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I routinely make it my business to remind people that streaming is not and never should be a replacement for physical media, but that doesn’t mean streaming has nothing to offer. Netflix brought us Stranger Things and Netflix has more recently brought us the hit miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, which has become a guilty pleasure of mine. I won’t deny that I found The Queen’s Gambit both original and extraordinarily entertaining, but I cannot do so without also offering some criticism. At times, The Queen’s Gambit can be silly or downright preposterous. Perhaps better casting or some adjustments to the script might have made the difference. Just as the character of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) must constantly reevaluate her previous games of chess for weaknesses in her play, I want to examine how The Queen’s Gambit could have been more than a guilty pleasure. Be warned, however, for spoilers abound.
Ultimately, I think there are multiple problems with The Queen’s Gambit and I’ll go over them in the order in which they are presented to us. The first is the character of Jolene (Moses Ingram), whose primary purpose seems to be reminding the audience that she’s black. I have eyes. I am perfectly capable of making that assessment myself. She cranks it to eleven when she reappears as an adult later in the series. Her character could just as easily have been white and I don’t think it would have made much difference to her role in the story. We could have used a lot more subtlety here, especially given how essentially irrelevant the color of the character’s skin is to the story being told. Maybe others would find some significance to it. I did not.
How do other films and television series handle the black friend? Take a look at The Shawshank Redemption (1994) for an example of how it should be done. It’s never rubbed in the audience’s face that Andy Dufresne’s best friend in prison is, in fact, a black man in the form of Red (Morgan Freeman), but we’re all perfectly conscious of that fact. In the original novella, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Red isn’t even black, a fact that the film nods to during a conversation between Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red in the prison yard when Red references his Irish heritage.
The second problem character arrives with the appearance of Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). I don’t know how some of these characters may have been described in the novel, but I found the character of Benny Watts silly to the point of being unbelievable. I could just be biased. Between the Indiana Jones hat, the hunting knife he wears on his hip, his stupid facial hair, and obnoxious personality, I definitely did not like him and I felt disappointed to find Beth Harmon a character of such low standards that she actually has sex with the guy.
There’s definitely a good deal of 2020s feminism injected into The Queen’s Gambit. Beth Harmon is, without a doubt, a feminist icon. I’m all for women playing chess, but I think modern feminism is so often confused with a woman’s right to fuck everything that moves and get wasted. Okay, I get it: It’s your body, but don’t you think you might be sending the wrong message? Maybe the right to vote and receive equal pay to your male counterparts should be the priorities instead of fighting for your right to wear sweatpants in the grocery store.
The worst character of all is neither Jolene nor Benny Watts. The Queen’s Gambit makes its biggest mistake with the introduction of Cleo (Millie Brady), a French model who serves no purpose to the plot other than to give Beth Harmon the tiniest nudge she needed to succumb again to her self-destructive addiction. Why does a French model suddenly appear in the New York apartment of Benny Watts? What is the nature of her relationship with, well, anyone? We may never know, but far worse than the way in which she is shoehorned into the story is that she is a ludicrous caricature of a French woman. If you know your Seinfeld as well as I know mine, you’ll have flashbacks to the second season episode The Statue in which one Nurit Koppel plays the role of Rava, a surly “Finnish” author whose book Elaine is editing. Her over-the-top performance was intended as comedy and worked as such, despite some extreme confusion about Finland and the Finnish people. Cleo, while French instead of Finnish, is just a more affable version of Rava from Seinfeld but she’s not funny and she might even be offensive.
Just as we have to look at how severely The Queen’s Gambit misses the mark when depicting a French woman, we must also evaluate how The Queen’s Gambit depicts Moscow in the final episode, End Game. I remember being pretty shocked at the beginning of Stranger Things season three at the absurd characterization of the Soviets. I actually quit watching until it dawned on me that it was intended as parody of the way the Soviets were often depicted as some kind of cartoon villains in 1980s American cinema. Then I went back to watching without further objection. Dehumanizing others is the most virulent manifestation of propaganda.
In the case of The Queen’s Gambit, we find ourselves transported to Moscow in 1968. We get the usual shot of Saint Basil’s Cathedral against the backdrop of Red Square and there is some slightly sinister music playing while we get some shots from scenes that look like they came from the Slytherin common room. Through the remainder of the episode, Russia is depicted as some kind of weird chess cult. It’s all a bit much, but The Queen’s Gambit actually does a very good job where it counts. It begins when Beth Harmon more or less tells the Christian Crusade, who had offered to fund her trip to Moscow, to go fuck themselves. This comes as she is asked to make a Christian, anticommunist propaganda statement to the press in exchange for their continued support. Skimming through the prepared statement, Beth looks up. “I’m a chess player,” she says, addressing the two Christian Crusade representatives on her living room sofa.
“Of course you are, my dear, but you’re also a Christian,” the representative responds.
“I’m not sure about that,” says Beth. The two representatives look at each other incredulously. “Look,” Beth continues, “I have no intention of saying anything like this.”
“Why not?” asks the same representative.
“Because it’s fucking nonsense,” Beth replies.
This was my favorite scene from the entire miniseries. I had already been drawn to Beth Harmon’s introverted personality because I found it relatable, but it was at that moment, over eighteen minutes into the final episode, that I fell in love with her. At no point does The Queen’s Gambit slide down the slippery slope of anticommunist American propaganda that so many other series, even in 2020, still embrace. This scene ties in so well with the remainder of the episode and the miniseries, including the way she handles the paranoid CIA agent sent to accompany her on her trip. At one point, Beth is hesitant to speak with the press who await her during an adjournment. “Please, I just want to go to sleep,” she said.
“Don’t be like that,” he insists. “It’d be good to talk to them. Tell them that being in Russia has made you feel lucky to be an American.”
She gives in and speak with the press but makes no such absurd statements of blind nationalism, electing instead to take the opportunity to pay tribute to Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the recently deceased janitor who taught her chess in the basement of the orphanage when she was nine years old.
I particularly enjoyed the final scene of the miniseries. On the way to the airport, the CIA handler discusses an invitation from the President for a White House photo opportunity. Abruptly and at the risk of missing her flight, Beth exits the vehicle and approaches a pack of elderly men playing chess in the park. She is met with excitement and warmth as she sits down to play a game. “Соиграем,” she says. Let’s play. I’ve made my criticisms clear, but this is one of the best endings to a television series I have seen.
The Queen’s Gambit may be a guilty pleasure, but so is Oh My Ghost (also on Netflix) and I’ve watched that show, like, three or four times. Being me though, I won’t be catching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix again. I’ve already grabbed my torrented copies and dumped them in my NAS for future consumption. For those who particularly enjoyed watching Beth Harmon make short work of the greatest chess players in the world one after the other in the show’s final episode, I would steer you to the true story of Joona “Serral” Sotala, the Finnish StarCraft II player who, in late 2018, systematically and single-handedly dismantled a twenty-year dynasty of South Korean StarCraft dominance as he crushed the best players in the world one after another and became the first ever foreigner (i.e., non-Korean) to claim the World Championship, culminating in a moment that I, for one, will never forget and which still brings tears to my eyes.