who love them. It’s never that clean.
Addicts – and those who assist them – would also never believe the fight could end or the satisfaction could last. It never works.
That aside, the physical toll of addiction is completely absent. Hungover Beth, we know, is struggling to get it together. But it doesn’t even pay attention to what it would mean for her body to withdraw from those pills completely.
Ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity. Beth has been a convincing addict until then; the pain in the eyes of her trainer-turned-lover Harry Beltik when he leaves and tells her to be careful feels all too real. He later confides in her that his own father was an alcoholic, but not the raging, messy kind. Instead, he sank into himself every night. That’s a powerful nuance – a raw look at how disease can settle like rot.
Instead of digging in here in any way, the show just lets it all fly away. It’s one thing not to know exactly what it was that killed all those people Birdhouse; the death plague was just a plot device intended to set up a situation that would reveal something about the characters. There was no reason to consider it. But simply smoothing out Beth’s addictions and childhood trauma is a disservice to the quality of the acting and the possibilities the story presents.
It’s perfectly American to rewrite history that we end up ashamed of, and to cover up the reality of things we’d rather not face. Perhaps once we bounced back into a realm where an exceptional woman was allowed to shine, it only made sense to disconnect the rest of the story from the grubby truth as well. But maybe I could have avoided that temptation The Queen’s Gambit to resonate after some of the darkest weeks in a pandemic, envisioning all the resounding ways that simple fixes could actually work were just the comfort we were looking for.