There’s a surprising scene near the end of the second episode of “The Queen’s Gambit” when things take a disorienting turn for the better. Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an eerily stoic orphan recently adopted by a lonely, alcoholic housewife, has just won the Kentucky State Chess Championship, and Alma (Marielle Heller), her new adoptive mother, struggles to process the information. She’d had no idea how serious Beth was, or how gifted. For a moment, it’s unclear how she’ll take it. Alma is herself a talented pianist who never had the courage to play in public. It’s intimated that she lost a child. Her husband has just abandoned her. The series has spent the better part of two episodes piling traumas on Beth. Her unstable birth mother was killed in a crash with Beth in the car. She was placed in an orphanage where the kids were given tranquilizers along with their vitamins. The show is suffused in a gloomy, gothic atmosphere. Certain expectations have been set. Surely, fresh disasters lurk around the corner.
Instead, one by one, they are averted. We’ve already watched, in the first episode, as Beth wanders downstairs to the basement to find a taciturn janitor with a haunted expression brooding over a chessboard, but rather than molest her, he teaches her to play. We’ve already seen her adoption, at age 15, by Alma and her husband, Allston, who radiates bad vibes but mostly leaves her alone. After he deserts them, in Episode 2, it seems almost certain that the show will foist Alma into the role of mother-as-emotional-anvil who will hold Beth back from her dream, but again our expectations are foiled. Alma instead suggests they go to a tournament in Cincinnati. They’ll lie to the school. They’ll make a fun adventure of it. You don’t see this turn coming, and you don’t quite trust it. Next time, you think, Beth won’t be so lucky. And yet she almost always is.
“The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix series based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, is a bildungsroman about a female chess prodigy set in the late 1960s. Nothing about this combination of circumstances suggests a happy ending for its protagonist, or for the show itself. But both defied expectations. “The Queen’s Gambit” was watched by 62 million households in its first four weeks, according to Netflix — almost as many as the record-breaking “Tiger King” — and developed a fanatical following. People tweeted their drawings and paintings and Animal Crossing renderings of Taylor-Joy. They announced they were taking up chess again. Sales of chess-related merchandise soared.
Everybody loves a story of transformation: about an underdog who triumphs over adversity, a girl who is mocked for her shoes and then becomes a stylish swan. But we apparently really love a story of affirmation: a world in which a girl can move freely, in control, and be respected for her strategy and skill; in which a female character succeeds in a man’s world without being harassed, assaulted, abused, ignored, dismissed, sidelined, robbed or forgotten. This story is so vanishingly rare in the real world that it comes across as utopian in fiction. “The Queen’s Gambit” is a fantasy, and one we rarely see depicted — the fantasy of a functioning meritocracy for women, in which they are free to do what they want.
After Beth wins her second tournament, in Cincinnati, Alma asks to be her agent. Beth accepts, and together they embark on a rule-breaking mother-daughter buddy-adventure tournament tour. In the montage, Alma gleefully lies to the school while applying lipstick, inventing illnesses for Beth as she decides between outfits to pack. The two of them jet around from city to city, wrangling excellent upgrades and eating at restaurants. In fancy hotel rooms, Beth goes over her games while Alma lounges on the sofa in a slip, enjoying a cocktail and laughing at the TV. The convention-flouting swagger of it is especially thrilling, as Alma realizes she’s free from the whole 1950s domestic trap. At tournaments, star-struck young boys clamor for Beth’s autograph and her approval. (One nerdy kid tells her he’s started a chess club.) It has been established that Beth is a genius, and a genius gets to do whatever she wants as a rapt world cheers her on. Right?
The tragic tale of the doomed girl genius is a perennial favorite. In literature and film, the male genius is lionized; the female genius is institutionalized. This is just how it goes. These stories reinforce the idea that a woman can either be a genius or be loved/happy/sane/free — not because she threatens the male-supremacist power structure (or so we’re told), but because there’s no place in the world for an anomaly like her. Even sympathetic narratives show how this is true, reclaiming the genius from obscurity, as in the case of “Hidden Figures”; or depicting the nearly impossible trials she had to go through to be acknowledged, as in the R.B.G. documentary; or not acknowledged until it’s too late, as in “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story.” Nobody cheers for the girl genius while she’s out there, being a genius.
“The Queen’s Gambit” seems designed as a critique of and an upgrade to this entire genre. Instead of being put through the familiar degrading gantlet, we watch as Beth encounters only the mildest resistance to her participation in competitive chess. She’s never asked to bend to the world; the world bends around her. Her eccentricities and shortcomings are not only given a pass but a sort of primacy. She’s a rock star, in other words — the rules are different for her. Alma recognizes this early on, as do her competitors-turned-lovers and friends. One woman on Twitter wrote: “Just finished ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and am very taken with the idea of all my exes in a room somewhere cheering me on.” Another replied: “This is what I fantasize about when I masturbate. Seriously.” Beth buys a killer wardrobe. She buys a house. She becomes an independent woman, at a time when there were so few of them, simply by being good at what she does and being recognized for it.
At first I assumed that the character of Beth was based on an actual person, but it soon became obvious that this wasn’t the case. The fluidity of her rise and the lack of resistance she encounters on her way to the top gave it away. At this moment, both in politics and the pandemic, in which women have been disproportionately sidelined and burdened, this kind of meritocratic, gender-agnostic fiction is desperately needed. It cheers us up. It reminds us of who we’re supposed to be. It reassures us in the same way that the chessboard — predictable, rule-bound, well delimited — makes Beth feel secure and in control. “The Queen’s Gambit” provides the perfect escape from this strange reality we’re living in, this uncanny Upside-Down, by imagining a world in which talent, hard work and fair play alone are rewarded, in which everyone is equal and everyone has a shot; where power isn’t corrupt, the game isn’t rigged and a winner can expect the enthusiastic, uncontested acknowledgment of her victories. Nothing could be further from our current reality, but who needs our current reality? What we need now is something else.