If, like me, you’ve spent the last week or so utterly captivated by The Queen’s Gambit to the point where you’ve stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it, you’re in good company.
It feels like the whole world is currently raving about this show, and to anyone who hasn’t yet discovered the recent gem on Netflix—yes, it’s about chess. But also, it’s not at all about chess. And, no, it is definitely not boring, and no, you don’t have to know a thing about the game to fall head-over-heels in love with the protagonist and her story.
Titled after one of the oldest openings in the history of chess, the Netflix original is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Trevis and set during the Cold War era of the mid-1950s into the late-1960s. Without giving away too much of, the period drama follows Kentucky chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, as she makes her journey from 8-year-old orphan to world champion.
Now, before I go any further, there are some pretty big spoilers below, so if you think you’ll want to watch it for yourself, put those kids to bed early tonight and come back in the morning after you’ve binged the entire thing.
I’m just kidding . . . maybe.
Honestly, the most amazing thing about this drama is that almost everyone can find something from it that resonates with them—from brilliant chess strategy to the struggle of addiction and mental illness, to what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated sport, to the loneliness of genius, to the pursuit of greatness at all costs.
Not only that, but I was completely invested in the characters, who were all masterfully portrayed by a cast of familiar faces, and entranced by the elaborate set design, gorgeous wardrobe choices, and impressive filmography.
But what truly spoke most to my mama heart—and even broke it at times—was Beth’s longing for a mother figure in her life and how deeply you root for her to overcome the tragedy of her past and triumph over her inner demons.
Early on in the series, you discover that Beth is orphaned when her mother, Alice, dies tragically in an accident that somehow leaves her only daughter unscathed. As the show progresses, the circumstances behind Alice’s death are gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks, and the extent of both her own genius and mental illness becomes painfully clear.
In a devastating scene that occurs in the final episode, you learn that right before the accident, Alice tells Beth she is a “rounding error,” reducing her own daughter to a mathematical problem that has to be fixed.
It was at this point I found myself literally sobbing on my couch as my heart split in two and I thought of the immense burden placed on this child, a weight she would carry for the rest of her life. Beth’s feelings of abandonment are tangible, and despite her attempts to mask her emotions and numb herself with literal tranquilization, you can’t help but want to scoop her 8-year-old frame into an enormous hug and tell her how much she is worthy and loved.
Later, Beth is left to cope with the loss of another flawed maternal figure—her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, who shows genuine affection and concern for her, but ultimately succumbs to her own demons as well. “I don’t know why my body is so intent on sabotaging my brain, when my brain is perfectly capable of sabotaging itself,” Alma muses in one scene.
This show offers so much to reflect on, but the one thing that stood out to me over and over again throughout was a plain and simple notion—every child just wants to be loved.
They don’t need fame or fortune or lots of material things. They just need to feel safe and secure and wanted by the people who are meant to love them unconditionally.
Mental illness is also the most devious thief, and it is children who are so often robbed and left to pick up the pieces. This made the show absolutely excruciating to watch at times—on one hand, it’s almost unbearable to see Beth spiral into addiction and refuse to seek help, but on the other, you can understand exactly why she attempts to drown her sadness in pills, alcohol, and of course, an obsession with chess.
“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful,” she explains during an interview with a reporter from Life Magazine in one episode. “It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
Anya Taylor-Joy, the incredibly talented actress who plays Beth, did an interview with Refinery29 where she talks more about Beth’s struggles: “When you feel the loneliest, it’s usually because you can’t see past the end of your own nose,” she says.
“You’re so wrapped up in your head that you’re convinced there’s nobody out there on the edge with you. But everyone’s out there on the edge with you,” she continues. “If you open your gaze a little bit more, you’ll see that there are people who are willing to offer you a hand and want to be there to support you.”
Sure enough, Beth manages to create a circle of devoted friends—both in the chess world and outside of it—who respect, admire, and love her, and oh, do they show up for her when it truly matters. These people manage to pull her back from the depths of relapse, and with their help, she is able to finally reach her full potential.
Beth’s story is one of redemption—of discovering your worth, conquering your demons, and making your own family with the people who care about you. In the end, it is self-acceptance and the acceptance of help from others that gives Beth the strength to prevail, both on the chessboard and in life.
Taylor-Joy reflects on this, particularly as it relates to the final scene of the show, which was a beautiful and poignant way to say good bye—
“You have to make friends with yourself,” she says. “You have to find a home within yourself. Otherwise, how on Earth are you supposed to accept love from other people if you won’t even give it to yourself?”
The Queen’s Gambit left a deep and lasting impression on me that I won’t soon forget. I gained a whole new appreciation for the artistry and strategy of chess, and my eyes were opened to the challenges for women in a sport that remains dominated primarily by men. I witnessed the brutal reality of addiction and marveled at the skill and obsession of genius.
But my heart ached first and foremost for the motherless girl who begins her journey lost and alone, but ultimately discovers a force far more powerful than loneliness—an uncompromising love for herself.