What is The Queen’s Gambit?
The Queen’s Gambit is a book adaptation released on Netflix in October 2020. It follows Beth Harmon, an orphan in the 1960’s, who is a chess prodigy and matures into the competitive chess scene. As she enters the competitive chess scene with support from her adoptive mother, perpetually beating her opponents and winning an increasing pool of prize money, she deals with substance abuse, mental health problems and trauma.
This coming-of-age period drama not only has spectacular cinematography and an exciting plotline, but also represents mental illnesses and substance abuse accurately, constructing a popular show with high ratings.
When Beth was nine years old, her biological mother intentionally collided into another vehicle in an attempt of a murder-suicide of her and her daugher. Beth was left unharmed physically; unfortunately, this cannot be said for her psychological health. This sows seeds of isolation and contributes to her later rejection of intimacy. Multiple people throughout the series try to offer intimacy and closure, but are only insulted and pushed away by Beth.
Research done by Donald Kalsched, a clinical psychologist and Jungian psychoanalyst, has shown that childhood trauma this severe frequently leads to a splitting of personality, resulting in an emergence of a “false self” in order to protect the “true self”. This is seen in Beth as she is mandated to take Xanzolam in the orphanage, a fictional drug, to keep her “true self” safe in hiding. Though never explained in the show, this drug is theorised to have kept any possible trauma and/or anxiety of the orphans’ bottled up, taming their mental states and making them more “adoptable”. Shaibel, a janitor working at the orphanage, teaches Beth how to play chess, and the two eventually become friends. He becomes the sanctuary of her “true self” - offering her a haven to develop the side of her constantly being pressed down on. Despite his social status of being a janitor, Shaibel becomes Beth’s sanctuary, nurturing her “true self” and opening her up to experiences otherwise not possible.
Beth struggles with substance abuse for almost throughout the entire show, plaguing her from when she was a young girl to a matured woman. Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene, advises her to take the mandated Xanzolam at night, which marks the start of Beth’s addiction journey. Following this, Beth would often collect multiple pills, which would be taken all at once. In the show, this was shown to help her imagine the chessboard at night on the ceiling, enabling her to come up with battle tactics while simultaneously training her for her matches with Shaibel.
The show accurately portrays substance abuse in the sense that those who have experienced trauma often turn to it as a sort of remedy, as well as accurately illustrating high-functioning addicts. Though the harsh realities were correctly represented with Beth’s downward spiral due to alcohol abuse, leading to the inability to compete in a match, this could not be achieved in other aspects regarding substance abuse. Before the big finale and the final match of the show, Beth says, “What I need is the pills. The booze. I need my mind cloudy to win. I can’t visualize the games without them.” This implies that for her to be able to play well or be in the right mindset, creating a link between drugs and intelligence. Stephen King, a popular author, once stated that “The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time”, which is shown in The Queen’s Gambit.
There is a common misconception made by artists that they require drugs to be able to produce creatively, which shows them self-deluding and justifying their addiction. Drugs were portrayed in a positive light as they were made to be the reason for Beth’s success, inaccurately portraying them. Furthermore, her recovery from substance abuse greatly undermines the struggles those in recovery have to go through. This is shown only in the last episode, where she successfully imagines the chessboard on the ceiling sober for the first time, symbolising that she has recovered and no longer has to rely on drugs.
This barely scratches the surface of the struggles of recovery, like withdrawal symptoms or depression after a relapse. The tedious and difficult journey is shortened into a few minutes, within which she claims that she “no longer needs” the drugs. This completely twists the cruel hardships of recovery, misrepresenting substance abuse. Lastly, Beth is still shown as a glamourous figure during her downfall, in which she stayed home for a couple of days drinking. Though some may argue that Beth is consumed by her appearances throughout the whole show and this would still be in effect during her breakdown, this is not the case most of the time. Breakdowns are ugly and cruel, especially those involving alcohol and/or drugs. However, Beth’s was shown as attractive and appealing, distorting the reality of substance abuse.
Apophenia enables one to find patterns within meaningless things, or find connections between unrelated things. It is an important fuel of imagination and commonly found in the general population. Beth, like countless other chess players, has a heightened sense of it. This could be a symptom of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by itself, and could even benefit some, like Beth in our case. She is able to vividly imagine a chessboard and play simulations with it on her ceiling, helping her learn tactics and moves, assisting her in the grand scheme.
Though inaccurately represented in the substance abuse aspect, there are still take-aways from Beth’s recovery. The first is that resilience is the most crucial in one’s recovery journey. This is symbolised by her continuously asking Shaibel to teach her, during which her endurance shines through. Her childhood trauma was handled the same way: by being resilient and tackling the problem throughout a lengthened period of time.
Secondly, the show emphasises on the importance of a good support system, Beth’s friends. Her circle of friends consists of past opponents and love interests, who gathered all together for a phone call to give her advice before the final match of the show. They come up with chess moves for Beth together and give her a phone call, which is used to her advantage. In the end after her match, she calls them to tell them about the good news, after which was greatly celebrated. This shows that her support system is a great circle of friends, who helped her get through her recovery process.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this series showed that failure is mandatory. Borgov, the main antagonist of the show, is a Russian chessmaster who beats Beth twice. However, she does not give up and keeps going, eventually understanding that failure is a compulsory part of progress. This exhibits the positive message that we should not be afraid of failure and that we must face it to make progress.
Writer: Sylvia Yip
Thumbnail: Hailey Wong