Slay Queen's Gambit

Beth Harmon and Morality Tales

My opening move is to tell you that I truly enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit. There are two things about the show I will never forget: The cool clothes and the cool hotels. The location scouts and the costume and art departments must have had the time of their lives making this show. If those things strike you as insignificant or superficial, I’ve got bad news about the advantages that visual storytelling has over words on the page.

So what is this gorgeous show about? What a silly question: It’s about chess. It’s about an orphaned girl in 1960s Kentucky who becomes the greatest chess player in the world. It’s about her trials along the way, most notably addiction.

The Queen’s Gambit is a simple story. Not in a bad way. All I mean is that we hope in the beginning that Beth Harmon will escape the orphanage and become transcendent at the thing she loves, which is playing chess. We hope she will fall in love and make friends and not be poor. In the end, she achieves everything we hoped she would, and more. It’s as elegant as one of her outfits—or as the intuitive progression of her chess games.

Beth Harmon’s story is about being good at things and getting what you want because of it. It’s also about being good, even though in the past you have been bad. The Queen’s Gambit is a morality tale.

The best literature professor I ever had (no shade to the others—he was just very good) loved to stop seminars cold to point out when someone was moralizing. He didn’t argue that morality somehow didn’t matter in fiction. He just wanted us to understand that you didn’t have to begin your analysis by making judgements about who and what was bad or good. The first and most important thing was simply to describe what was happening, without fear of transgression or censure.

So in that spirit, I will contend that to call The Queen’s Gambit a morality tale is a simple act of description.

Beth Harmon means well, most of the time, but she’s got it hard. She’s an orphan. She has to deal with living in a fairly restrictive (though happily, not nearly as sinister as we might at first guess) home for girls. These are the biographical details, aside from an extraordinary talent for chess, that make her unusual. Later in life, Harmon has to deal with confusion about lovers and friendships, and with further loss. These latter experiences make her like basically anyone else, and therefore “relatable.”

There’s one other crucial fact about Beth Harmon: She’s an addict. As a small child, she becomes addicted to the tranquilizers errantly given to her by the orphanage. (Inferring from the life of Walter Tevis, who wrote the novel on which Queen’s Gambit is based, the pills were probably phenobarbital.) Later on, she tries a wide array of drugs—in a way that announces, It’s the Sixties!—and settles on booze.

The show doesn’t really have a true antagonist. There are various rivals and foils. Ms. Deardorff, the grandiosely crusading head of The Methuen Home for Girls, has the wrong ideas but ultimately doesn’t do anything particularly bad to Harmon beyond misguidedly giving her pills. Both the puppy-dorky Harry Beltik and the laboriously dashing Benny Watts are at first opponents for Harmon and later mentors, friends, and lovers. Borgov the stony Russian is a Final Boss of sorts. But in the end, he joins all of the other Soviet grandmasters in applauding and smiling at the sublimely victorious Harmon.

(One thing the show does very, very well is skewer Cold War propagandizing, as when Harmon is accompanied to Moscow by a CIA agent and spends the entire time disobeying and mocking him.)

By far Harmon’s worst enemy is herself. Or rather, her addictions, which lead to various crashes and failures precisely when the story needs them. Addiction is a wonderful narrative device in that way. Something that exists internally but manifests outwardly and leads to outlandish, damaging behavior is handy when you need to Create Drama and Tell Us About A Character.

I don’t know enough to say whether The Queen’s Gambit is a good story about addiction. I’ve never fought that battle in a serious way. Certainly a lot of people found the show’s depiction of taking pills and glugging booze compelling.

I do know that the dramatic question throughout The Queen’s Gambit is whether Harmon can be good enough. Can she be good enough at chess? Every wise expert she encounters tells her she can be. She just has to [training montage]. But can she be a good enough person? That’s a bit more fraught.

Harmon often mistreats her friends and allies and lovers. In that way, she is once again like the rest of us. She messes up because she’s irritatingly brilliant and thus distant and inconsiderate of others—or because she’s hammered.

Being hammered also makes it harder for her to be good enough at chess. The show opens with a gorgeously shot scene of Harmon awakening In A State in a sumptuous Paris hotel room. She has to rush downstairs to play a chess match with the great Borgov. We ultimately learn that she loses. She drinks gallons of water while taking her lumps. Anyone who has ever been hungover will be unable to watch this scene without desperately wishing that someone would give the empty-stomached chess queen some huevos rancheros.

So the question becomes, can Harmon be good enough to kick her addiction? There are no scenes of rehab or Twelve Steps in The Queen’s Gambit. Just a series of friends trying to get Harmon to harness her formidable willpower to get herself clean. It fails every time, of course, until it doesn’t. Finally an old friend from the orphanage, the scampish Jolene, arrives and sobers Harmon up for the big rematch with Borgov. Harmon conquers her addiction with old-fashioned gumption, and then she becomes world champion.

This could all have gone differently and still made for a great show. When I saw the opening, I thought Queen’s Gambit might end up being a story about someone always about to careen off the rails who is nonetheless the best at what she does. It could have been a darker story about a woman who becomes world champion while still hammered. It could have been a story about a genius who gets what she believes she wants and still has to confront that she’s let down everyone who cares about her.

And yet it’s a story about a woman who is good enough at chess and good enough at banishing her self-destructive compulsions and good enough at being a friend. During her climactic battle with Borgov in Moscow, the sober Harmon gets a long-distance phone call from half a dozen friends, cheerfully offering their insights. She has wronged most of these people at various points, and never really apologized or made amends. But now she’s good enough, so she gets to win and earn the undying love of her friends.

This is all fine, and makes for heartwarming viewing. I suspect some people who know more about addiction than I do might take issue with the implication that addicts should simply be better and stronger in their fight against a chronic disease, but that’s not my area of expertise and I’m not here to moralize about morality tales. I’m simply here to point out that Queen’s Gambit is a story about becoming a good person who is good at things. If one of those things she’s good at is kicking the booze, well, good for her. It’s not meant to be a guide to addiction for the rest of us any more than it’s a guide to playing chess, something we all know we’ll never be as good at as is Beth Harmon.


Calvin and Hobbes

She’s back:

Speaking of being a good person who’s good at things, Susie Derkins would probably be decent at chess. She’s anywhere from decent to phenomenal at everything else, which is one reason why Calvin so heatedly resents her. Calvin would be very, very bad at chess. Patience is important in chess, or so I’m told, and that’s not Calvin’s strong suit.

Planning ahead is also important in chess, and that’s exactly what Calvin is refusing to do with his leaf collection assignment. As is so often the case, Calvin is putting more work into tedious justifications for doing nothing than he puts into doing something. Special points awarded to Watterson for “visualizing the conceptualization process” in 1988. The man always got out in front of things.

Calvin is right that the assignment is “time-wasting.” If we’re going to give kids homework, it should be on a much smaller scale than this. He’s also right about “boring,” though in a more meta sense. I don’t know whether Watterson set out to make the beginning of this arc drag, but it does. We’ve been through multiple strips with very little action, as Calvin recites his resistance over and over. Maybe the whole thing is an intentional commentary on the tedium of busywork. Or maybe this just isn’t the most propulsive Calvin and Hobbes arc. It does get more interesting eventually, I promise. Thanks for bearing with me.

A poem

Laura Elizabeth Richards is helping the owl turn the meeting-house upside down