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The Next Move is Yours: Tragedy Defines Strategy in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (Part One)

By Josmar16 @ReviewsByJosmar

Beth Harmon's life is determined in the first five minutes of Netflix's 7-episode limited series The Queen's Gambit. The opening "moves," by writer-director Scott Frank ( Minority Report, Godless) and creator-producer Allan Scott, flesh out the outlines and contours of the plot in sumptuous detail.

From the Oval Office-like interior of a hotel room in Paris, where an older but no wiser Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) awakens to the incessant pounding of her door, to the distinctive arenas where her chess matches are held, the series depicts the fall, the rise, and yet another fall and rise of a young female chess player through her development as a formidable challenger and champion.

Long in the planning, the series was based on novelist and short story writer Walter Tevis' fourth book of the same name. Published in 1983, The Queen's Gambit is a fictionalized account of the author's personal prowess at chess and his own real-life struggles with tranquilizers and alcoholism. In fact, several of Tevis' semi-autobiographical works were turned into movies, including The Hustler (1961) with Paul Newman, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) starring David Bowie, and The Color of Money (1986) with Newman again and Tom Cruise.

In the opening "gambit," as it were, Beth is late for her match against Soviet-Russian champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). From here, viewers are plunged into a life that is driven by the girl's desire to be the best at chess - a profession normally reserved for men. In the series' script, chess is transformed into a spectator sport, with each episode strategically labeled as stand-alone elements in a unified whole: "Openings," "Exchanges," "Doubled Pawns," "Middle Game," "Fork," "Adjournment," and "End Game."

Beth, a young and talented woman scarred by a horrible tragedy (depicted near the start of the series), attempts to overcome this and other problematic events. All this is done in spite of Beth's knack for hurling herself headlong into a whirlwind variation of a life as interpreted by the age-old art of chess. A contest of skill, the equivalent of a medieval clash for survival and wargames in miniature, chess is a battle of wits that becomes, in nine-year-old Beth's mind, the thing she's most adept at. She's also good at math, which gives her an (ahem) "added" advantage.

Life for poor Beth gets off to a rough start. The director of Methuen Home for Girls in Lexington, Kentucky, Mrs. Deardorff ("Dear orphan," or possibly "The orphan's dread," and dryly played by Christiane Seidel), can only preach to her young charges in platitudes, those meaningless formulaic clichés of little substance that forever miss their mark. In consequence, all the alleged adults speak in this highfaluting way: from the Shakespeare-spouting Mr. Ferguson, the orphanage's Black orderly, to Mr. Ganz, the glib high school chess club teacher. All of them, that is, except Mr. Shaibel, the chess-obsessed custodian.

Mrs. Deardorff chats matter-of-factly about Beth's natural mother (Chloe Pirrie) who was killed early on in that terrible accident: a pickup truck stacked on top of a car, her mother's lifeless body at the bottom, with only her legs protruding. Beth (Isla Johnson) is alone, standing at far left. It seems that life's troubles have already begun to overtake her, even before she's had a chance to evolve.

This is how writer-director Frank keys his audience in. Why, you just know this child has a huge hurdle to surmount. What's a little girl to do without her mommy? "She's in a better place," spouts the woman driving Beth to the orphanage, as if by repeating this worthless piece of advice will make the youngster's situation any less worrisome.

At the orphanage, Beth is shown what to wear, where to go, and what to do. She's even given a pageboy haircut, with Mrs. Deardorff's approval, of course - a control freak par excellence. Not a queen's coiffure by any means, but that of the lowest subject in the orphanage's pecking order.

Beth's daily routine is a mind-numbingly monotonous compilation of busywork, all designed to keep the orphaned girls' thoughts occupied with the possibility of adoption, hopefully by a loving and caring family. A possibility that grows more and more distant the older that Beth and her only friend, the foul-mouthed but straight-shooting Jolene (Moses Ingram), seem to get.

'Name' Your Game

Elizabeth, the name of a queen. Two queens, to be precise: Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II. In the case of the first Elizabeth, she was known to her subjects as "Good Queen Bess." In little Beth's case, however, her surname of "Harmon" gives further clues as to her attributes. First of all, Beth is far from experiencing any kind of "harmony" in her life; in truth, she rebels against it. And second, she discovers a central path, a harmony of sorts within herself (or a middle ground) in the male-dominated world of chess. Beth will only be in harmony with her environment in the very last scene of the series - wherein she becomes, quite literally, the queen of the chess tournament.

