In addition to exploring the surprisingly thrilling world of high-level competitive chess, The Queen’s Gambit also explores the many ways in which protagonist Beth Harmon has her life shaped by some significant relationships. Parents, friends, tutors and lovers all lend a thread to the tapestry of this complicated and intelligent young woman. Like the game of chess itself, each person in Beth’s life presents a moving piece that molds and forms the champion of the game.
Beth’s earliest relationships were cut off when her father abandoned them and her mother died in a car wreck when she was nine. Her formative years were touched with trauma, and then she was shuffled off to an orphanage where she had trouble making friends and finding an adult she could trust. She fortunately finds people whom she can rely upon until she is ultimately adopted by a couple named the Wheatleys.
The intricacy of Beth’s character is complicated by mental health issues and addiction. While Beth can be seen to use the game of chess as a way to keep sane and find purpose, it is also the people in her world that offer another route to recovery and connection. These people bring fertile meaning and nuance to Beth’s character, while also enriching the story as a whole.
Alice appears to have suffered from a severe mental disorder, causing her to participate in self-destructive behavior and have long bouts of depression along with distracted, disordered thoughts that led to her suicide. Beth looks up to her a great deal, admiring her intelligence and academic achievements. Alice is a mathematician and scholar, and her sometimes debilitating mental illness seems exacerbated by her overactive mind. She is full of advice for Beth, teaching her how to handle disappointment and distress.
She calls Beth’s father “A mistake, a rounding error. It’s just a problem I’ve gotta solve.” When Beth asks, “What problem?” her mother replies, “What I do with you.” Her mother seemed aware that her mental health was about to overtake her, possibly resulting in her death, and this dialogue suggests that she was weighing up whether Beth would end up being in the resulting tragic events. It’s likely Beth has internalized this, as she hears Alice’s voice as she falls over and hits her head on a table during a drunken binge saying, “That’s my girl.” This suggests a part of Beth has romanticized mental illness due to her mother, viewing it as a part of a simpler past, and something that allows her to remain close to Alice.
Beth’s biological father is absent from her life from an early age, appearing once to the trailer Beth and Alice share, and again when her mother goes to beg him to take some responsibility, but he angrily turns them away. Beth doesn’t recognize him. She is told at the orphanage that her father is useless to her—and, seeing how Beth’s father appears to have willingly abandoned her, this is a harsh truth.
As a teenager, Beth stops to stare at her schoolmate’s father for a moment at a party, jealous to see him sitting there, serenely enjoying a nightcap as his daughter and her friends dance and sing in the other room. Beth’s loneliness stems from this early abandonment, leading her to believe she is unworthy of love or incapable of participating in relationships without spiraling. Whether conscious of it or not, Beth is largely detached in her romantic entanglements.
The first to notice her keen intelligence, Mr. Shaibel is a man after Beth’s own heart. The gruff old janitor at first dismisses her request for chess lessons, but after she displays some natural acumen, he allows her to join him in a game and teaches her the basics she needs for her talent to shine through. Perhaps the most important lesson he teaches her is knowing when to resign. It’s a sign of how important the old man was to her that Beth uses her moment in the spotlight in The Queen’s Gambits finale to insist that reporters include Mr. Shaibel’s name when writing about her.
“People like you have a hard time. You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs,” Mr. Shaibel observes at one point. “You’ve got so much anger in you.” Mr. Shaibel’s perception of Beth is intercut with her ordering beer after beer as she walks through the streets in Mexico City. In the final moments of the miniseries, she sees chess as she has always seen it: moving above her on the ceiling, but this time Beth sees the chess pieces without the use of drugs. It is her own vision of chess, along with her penchant for dogged competitiveness, that keeps her in the game. Shaibel would have told her to accept a draw, but she listens to her own voice.
Jolene is an older orphan who knows she will likely not be adopted due to her age and the color of her skin. Later in her life. when Beth experiences a downward spiral into drug and alcohol abuse, Jolene shows up at her door and helps to get Beth back to sobriety. Jolene recognizes Beth’s predisposition toward addiction early on, and the matter-of-fact way that she deals with such topics works well with Beth’s highly intelligent yet naïve view of the world.
