While stylish and bingeable, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit fails to portray an authentic struggle with addiction.
Based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, the hit Netflix adaptation begins in the mid-1950s and transitions into the 1960s, following orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) on her rise to becoming the greatest chess player in the world and, more poignantly, addiction’s toll on her.
The show has undeniable appeal: its costumes, sets, and overall aesthetic are fabulous, and the distinctive vibe of the 50s and 60s is captured flawlessly.
The chess matches are executed to perfection—just enough is shown to give the average viewer an idea of what is going on without forcing audiences to watch an entire game of chess. Even without knowing a thing about the game, I suspect most viewers could grasp the stakes of each match simply from the actors’ facial expressions and calculated direction. The Queen’s Gambit is wonderfully atmospheric.
However, the story is ultimately about addiction and control, not chess, and that’s where the show stumbles.
Chess is one of many things Beth is addicted to, and perhaps the only thing that allows her to feel in control. She has an addictive personality disorder—with every vice she chooses, she goes all-in. Beth has to drink bottle upon bottle of alcohol, smoke all the cigarettes in a pack, consume all the weed she can get her hands on, and play all the chess she can play. For her, there’s no stopping point.
Beth struggles with addiction for almost the entirety of the show. Then, all of a sudden, she shrugs it off to beat Borgov, supposedly the best chess player in the world, in the final episode. That’s not how overcoming addiction works. It’s a process—one that shouldn’t end abruptly because the writers failed to match the story’s arc with the protagonist’s.
The buck doesn’t stop there: several other facets of The Queen’s Gambit’s execution left me frustrated and confused.
The show’s depiction of an almost-overdose is the beautiful Taylor-Joy dancing in her underwear. Shots focus on her bare legs, panties, butt, and a top that emphasizes her breasts. She stares seductively upward as the camera pans down on her in an alluring position on a couch.
That’s not what a breakdown looks like. The scene, and the show as whole, is so obviously made to cater to the male gaze that it’s distracting and embarrassing.
Beyond the overt sexualization of its protagonist, the message the show is trying to send about addiction is imprecise. When watching Beth take drugs to visualize chess pieces on the ceiling, I was confused. I found myself questioning why drugs made her better at chess, and I expected that by the end of the show, it would be clear they didn’t and that her drug use was only hindering her. That never happened.
Beth was fairly successful at chess while abusing pills, end of story. She only really begins to struggle when she has to face the best opponent in the world, and even then, it’s not clear if her difficulties have anything to do with substance abuse.
Despite Beth’s struggles, everything is perfect by the end of the show—and it shouldn’t be. She and her friends band together to beat the mighty Borgov, she becomes the best in the world, achieves fame, and that’s that. When Beth’s too-old, handsome childhood crush, Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), came around the corner for a surprise interview with her at the end of the show, I laughed.
What happened to the protagonist who shoved handfuls of pills down her throat as a child? The shift from a Beth who’s struggling with addiction to one who is fully recovered is abrupt, and the result is an ending both unsatisfying and frustrating.
Where it peaks in style and atmosphere, The Queen’s Gambit lacks emotional precision. The show is beautiful in all the wrong places: it sacrifices an honest story for a fairy tale ending and fails to engage with substance abuse meaningfully.
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