Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved immersing myself in a story and a world not my own. So, when friends began talking about The Queen’s Gambit limited series, based on the novel by the late Walter Tevis, my husband and I decided to watch it.
I’ve been a photographer for more than 30 years, have written on and off for a couple of decades, and am married to a guy who has been in TV and video production all his adult life. We probably aren’t the people with whom you want to watch a popular series. We’ll moan out loud as we critique believability. We’ll pause and replay a scene multiple times to study the lighting or marvel at the composition of a shot. We’ll pause to have a discussion about why a scene works—or doesn’t. We’ll pause simply because a particular shot moves us. Consider this a spoiler alert and a walk through the series with us.
And did I mention the lighting? And the attention to detail? Wow.
It was only as we were approaching the end of the series that I began to dissect the story and see how it had gotten under my skin.
In many ways it’s an over-the-top, tug-on-your-heartstrings kind of story. It pulls out every trope in the book — the orphan prodigy, the addiction, the underdog, the humble school custodian mentor, the drunk adoptive mother, the unloving step-father, and on and on. A different show, a different book committing the same literary sins, and I might have caught this earlier and cried foul. I’m sure more sophisticated viewers caught all this early on. But the acting and the story were so compelling I believed it all — the adoption, the first few matches when Beth can’t stop winning, the first losses and the consecutive bigger wins, the use of alcohol to cope. I believed it until the last few episodes when I began to “see” the writing and literary devices intended to keep the story going.
At the end of the story Benny Watts, one of the few men to beat Beth at chess—and who has become a friend and sort of love interest—abandons Beth to fund her own way to Moscow for the tournament that will pit her against the Russian player Vasily Borgov. He’s has bested her, twice; this will be her chance to beat him on his own turf. But she doesn’t have the money to get there, and Benny’s going not to lend it to her. He’s done with her drinking and selfishness. But even as I realized that this was likely a turning point in Beth’s life, I also clearly saw this as that hero’s journey moment — the all-appears-to-be-lost device that leads a story to its conclusion. I was no longer immersed in the story. And I didn’t quite believe that Benny would do that to Beth. Instead of questioning the characters and their motivations, I began questioning the writing.
But the latter part of the story also brought a moment I’d been waiting for: Beth’s roommate Jolene, the Black girl who was her friend in the orphanage, shows up on her doorstep. I’d been wondering what happened to her. But the story line took a turn that made me angry here.
Despite the fact that Jolene didn’t even merit a last name in the series — unless my stalwart IMDB app has failed me — she is now a strong woman in her own right, and will help Beth get to Moscow. Because while Beth has been spending her winnings on alcohol, her house, and one hell of a wardrobe, Jolene has been working as a paralegal and saving her money for law school. But when Beth says that Jolene is her guardian angel, Jolene is angry. She’s simply been following Beth’s chess career and cares about her; that’s what friends do, so don’t call her a guardian angel.
Really? If the writers didn’t want us to see her that way couldn’t they have written her character so she wouldn’t come across that way? More to the point: Did the writers really intend to tell us another story about a Black woman coming in to save a White woman? Did they miss the broader social and misguided underpinnings to this bit of story? Oh, and by the way, the car that Jolene drives in this episode? That was a gift from a married man she’s dating. By this time, all I could think was “Wow. Married man. Cliche. Yawn.” I’ll come back to this in a bit because the treatment of Jolene’s character made me angry.
Remember Benny? Once Beth is in Moscow, we find out that back in the U.S. he has teamed up with several other male chess players Beth has played over the years to help her strategize that final game with Borgov. “That would never happen,” my husband said aloud. She beats Borgov, of course. But that last scene in which Beth and her federal agent minder are driving toward the airport — that moment when she steps out of the car, leaves to go play chess with the old men in the park, and the cab drives away? Yeah, that would never happen either, especially not after all the warnings the minder gave her about being in Moscow.
But let me come back to an unexpected pleasure I found throughout the story: Love. The love that blossomed between Beth and her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley. Both of them were so damaged and scarred, that I was certain Alma was going to use Beth to see the world by traveling with her and taking her tournament earnings. I expected their relationship would end badly. But somewhere along their travels, indeed funded by Beth’s winnings, they forged an affection and respect for each other that both found difficult to express beyond sharing a drink or touching hands in a cab. That made the death of Alma much more acute.
I was so distracted by these misses that I also missed what my astute writer/editor friend Steve Steinberg pointed out about the fairy tale ending: “Beth is outfitted all in white, with a pompom on top her hat: She’s dressed as the White Queen — and that’s what she played against Borgov.” That’s over the top for me, but if you’re going to have a fairy tale ending, it’s too lovely a detail to have your viewers miss while they’re pondering their disappointment.
But back to Jolene. I remember once hearing an editor speak about artistic choices. She said that not only do they shape the creator’s work, but they also shape how others view and receive that work. Artists need to challenge themselves to think and create beyond stereotypes, she said. Artists can create wonderful works when challenging themselves to think outside these boundaries. They can also challenge audiences to expand their own views of the world.
As I was wondering how The Queen’s Gambit could have descended into such tired stereotypes, I thought, “What if Jolene, a Black girl, had been the chess prodigy? What if the adapters of this story had challenged themselves — and us viewers — with a story that really upended what we think of chess, of women, and especially of Black women?”
I realize that this would have been a different story, and one much more difficult to tell. A Jolene chess prodigy in the 1960s and ‘70s would have faced even more obstacles than Beth Harmon did. Would a White custodian have mentored her the way that Mr. Shaibel did Beth? Would she have had an ally to help her get to Moscow? Would she have been accepted by the White male dominated chess world? I can’t say.
But, therein lies the artistic challenge, no?