A Dissimilar Universe: THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT
Personally, I'm not the greatest player but I find myself drawn to the game especially among those I love. Chess is an alluring game. Chess is the game of life. And as Elizabeth Harmon retorts nonchalantly in a scene in the latest success that is Netflix limited series' THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, “Chess can be beautiful.” To be honest, I had zero expectations going into this and figured I'd bow out by episode one, but to my surprise it hooked me. So for you curious minds out there... get your record player ready, cue in some hot 60s jams and travel back with me. And since this is an adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same which I haven't read but seem to gather is mostly faithful to its source material, however given the subject matter writers' obviously had to spice things up drama wise. So there's no wonder I may gripe at a few issues with sexism, conveinent coincidences, Jolene's character, and even Beth's addiction all accumulate in varying episodes and I still feel like I'd probably enjoy the book more. It's a great series, and yet to my dismay some parts of the drama just feels a bit overcooked.
You see THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT has swagger just like the opening sequence to season 7 of MAD MEN. It's oddly easy to consume given this is a drama of a young girl and chess not that I'm knocking the subject matter, more like applauding it because you know the writers' adapting this for screen were probably concerned, possibly bewildered, in how they were going to go about telling this story without losing the audience's attention span. Given its a Netflix series created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, there's naturally a glossy production value that adds to its accmulated success as well as the performance by Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays leading lady Elizabeth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy whose struggle with drug and alcohol problems spiral all while keeping a suave detached demeanor. She's like a dark twisted version of Tinkerbell who fascinates the chess world with her unbelievable and calculated ability to dominate the game and her opponents. Like magic!
However, the dynamics of gender seem to be not as divisive as I expected it to be. From what I've read, the book's authenticity is a lot more crude in terms of men treating her like a spawn of some icky lagoon often referring to her as an ugly girl. Yet in the series, the men seem to admire her ability to decimate them at their game and even support and cheer her on which, I'm sorry, doesn't feel realistic. It feels weird even complaining about that. Men are almost always giving women a hard time and especially given it was in the 1950s it feels even weirder. Is this some fabricated daydream the creators collectively decided to inject as some adequate alternative to a shameful history of how the sexes treated each other? I think so. I mean Elizabeth beats all the high school boys at chess when she's nine, and then Harry at the state championship, and then Benny at another championship. Both of these dudes end up being her friends, have some romantic attachment, and above all help train her for the world championship. This is like an unknown universe where everything seems to fall into place. I mean maybe it's good sportsmanship or maybe the writers' really wanted there to be a magical world where people respect one another not based on their sex. I guess what I'm saying is it would be a more invigorating story if there was more conflict.
For instance there were intriguing obstacles in episode one. My heart strings undoubtedly fell for this poor nine year old Elizabeth, who had just lost her mother and entered an orphanage in Kentucky in the 1950s. That's rough. And as she makes her way through this tragedy, she gravitates to the game while cleaning out the chalkboard erasers in the basement, where she meets the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) who happens to be ruminating over a logistical move on his chess board. From there it's like when Rocky meets Mickey, and the two form a bond of learning the ropes while respecting the game. That's the hook. Of course the scene where Elizabeth calls Mr. Shaibel a “cocksucker” is satisfyingly amusing because you know this nine year old child has no clue of what that word means. It's a good chuckle and understandable because when one loses their temper, it’s scarcely inevitable to keep those words behind mute lips. Once it’s learned Elizabeth is a chess prodigy, her reputation flourishes, OK minus the incident with the overdose on the Chlordiazepoxide drugs (which are basically Benzo meds). And yet it visually becomes a somewhat humorous sequence, but how else is one going to learn that too much of one thing can destroy a tiny human. It's an unconventional stepping stone but it works.
Years later at around 12 or 13, Elizabeth is adopted, and her relationship with her new mother is somewhat sterile but captivating because it's clear Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) is DEPRESSED. In fact most of the women in this show have some depressive quality which really sings to the testament of just existing in the restriction of 1950s womanhood.