Headmistress Deardorff informs Beth about the rules and the dreary "facts" of orphanage life. She's expected to conform to those rules. Quick study that she is, Beth instantly grasps the purpose of the orphanage: to place the most eligible girls with the most respectable families. This leaves Beth virtually out of the running.

Beth is revealed in subsequent situations as a nonconformist. She's introduced to Jolene, whose strident off-camera voice lets out a few choice expletives. Jolene is Beth's nonconformist partner-in-crime who grows to be her best pal and fellow conspirator. Also, her amateur shrink and adviser on matters relating to life in general, the worldly-wise companion who's seen and done it all.

All the girls are kept in line. With that in mind, they are shown all manner of hygiene films, low-budget educational shorts that, if you grew up in the 1950s or 60s, should be all-too familiar with their triteness and stereotypical Wonder-bread sterility. Films depicting the onset of puberty, teenage dating etiquette, and of-the-period religious pictures (for instance, the ending of 20th Century-Fox's widescreen epic The Robe) are mined for their Christian values. Immediately after these strictly anodyne features have ended, Mrs. Deardorff and her staff hold discussion sessions with the girls to talk about what they've seen. Dullness piled on top of dullness.

Lest you think otherwise, these early scenes in The Queen's Gambit do not purport to be an all-girl version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Mrs. Deardorff is no Nurse Ratched (she's not even in the same league), and neither are Beth and Jolene juvenile incarnations of the disruptive R.P. McMurphy. Instead, what they share is a mutual contempt for authority, an absolute aversion to rules and regulations (order for order's sake) that govern these institutions. Jolene and Beth much prefer a disorderly world, one of their making that reflects their disoriented lifestyles.

During the course of the series, we see them make up their own rules as well as break quite a few others. But to whose advantage? The good news is that they are both resilient in the face of onrushing obstacles, a majority of which Beth crashes into before formulating a way forward. Thus, the "crash" motif at the beginning takes on different forms, and with varying characters and circumstances, in a natural progression.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You a Stronger Chess Champion

Beth subsequently evolves, all right, but in a negative capacity. She develops a dependency to tranquilizers (those little "green pills"), and later to alcohol. Tranquilizers were often dispensed to orphanages in the 50s and 60s time period, under the pretext of controlling their charges' mood swings and so-called behavioral issues.

As far as living conditions are concerned, the girls sleep in an enormous dormitory, with oblong-shaped beds that stand in for the squares of a chessboard. The girls are the pieces, mere pawns in Mrs. Deardorff's hands, basically to do with as she sees fit. Indeed, all the characters are treated in this belittling manner, with Beth at the center (ultimately, the queen) and those around her as minor annoyances, to be captured and/or checkmated at will.

With the aid of those trusty tranquilizers, which she hoards near her night table and swallows before bedtime, Beth begins to see giant images on the ceiling. These are imaginary chess pieces. Flashbacks to earlier episodes in her life are inserted at certain intervals, fleeting pieces of a larger puzzle that have yet to be completed.

Similarly, men are shown, in flashbacks, leaving her mother Alice, a once-brilliant mathematician in deteriorating mental states. There are no strong male figures in her mother's life. Instead, they all seem to run away from responsibility or from the mistake of hooking up with the "wrong woman." This will include Beth's foster mother, Alma Wheatley, a troubled but goodhearted former concert pianist with myriad phobias of her own.

Unfortunately, Beth, too, cannot escape this fate. Her path has been predetermined from the start; and there's no turning back. In the lexicon of inmates with no hope for parole, they are "lifers," as Jolene describes herself and Beth, condemned for the crime of being an orphan - a crime they did not commit yet they are punished all the same. The analogy to prisoners in a prison ward is clearly felt.

One day, however, Beth is sent to the basement to clean the class's erasers. She sees the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a frumpy Bill Camp), playing a board game. Beth is intrigued. Mr. Shaibel, alone with his chessboard and black-and-white pieces, peaks Beth's interest and her innate curiosity. She's headstrong, that much is certain, and driven. She starts to take the tranquilizers before bedtime which brings on visions of the chessboard and the pieces in motion, all taking place in her head.

