‘’Men are going to come along and want to teach you things; it doesn’t make them any smarter.’’ Very rarely do we come across something that stays in our mind long after it’s finished. Scott Frank’s show The Queen’s Gambit is one such masterpiece that can be found on Netflix right now. It pulls you in, right from the first episode and soon enough you are drawn inside the Chess Board that is almost always in front of the protagonist, Elizabeth Harmon. The sombre piano background score is an enabler for you to experience just how perfect and peaceful Elizabeth’s mind (read Chess Board) is. https://youtu.be/CDrieqwSdgI
“The strongest person is the person who isn’t scared to be alone.” This show must be applauded for the way they have shown an obsession. Elizabeth, from the age of 8, is obsessed with the Chess Board. It’s the game she loves and not just winning. Her discovery of the game is almost the same as that of a lover; you find someone to confide in. The board is her world; it is a place where she can feel safe, which she can control, where she can dominate. So when a smug reporter asks her, if the King and the Queen’s pieces remind her of her parents, she tells her, ‘’they’re just pieces’’, and it was the board that drew her in. This is reflective of what she tries to convey to the world throughout her play—the world which is focused solely on the fact that she is a ‘’female’’ chess prodigy, instead of ‘’just a chess prodigy’’. It bothers her how the world and even her adoptive mother view the fact of her being a woman central to her fame. After she loses her adoptive mother due to an illness, Beth is even more convinced that she is in fact alone and that her only companion is the board.
“Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand; Or, for that matter, genius and madness.” It’s hard to live the life of a genius. And Elizabeth’s journey portrays that with finesse. She is a prodigy, making money playing chess in the 1960s when most girls her age were busy obsessing over Boy Bands and Social Clubs. She learnt chess from the janitor in her orphanage, Mr Shaibel, whose contribution is left unacknowledged due to his position.
When the smug reporter asks her, if it intimidates her, playing a competitive game in a male-dominated world, she says, it doesn’t always have to be competitive, it can just be ‘’beautiful’’. Even though she spends most of her time reviewing her game for faults, when it is pointed out by a prodigy—apparently superior to her—she is shook. It is, as if, her entire world has been broken. So, for a genius, being second is, not just unacceptable, it is simply impermissible. This does remind me of some perfectionists I have met in my life, but the show gave me a glimpse into the mind and heart of such a person. The biggest tragedy of being a genius is that people forget that you’re a human being. When asked, if she thinks she can beat her opponent, she simply says, “I have to”. The cost is loneliness, as one of her former opponent-turned-friend tells her, ‘’you’re too sharp for me’’. Like any genius who is too battered by their own mind, she turns to substance, tranquilizers and alcohol. The former is a stimulant; it helps her play the game in her head, and the latter dulls the mind. Beth believes the tranquilizers help her visualize the board and are the reason for her being so good. But after being at the bottom of the pit only to be pulled back from the pit after finding out how much the people around her are counting on her, she picks herself up. Towards the end of the show, after battling her addiction and isolation, she starts to find out she is not really alone. And that is the beauty of this show—it gives you hope that a genius does not have to succumb to mental illness. If they get the support they require from the people around them; they can be saved. So when Beth tells her orphanage friend Jolene that she is ‘’her guardian angel’’, Jolene responds that she is not there to save Beth, she is simply there because that’s what family does.
‘’You’ve been the best at what you do for so long, you don’t even know what it’s like for the rest of us.’’ Beth is the queen of chess, needless to say, she is undefeated, or she is going to be very soon, and she knows that. She wants the strongest opponent to beat, and that leads her to Russia in the 1960s—when the Soviet Union and the United States are at loggerheads. She does not take the financial assistance of the Christian Association because she cannot bring herself as a chess player to demean the people of another nation on the basis of conflict of political ideology.
The beauty of the show is that while it is aware that it is a feminist show, it is not conscious of that fact. Beth’s own indifference to the fact that she is a woman has anything to do with chess prove that. The feminism in the show is subtle and not chewed over. But what stands out to me towards the end of the film is the contribution of Beth’s friends, males and females alike that finally led to her winning over her own mind and getting that peace she longed for. From Mr Shaibel refusing to play with her because ‘’girls don’t play chess’’ to his altar chronicling her success, the process whereby those around her forget the fact that she is a woman and view her just as their equal or even superior and go all out to save her and lift her up for all of their sakes, is the beauty of the feminist message of the show. The makers of the show and the lead actress Anya Taylor Joy must be commended for their portrayal of Elizabeth Harmon. While it is a fact that’s he is beautiful; it has not been emphasized on. Her sexuality is not used as a tool to make the audience love her. Nevertheless, she is famous because she is a woman who is a chess genius, and so the world is awed (As it continues to be so as more such women emerge *sigh*). Her character does not brood over the difficulties she has to face because she is a woman; she expects it is the same for everyone. However, over the course of her travelling through the USA, Europe, and finally reaching Russia, she also realizes how much her breaking the mold means to women everywhere.