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The messy politics of The Queen’s Gambit

image courtesy of The New York Times

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Queen’s Gambit is just how apolitical it seems to be—for a show set during the height of The Cold War, it is conspicuously devoid of any explicit political agenda: that isn’t to say that there isn’t one, however. 

Paris. 1967. An evidently hungover Elizabeth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) ambles into the room. She greets the paparazzi with a dazed smile—‘Mademoiselle!’, they implore of her. Harmon’s voluptuous veneer is tarnished by a faint hint of liquor: it is the morning after the night before, and chess is the last thing on her mind. Today is the biggest game of her life—and yet she ambles ever onward, without a hope in the world. 

This is how Scott Frank opts to open his adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit. Orphaned at age nine (suicidal mother, absent father), Elizabeth Harmon came of age in The Methuen Home for Girls, where the bulk of Frank’s pilot takes place. Her first teacher, Mr. Schaibel (Bill Camp), was the custodian of the orphanage. To the dismay of the director Harmon meets regularly (albeit clandestinely) with the wizened Schaibel in the basement; having chanced upon him playing chess there, her curiosity is piqued. She inquires and is rebuffed: ‘Girls do not play chess’, retorts Schaibel. 

She defies him of course. As a woman in a man’s game Harmon is hard-pressed from the get-go. Her silent war is waged tacitly throughout the run-time of The Queen’s Gambit—which, contrary to its relatively apolitical stance on The Cold War, actually

seems to have a lot to say about the patriarchy. Harmon’s prepubescent revolt sets the stage for the powder-keg that lies at The Queen’s Gambit’s core. The show’s merits as a feminist piece are kind of obvious, so I will refrain from discussing them in depth; I’m more interested in what this show has to say about gender in relation to society (rather than politics or chess). I said that The Queen’s Gambit was a powder-keg, but this isn’t strictly true; it is incendiary, yes, but its points of contention are often tacit. It is down to us as spectators to determine just what it has to say about society; and to infer what kind of political maxims we can derive from it. 

Schaibel’s retort acts as our first indicator as to just how latent the patriarchy is in the world of The Queen’s Gambit. As the show progresses it becomes apparent that this initial doubt on his part comes to sow the seeds of Elizabeth’s subsequent discontent. The crux of The Queen’s Gambit may pit an American woman against a Russian, yes—but the climate offered by The Cold War acts as little more than a back-drop for a few of the show’s more illustrious set-pieces and plot-points (the matches against Borgov [Marcin Dorociński] and pretty much the entire final episode being cases in point). As an ‘antagonist’ Borgov comes across as pretty paper-thin—he is a cookie-cutter Cold War villain: cold, calculating, contemptuous, Russian. This mindset (though reductive) is less of a shortcoming than it may at first appear to be; in fact, The Queen’s Gambit’s nonchalance may just be its greatest asset. It gives the audience the impression that they are cruising through the show, never once getting too bogged down in the details. The Queen’s Gambit makes no explicit political statements; and this ultimately works in its favour. It never outstays its welcome or asks too much from its audience as a result. 

Perhaps this appraisal is indicative of the kind of prime-time fluff that all discourse on The Queen’s Gambit inevitably pertains to. As of writing it is Netflix’s most successful miniseries and has been lauded world-wide: interest in chess has increased exponentially [source] (albeit likely temporarily) since the series debuted and many have already come to anticipate a permanent upsurge in interest amongst female players as a result. All of this seems to suggest that The Queen’s Gambit is at least somewhat akin to elevator music: in that it is inoffensive; harmless; commercial. It’s easy to see the appeal, but this isn’t necessarily the case. To understand why, let us delve briefly into the psychology of our protagonist. 