Every night, it's the same: Beth sees the pieces move up and down the ceiling. She's eager to play and eager to learn. "Girls do not play chess," Shaibel insists. But she proves him wrong. The more she sees and feels, the more she wants to play. And she remembers how each piece moves on the board. Pleasantly surprised, Shaibel motions for her to take a seat. Later, in her dormitory, Beth recreates, with her hand, the motions that lead to Shaibel's checkmate.

To escape from choir practice, Beth fakes the urge to urinate but takes a detour instead down to the basement - not the usual equivalent of Hell, mind you, but one of an improvised Heaven, a place of warmth and comfort, if dark and foreboding. In this encounter, Beth refuses to resign the match. So Shaibel topples her queen. In her anger at the custodian for taking away the only thing she's able to hold on to - that is, her self-preservation - Beth calls him a "cocksucker," not knowing exactly what that is. He tells her to get out. Still, she plays every day. After this temporary blowup, Shaibel teaches her strategies, all he knows, until Beth beats him, resoundingly.

"You're astounding," he pronounces. The barest hint of a smile appears on Shaibel's face. Next, he introduces Beth to Mr. Ganz, the head of the high school chess club. Intimidation, that's a sport for kings. And chess is the ultimate sport to test that notion. Beth is invited to play at Ganz's all-boys chess club, to meet her first outside challenge. Yes, intimidation.

As expected, she beats them all, including the chess club's best player. "I mated him in 15 moves," she boasts to a bemused Shaibel, while wolfing down snacks. The sexual connotation in the script pushes that aspect forward, i.e. the dominance, the foreplay, and the climax that chess, as a chivalrous rivalry between two gentlemanly players, has deteriorated to. It's all there, if one cares to look.

Flashbacks to before the car accident that killed Beth's mom re-emerge, in fleeting moments of memory. Beth's addiction to tranquilizers overwhelm her, but inevitably the drugs are banned. Not surprisingly, Beth grows desperate. She greedily eyes a large bottle of green pills (euphemistically dubbed "vitamins") in the drug repository. Unfortunately, they're under lock and key. What to do?

One night, Beth sneaks away. She steals a screwdriver from Shaibel's basement workshop and pries the lock open to the door that houses the pills. It's no coincidence that, before she does this, the girls are forced to watch another of those religious pictures, The Robe again, where Richard Burton is put to death for his belief in Jesus as the Son of God. Beth's actions in breaking into the dispensary and filling her mouth and pockets with tiny green pills leads to her collapsing onto the floor and spilling the broken jar's contents before Mrs. Deardorff and the entire assemblage. Symbolically, her life is also in shambles of addiction and withdrawal. "Edgy" is how Jolene, her best friend, explains it. And she's right.

Still, Beth is young and she's talented. Unbeknown even to herself, she has an inner beauty that, upon reaching puberty, is expressed in physical attractiveness. But she hides it under layers of floppy clothing. Not realizing the affect she has on men (first young boys, then slightly older varieties), Beth slowly but awkwardly "reveals" more of her inner self - her charm, her personality, her intellect, and her razor-sharp wit - before, during, and after makeshift chess matches.

One's belief in oneself is always challenged or put to the test. In this instance, Beth's belief that she is above the older boys in that high-school chess club gathering. She holds the view that they are beneath her. Similarly, the chess pieces are also above her, there, on the ceiling of her dormitory. They call to her.

And later, of course, in that Parisian hotel room, and everywhere she looks. Chess appears to be above all things and all individuals. It's still that classic game of strategy, of planning, of outwitting, of thinking five, six moves ahead of your opponent. Tactics are deployed in order to defeat the enemy; and a battle plan is developed and acted upon, one so intricate that to rage against it will mean oblivion for one or the other combatant.

This is the outline for the series. Each episode of The Queen's Gambit consists of a storyline from Beth's life depicting her continuing struggle toward her goal as a chess master. It also documents how low her life will plummet in her quest for excellence (that is, to be the best of the best) and her eventual redemption as a human being.

But the suffering must come first.

(End of Part One)

To be continued....

Copyright © 2021 by Josmar F. Lopes

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