In episode 3 of Netflix’s coming-of-age sports drama series ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ the teen chess prodigy of a protagonist states that it was the board that first drew her attention to the game. “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares,” she tells an over-inquisitive lifestyle reporter. “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.”
This awkwardness that Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston and Anya Taylor-Joy) feels about forming relationships with other people is the biggest source of conflict in the show. While the games are quite suspenseful and enthralling, their outcomes are hardly ever surprising. And her substance abuse problem is not really a glaring issue until the last few episodes. On the contrary, they fuel her ingenuity. SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Queen’s Gambit Recap
The series begins in the morning of Beth’s second match with the Russian world champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), in Paris. She is terribly late because of all of the booze she had consumed the night before. As she takes her seat opposite Borgov, the scene cuts to a little over a decade earlier, to the death of her mother in an apparent accident and her arrival at Methuen Home, an orphanage for girls.
There, she meets Jolene (Moses Ingram), a spirited young girl who is a few years older than Beth and has resigned herself to the fact that she will never get adopted; Helen Deardorff (Christiane Seidel), the woman who runs the place; and Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the orphanage’s custodian who gives Beth her first chess lessons. As the story is initially set in the 1950s, the orphanage is legally allowed to give the girls tranquilizer pills, to which Beth develops an addiction. Jolene convinces her not to take them immediately during the day but to save them for the night to enjoy the aftereffect.
Shortly after she learns about chess, she has her first drug-induced vision in which she sees a chessboard spread across the ceiling. In the following episodes, she develops a dependence on the pills to have these visions, which allow her to analyze the game. Beth later makes her departure from the orphanage, having been adopted by Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) and her husband, a childless couple from Lexington, Kentucky. When the husband leaves for good, there is a moment of profound uncertainty for Beth in which she has no idea what the future holds for her. But then, she wins her first tournament.
The $100 cash prize makes Alma realize that her adoptive daughter can make her financial woes go away. The two women come to an unspoken understanding. While accompanying Beth to various tournaments brings to Alma’s previously tedious life a sense of fulfillment, she provides the young, brilliant girl with a stable home. Through Alma, Beth gains access to the regular supply of, first tranquilizer pills, and then liquor. As she continues to win, her dependence on drugs and alcohol grows. In this way, it’s the price of both brilliance and self-expectations that she pays in full.
The Queen’s Gambit Ending
Following Alma’s death, Beth’s life starts spiraling out of control. Her friends, including Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Harry (Harry Melling), warn her in no uncertain terms about the self-destructive path she is on. But her fundamental inability to understand fellow human beings leads to her pushing all of them away. When the series comes to a full circle, and we are back in Paris with Beth facing Borgov in their second match against each other, she realizes that, despite all the preparations that she has undergone, she is still inadequate to face the best player in the world.
As a chess player, this is the lowest moment in her life. As an addict, this is her moment of reckoning. After she returns to the US, her friends try but fail to pull her back from the edges of the depressional abyss. It is then that her old friend from the orphanage, Jolene, walks back into her life. She was there when Beth first started taking the pills and is acutely aware of the effect that they have on her. Jolene’s physical presence in Beth’s home prevents her from drinking and finding an easy way out than dealing with the torrential emotions that are threatening to overwhelm her.
A Father Figure
When Jolene tells her that Mr. Shaibel has died, Beth again doesn’t know how to cope with her emotions, so she clamps it down deep within her. After going to the funeral with Jolene, she returns to the orphanage for the first time in years and still finds herself to be deferential to Helen Deardorff. She then walks into the basement where Mr. Shaibel had taught her chess. She sees that he had been keeping track of her career, collecting newspaper clippings.
But when she spots that photograph of her with Mr. Shaibel that Mr. Ganz took all those years ago, she finally breaks. She rushes back to the car and cries her heart out in Jolene’s arms, truly grieving for the only person who has done fatherly duties for her. Her biological father is likely still alive, but she became estranged from him a long time ago. The less said about Alma’s husband regarding this matter, the better. In the closing scenes, she walks through a park in Russia, where elderly gentlemen gather to play chess.
They flock around her, congratulating her for her success. And then, an old man, who looks remarkably like Mr. Shaibel, challenges her to a game. She accepts, and the show ends. This last scene brings her journey as a chess player to a full circle. She began her journey by sitting across an old man, eager to learn everything about the mysterious game, and she ends it in a similar fashion, only now she is arguably the best player in the world.
A Mother’s Daughter
Beth’s mother, Alice, was a mathematical prodigy and even obtained a Ph.D. But she started losing her grasp on sanity not long after she had Beth. What happened to her mother terrifies Beth, as she fears that she has inherited her mother’s madness along with her brilliance. As we are told in the finale, Alice purposefully drove the car towards the bridge with Beth in it with her, fully intending to commit murder-suicide. Throughout her life, Beth has been running away from the same fate as her mother.
Ultimately, it takes a conversation with Jolene for her to put things into perspective. At the orphanage, the only thing that each of them had is the other person, and they forged a bond that remains intact even now. It’s not just Mr. Shaibel who followed her career. Jolene did as well. For her, Beth has been a source of inspiration. Jolene wants to become a lawyer and rise to the same position of excellence as Beth is in chess.
She even provides the other girl with the $3000 that she needs to travel to Russia and face Borgov again. This experience with her childhood friend completely transforms her, and she starts losing the dependence on the pills and alcohol. The sobriety brings back her self-confidence, along with a sense of purpose.
Although the US government did little to get Beth to Russia, it nonetheless sends an intelligence officer to watch over her. In Russia, as she defeats grandmasters after grandmasters in the tournament of 1968, she becomes a household name, with a growing number of people waiting for her outside the venue every day. Although the film is set in the 1950s and the 1960s and revolves around a game, which at the time was tragically male-dominated, the miniseries addresses this issue only in passing.
Like the original 1983 book by Walter Tevis, it focuses on Beth’s internal strife rather than what was going around her. This is also the reason why it largely disregards the Cold War. And when the show does address it, it is generally satirizing the issue through the intelligence officer. The first day of her final match against Borgov ends with the latter calling for an adjournment. As she is walking out of the venue, a familiar voice calls out to her. Her romantic interest from earlier episodes, Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), is there. He helps her get past the impulse of taking the pills and reveals that Benny, Harry, and others are working round the clock to find weaknesses in Borgov’s game.
In the following morning, when she sits opposite Borgov once more, he surprises her by making a completely unorthodox move. It is then that she has the vision of a chessboard on the ceiling for the first time without the pills. As they continue to play, Borgov offers her a draw, which she refuses after some consideration. She eventually wins the game, prompting the more seasoned player to congratulate her and give her his king.
It’s a moment of liberation for Beth when her vision appears on the ceiling during the game. Now, neither she nor her brilliance is bound to the pills. From that point onwards, she plays the game with complete fearlessness. And while she, with the help of her friends, comes up with different strategies to deal with Borgov’s gameplay, the showrunners ultimately allocate the credit of defeating her opponent to Beth alone. After all, it’s her journey that we experienced in the course of the show; it would have been criminally unfair to her if she had to share her moment under the sun with others.
Read More: Is The Queen’s Gambit a True Story?