Elizabeth Harmon is a genius—but that isn’t necessarily a good thing. Blighted by this affliction, she finds herself out alone on the frontier: she’s smart, sure, but she’s also insane. She kids herself into thinking that her lot is hereditary; her mother killed herself, and Elizabeth feels doomed to the same fate. As an audience member you get the impression that she never quite feels at home anywhere; her mother’s suicide seems to have conditioned her to feel as if she hasn’t earnt the right to exist. If Schaibel’s initial impulse is anything to go by, perhaps she hasn’t—‘Girls do not play chess’ after all. 

Elizabeth’s lot has been allotted to others, sure—but what immediately sets her apart from the pack is her gender; and this seems to be the raison d’être behind The Queen’s Gambit. She flits from home to home throughout the show with no definite destination in sight: yet no matter how far she strays, she always seems to return to Schaibel. Upon returning to The Methuen in the series finale, Elizabeth discovers that he has been

keeping track of her all along: the man who first doubted her has in fact been doting on her throughout. The system that incites his doubt seems to want her to succeed—it’s just too obstinate to admit defeat. Her existence is an affront to the patriarchy, and that is precisely the point. The Queen’s Gambit questions why we have become so accustomed to chess being a ‘boys only club’—what incites us to doubt her? And why is it so cathartic when she succeeds? 

From this I hope it is apparent that the problems that The Queen’s Gambit raises are institutional. There seems to be a kind of inherent malaise that pervades throughout the show: our characters tend to be either egotistical or riddled with self-doubt; as if they are either compensating for something or admitting defeat. Our pilot engenders us to believe that Elizabeth bucks the trend: but as the series progresses it becomes apparent that this is not the case. Consider how Frank opts to portray Elizabeth’s addiction. I’d like you to consider whether it is better for him to hold her accountable for it or not. If he opts to portray it as a choice, then we’re bound to see her as being egotistical: but if he forces it upon her, we find ourselves feeling sorry for her as a result. In the first instance our sympathy feels unwarranted (it’s hard to sympathise with a protagonist who flirts so readily with the edge of the precipice and expects no comeuppance): but in the second, it is unwanted; it inadvertently serves to belittle her plight. Either way, when she inevitably falls from grace, we’re inclined to ask some questions: questions that are likely to be offensive to some; questions that question the status quo. 

Flash-forward to a few months after our illustrious opening: Harmon dances alone to Venus by Shocking Blue (‘She’s got it/Oh baby she’s got it). She’s intoxicated beyond belief, yet it still feels like a choice. The Queen’s Gambit makes a point of chastising her (it isn’t pro-drugs), but it feels almost futile. At the risk of invoking Joker (2019), the show seems to suggest that the root cause of addiction lies within society itself. Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller) sits alone and plays Satie on the piano: ‘Be a good girl and get that little bottle of green pills by my bedside’, she says to Harmon, ‘my tranquillity needs to be refurbished’. Elizabeth comes to surrogate the solace conventionally offered by family life with drugs and alcohol—but the question remains, is this a choice on her part? Is she a victim?—and do we inadvertently belittle her by sympathising with her? These are difficult questions, sure, but they’re exactly the kind of questions that The Queen’s Gambit raises. Consider Harmon’s school-friend (Dolores Carbonari) who we later encounter buying alcohol at the supermarket: the two lock eyes in a kind of mutual understanding; they are both victims of a vapid society in which it is socially acceptable for one to drink themselves into oblivion in increments but sinful to have left-leaning thoughts. It’s easy to see why they drink. In their world, women are vacuous vessels just waiting to be filled by husbands and confined to domesticity (look no further than the aforementioned Mrs. Wheatley for the paradigm of this ‘ideal’). This kind of all-American vapidity seems to be characteristic of The Cold War. If nostalgia is anything to go by, this post-war period of social upheaval was supposedly America’s zenith—but neither Trevis nor Frank seem to be content with America as it pertains to be. If we read between the lines in this way we can begin to determine just what The Queen’s Gambit has to say about America: it isn’t exactly a happy show, but then again, what does it have to be happy about?

Available to stream on Netflix now

By Ben Jordan