I really feel for Alma Whaeatly and Alice Harmon (Chloe Pirrie) who are both mother figures in Elizabeth’s life and all of these women STRUGGLE so hard emotionally that they utilize tranquilizers and alcohol to get through the day. For one thing, calling your meds “tranquility pills” while downing cocktail after cocktail sitting in front of a TV, is agonizing and destabilizing to watch, but also indicates to the audience this character needs so much help. And in a flat tone she acts nearly robotic, when she says, "That's nice dear". Almost in STEPFORD WIFE fashion. Yikes! It’s never really mentioned but, hinted at that Alma may have lost a child early on and her husband is so fixated on work he has zero interest in adopting but goes through with it and is just absent 90% of the time. Like damn, that’s painful enough to have a husband who is apathetic and unsupportive, but to lose a child adds salt to the wound. At least Alma tries to climb out of the dark abyss of self loathing, abandonment, and frustration by being an alcoholic. OK, I guess the really doesn't help matters. But in light of misery, Alma eventually learns how much money Elizabeth makes winning tournament after tournament, and suddenly the idea sparks and these two chicas are off traveling the U.S. living an exhilarating life, basking in sunny success with added decadence in fabulous hotel amenities while maintaining a sense of identity and freedom. In other words they're living it up. They make an odd yet compatible pair, because it's not even like a mother-daughter relationship, but more like two girlfriends doing their own independent thing and they look out for one another in the pursuit of happiness. And yet happinesses' evil sidekick; tragedy looms in like an awkward, stormy hug. Ugh! I won’t spoil what happens but it’s gosh-darn brutal and heartbreaking.
So in a proceeding chapter, chess still being her life vest as she floats and bobs in a world of uncertainty Elizabeth returns to Kentucky alone living in Mrs. Wheatley's house which is where Harry swoops in making his move. Romantically and well, as a former professional chess player, hoping to further train Elizabeth's strength preparing her for the BIG match. Let's just say it's not all roses and daisies. Once it's learned Elizabeth doesn't have the same feelings as Harry, he leaves. And after some time meets up with Benny, a fellow chess player who convinces her to live with him in New York for a long while to study and practice so she can maintain her goal of becoming world champion when she reaches Russia. Seeing that Rocky theme yet? Again, the thing that really sticks out with Elizabeth and her relationships with men is how supportive they are of her. Like what happened to the male ego? Jealousy? Or devious tendencies to stomp on her road to success? None of that exists which doesn't feel realistic in the real world. I mean yes, she proves herself time and time again, but I feel like this cloudy dream-like world where men are her cheerleaders is unbelievable. It's too anti G.I. JANE. I realize as I type this maybe the chess world doesn't have such a cut-throat vibe as other high testosterone hobbies. It's a game of wit and strategy. Why am I questioning this? I am a broken woman.
In a later episode, Elizabeth develops a friendship with a French woman named Cleo, who tells her how she attempted suicide and was saved by two men who were fussing over a chess match. She was so engaged in their passion that somehow it made her reconsider death. It's noble but also begs me to question this repetitive theme woven throughout this era and story where women are so DEPRESSED. It’s a subtle thing but it’s there, I see it and not that it’s supposed to take center stage of the story, it's just something to recognize and comprehend hoping that an ounce of empathy will summon the viewer to either relate or understand. Women seem to always have it tough and will always fight twenty times harder, sometimes they’re lucky and sometimes they end up giving up. So seeing this contrast displayed is almost like a subordinate threadlike veneer for the series. Like a faint aroma you smell momentarily and dissipates into the atmosphere. It's like they want you to see it but refuse to discuss how big of a problem it actually is for a vast segment of the population. Women and alcoholism is sprinkled throughout the series, baiting Elizabeth in most of her interactions. Take for instance the grocery store run in with a high school friend, who's now a housewife with a bag of booze under her baby stroller. Elizabeth sees that. Later on she's dragging a huge trash bag full of cans and bottles across her lawn to the trashcan, so DRUNK and so INDIFFERENT to how other's may perceive her. It becomes a mechanism for her to just feel numb. It's also heartbreaking to watch even as she enters a chess match so hungover with wicked eyeliner and a snappy attitude, where it becomes apparent she needs help, but also just doesn't care.
