Call for Comments: “The Queen’s Gambit,” or Chess is a Virus now

From Katya: The world, it seems, has lost its collective mind over The Queen’s Gambit. Released in October, it quickly became the most-watched limited scripted series ever and hit number 1 in 63 countries, according to Netflix.

Netflix poster for the Queen's Gambit

I’m not going to lie, I fell into the binge too. Give me an aesthetically pleasing show with vintage fashion and nerds and I am there. The show seems to have struck the particular chord of 2020, however. To paraphrase philosopher Hannah Arendt’s observation about the function of science fiction, popular culture is the expression of mass sentiments and desires. The massive appeal of The Queen’s Gambit is therefore not an idle novelty.

My theory is that, despite having zero topical connection to this current era of plague, the show resonates with people living through the mental consequences of the pandemic. Reports of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions have been on the increase- even pre-COVID. The extended isolation, instability, and grieving caused by COVID and the necessary steps to manage its spread have accelerated these treads. We’re collectively living through slow trauma, psychological harm over a prolonged period of time from the compounding of multiple factors. (This trauma isn’t uniformly distributed, like COVID itself Black, Indigenous, and POC are hit harder due to the compounding effects of pandemic conditions alongside systemic racism. This also compounds across class lines; anyone who isn’t wealthy, is experiencing job, food, or housing instability is also more deeply impacted.) I’m also willing to bet that there are lot of people experiencing anxiety and depression symptoms for the first time or are experiencing them more deeply than ever before, which may be behind the increase in demand for mental health and addiction services.

In a year where most of us are feeling some version of falling apart, whatever that might mean for us individually, a show that follows a young woman overcoming trauma, addiction, and her own mental health struggles in a neatly packaged mini-series is cathartic. The story of Beth Harmon’s rise from orphan to international chess master presents as a triumph of troubled genius but is punctuated throughout by the struggles of coping. Coping with addiction. With the repeated deaths of family and family figures. With shame and her self-imposed isolation. And with her own particular brand of madness. Harmon ultimately moves through these to win her game against the star Russian player giving us the triumph of her genius -supported by her fellow players via trans-Atlantic strategy phone calls. 

Screenshot of Beth Harmon in the Queen's Gambit
If only all spiraling breakdowns were so aesthetic and ultimately benign.

Watching Harmon cycle through periods of success and catastrophe likely resonates, though perhaps not in a way that we’d like to admit publicly. Every time her life is coming together there’s yet another trigger for another downward cycle. Yet throughout the cycles the show is never really suspenseful. From the early episodes the series’ arc is predictable, even without having read the book. From the very beginning, you know she’ll face the Russian chess master and obviously the end of the show is when she defeats him. The show’s only real twist is changing the game it occurs at, but even that isn’t a surprise. The result is a show were we get to identify with Harmon’s grappling with trauma while simultaneously knowing that not only will she pull through, but she’ll receive all the hallmarks of success the show places importance on without much complication.

Harmon’s story is comforting because it portrays the instability that many are currently feeling and can identify. Simultaneously, it represents these issues as a matter of willpower within Harmon’s control -at a moment in history where control feels like a sick joke. Though we see Harmon’s struggles and breakdown (aesthetically unrealistic though it is) we also see her just take control and resolve, seemingly overnight, both her trauma and addiction. Harmon states that she “needs” the drugs and alcohol to win but, after the prompting of a former crush miraculously reappearing on the night of the game, decides that’s not true. She goes on to win her final game by visualizing it in giant pieces on the ceiling, a behavior previously only unlocked with her taking the show’s fictional version of 1960s Xanax, Librium. At first pass, this seems to suggest that Harmon has dealt with the trauma her drug use allowed her to escape to unlock this ability and the addiction itself simultaneously and nearly instantaneously. 

Lilly Dancyger argues that the reversal at the end is too easy; in reality artists that previously used substance abuse as a way to “unlock” creativity often struggle to produce creative work without it and the road to relearning how to practice their art can be a long battle. Dancyger’s observations reinforce that the neat, narrative bow of Harmon’s “recovery” is a fantasy. We seem to want buy into this world, perhaps as an escape from the reality that not only is grappling with our own minds rarely a simple or linear process but that we can take control in a year like 2020 as simply as Harmon does of her addiction. 

Screenshot of the Queen's Gambit's chess aesthetic

I also question, however, that Harmon has “recovered” in the sense that Dancyger seems to imply, i.e. that she’s “gotten over” whatever was leading her to drugs in the first place as easily as leaving the drugs themselves. It’s never quite clear whether Harmon’s virtual chess games are simply her imagination or a literal hallucination. Her behaviors, sober or not, suggest  the latter. She’s watching the pieces as if they were real in a finite, bound space. Her attention and behavior is such the others assume she’s looking at something -not just staring intently into space (for example, her opponent in the final game looks perplexed at the ceiling while Harmon plays the game through in her head.) Throughout there are questions about her sanity which don’t appear to be limited to her substance abuse. If her hallucinations aren’t simply a manifestation of drug abuse then has she, rather than returning some idealized “normal” or neurotypical experience, instead run with her hallucinations as an kind of productive (for the moment) reality to cope with the conditions she finds herself in? And, if this might be the case, does that experience liberate Harmon or lead her back into the same cycles until  conditions actually change?

This is what we’re thinking about (also the representation of race and class is… interesting but that’s for the show.) If you’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit, why do you think it’s so popular? Did you enjoy it? Hate it? Did something stick out to you as particularly interesting or particularly problematic? Let us know in the comments for a chance to be included on the show!

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