Though Beth herself becomes something of a role model for her female peers, she is utterly frustrated with the gender dimension of her narrative in a way that feels entirely authentic. For her time, she is considered exceptional because she’s a girl trouncing all the men at chess; yet she would rather be exceptional, period. Add to that her growing addiction to the pills, while taking after both of her mothers via alcoholism, and it only fuels her impostor syndrome—a term that hadn’t even been invented when this story takes place—and guilt at wasting this incredible, life-changing opportunity.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Beth’s career trajectory is witnessing how she steadily outpaces her male opponents. As Beth rises in the rankings, some of the previously mocking or dismissive men begin dropping off the tournament circuit, opting to examine the game from another, non-player perspective or to leave it behind altogether. These encounters both strengthen Beth’s conviction in her talent and challenge her to reconsider how healthy her single-minded obsession is.
Some of these former opponents also return as love interests, another notable aspect of Beth being the sole girl in the boys’ club. The miniseries handles this type of occupational hazard with sensitivity and respect, managing to depict Beth’s fumbling explorations of her sexuality without ever demeaning her character.
It helps that sometimes a chess match is foreplay, playful and existing only between the two participants. Other times, it’s an anxiety attack, mentally moving pieces back and forth while scrambling to predict what the other person will do. Just as it demystifies the structure of a chess match, The Queen’s Gambit also takes great care in dramatizing, in incredibly engaging fashion, the gameplay itself. The casual viewer won’t necessarily be able to follow every lightning-fast move, but the flow and the narrative of every game is clear. The cinematography is superb, especially the recurring visual motif of Beth manifesting a chess board out of shadows on her bedroom ceiling, the ghostly pieces blinking in and out of reality as she trains herself to anticipate moves.
It’s a rare series that can accurately render a particular form of genius without alienating the viewers who will always be the spectators. Beth’s struggles with addiction, and with the systems into which she was cosmically placed as some sort of powerless pawn, ground her brilliance without punishing her for it. Hers is a messy, poignant underdog story with the important takeaway that even if one becomes the queen, there’s no use in standing alone on an empty board; you’re nothing without the rest of the set.