There’s a specific quote in the opening to one of the episodes that sets the tone which I really think sets the tone for Elizabeth’s life. Her deceased birth mother gives her a cutthroat piece of advice on a stormy, rainy night, “Someday you’re going to end up all alone and you’re going to have to figure out how to take care of yourself.” The metaphorical storm that takes shape is an emotional one to which alcohol aids a sort of band aid towards the end. Someone with so much talent is paralyzed and wrestles with abandonment issues. No doubt there are serious repercussions to feeling unwanted, unloved, and abandoned yet with the support of those who believe in her talent is what makes this story come full circle. So Elizabeth loses herself for a long period of time, we’ve all been there before in some way or another. She masks her hurt and spirals into being an alcoholic. Turns out ending up alone and figuring out a way to handle it, is hard, soul crushing, and a long road to wander. However, her saving grace is mourning the loss of someone who followed and believed in her throughout her losses and successes, and when she discovers this realization of how much appreciation and pride this one person had, it breaks her down. Almost ironic or perhaps coming full circle because loss is what started her life's journey at the beginning. So what does one do when one falls down, you find a way to pick yourself back up. For instance, the marvelous sequence with the “I’m Your Venus” song, Elizabeth just loses herself drinking day in and day out, dancing in her undergarments while vomiting in one of her trophies. I mean a lot of women have been there. One too many heartbreaks or unlucky streaks, but never have I ever dared to walk out the door in such pronounced eye make up. Of course it’s not a pretty picture when one conks their head on the coffee table, after one too many bottles of liquor and blacks out while friends are ringing the telephone. Yikes! At one point I questioned, “Maybe she’s a high functioning alcoholic?” They exist, but man what a train wreck. The alcohol keeps her anxiety in check, the thing she can’t control, while she can freely obsess over chess moves for the remainder hours in any given day. Woof! What a hell of a balancing act. Exhausting.
I haven’t mentioned Elizabeth’s closest friend, Jolene (Moses Ingram) who’s a badass character and deserves more screen time, but given the constructs and hindrances of the story, she remains an elusive part of Elizabeth’s journey. So in the first episode, Elizabeth’s only friend in the orphanage is Jolene, an African American girl who’s a few years older but is also like a hot pistol to handle. The girl has gumption, and which I absolutely adore. She’s the only female who’s a pillar of strength and is somehow outshined, left on the sidelines like ugghhhhhh!!! This character DESERVES so much more than what was given on screen. I desperately wanted her backstory, instead she was an instrument to aid and abet the protagonist, which I get is what all screenplay writing books allude to but, COME ON! This is 2020 for crying out loud. This character deserved so much more. This is the only character that’s introduced in episode one and episode six leading into seven. She's the unsung hero of this entire charade. She comes in for the save, like a closing pitcher in baseball jargon. I’m exhilarated but at the same time disappointed, because this character ruled the roost. She was the one who cared when nine year old Elizabeth displayed withdrawal symptoms when the orphanage had to stop handing out the green “Benzo” pills because of a state mandate. She was the one who “handed” Elizabeth two green pills when she was about to exert her true talent on an entire Kentucky high school chess club. She was there when Elizabeth was adopted and was left behind. She was there when Elizabeth was spiraling out of control. She was there to “lift” and “support” Elizabeth when she made the realization about Mr. Sheibal and she was there to light her way through a dark forest of unknowns that led to possibility and success. Jolene is working to be a lawyer while dating a white guy in the late 1960s and has a million and ten things to think about and still has the heart to help Elizabeth through a rough patch. I won't go into more detail about what she does but let's just say in the final act, she saves the day.
Ultimately, this fantasy land of zero sexism, still makes the series surprisingly satisfying intertwined with the women and alcoholism dilemma that's not truly addressed but alluded to is substantial. It's satisfying in a mythical sense because it's a story where men and women see each other as equals but also because it's a story of a virtuoso who is a woman living seemingly as an equal in a male dominated world. If anything it's a nice sentiment that reaches for a future of serenity, understanding, and respect. Hopefully, one day as united society we can reach that threshold or at least one can dream and if not we'll always have THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT to remind us it can happen. Maybe.