Jolene is unfortunately relegated to a well-worn and problematic trope of the magical person of color, but she’s a figure Beth needs, allowing her to return to her roots and reconnect with her troubled inner child, and addressing traumas that have developed into her diseases. Jolene pushes aside the notions that she is a savior or fairy godmother, subverting the trope to say that both women will need each other from time to time, because that’s what family does. Jolene, like Shaibel, acts as a kind of bookend to Beth’s development – their once teacher and pupil relationship becoming one of sisterhood.
Alma is introduced as a housewife with an alcohol problem. She doesn’t seem truly prepared to be a mother, and buys Beth frumpy clothes that serve as mere utility. She seems nervous around her husband and bitter about his absence, and her money issues add to her insecurity. When her husband leaves her, she resolves to be a better mother and to pay closer attention to Beth, which she does despite severe depression.
She eventually becomes enthused about her daughter’s chess skills. The pair become close, relying on each other for comfort and strength as they both abuse tranquilizer pills and alcohol to cope with mental health issues. Alma treats her like an adult woman and loves her like her own daughter, cheering her on though she doesn’t understand all aspects of chess. Alma inserts her own lessons: there’s more to life than what information you gather. Alma is a skilled pianist that “plays fine as long as it’s for fun,” showing Beth that the skills and gifts people hone can be enjoyed. Alma’s message permeates the final moments of the story, as Beth finds joy in the talent she has chased for so long, playing just for fun.
Cold, stand-offish, and severe, Beth’s adoptive father is barely in her life and quickly abandons her and Alma. After Alma’s death, he allows Beth to keep the house, but later bullies her over half of the equity. Allston says that it was Alma’s idea to adopt Beth, despite Alma claiming the opposite, making Beth feel small and unloved. The camera angle reflects this, pointing down at Beth as she crouches in a chair. As Beth calls Allston pathetic, however, the camera angle changes to show her looking down on him, insignificant and whimpering and unworthy of her. He inspires her to fix up the house to her tastes and become a fully-realized adult, and her newfound strength upon discovering she never really needed a father keeps her sober – at least, for a while.
Townes is a kind, perceptive journalist to whom Beth forms a strong attachment. He is one of the first players to be gracious to her when she shows up to compete, encouraging her to go for the big games. When Beth and Townes adjourn to his hotel room in Las Vegas for some photographs, she meets his handsome roommate and assumes that they are lovers – something that’s more or less confirmed in the final episode. Though this creates distance between them, Townes still remains one of the most gentle influences in Beth’s life. Most people surrounding her are troubled, sardonic, or detached, whereas Townes brings warmth and sincerity, which awakens a part of her dormant since childhood: one that desperately wants to be taken care of.
She admits to Cleo that she’s still in love with Townes many years later. He, like a chess board, is a puzzle to be solved, hence her long-time attachment to him as opposed to the other men in her life, whom she has figured out. When they meet again, she is maintaining her sobriety despite the pressure of playing in Russia, and she is able to accept him telling her he’s gay without heartbreak. It seems very clear that what Beth needs in her life is true and loyal friends who act as the family she was denied.
Harry is first high-level ranking chess player Beth goes against. Thanks in part to him underestimating her, she is able to beat him, earning respect in the chess community for the first time. Years later, Harry calls her to offer condolences, and she invites him to come stay with her. He admits he has admired her for years, reading her interviews and profiles and replaying her matches. After reconnecting with Beth, Harry kisses her, taking her by surprise. She is not in love with him, but she allows for a physical relationship to begin.
Their relationship perhaps mirrors what the relationship between Alice and Beth’s father may have been in the beginning, but Beth is decidedly not Harry’s manic pixie dream girl. Harry leaves, coming back into her life years later to express concern over the danger of her self-medication. He is one of many characters who is enchanted with Beth while being eager to teach her, coach her, and advise her. He is something of a Pygmalion, falling in love with someone he thinks he can create.
Benny catches Beth off guard, intimidating her with his cool demeanor and alarming prowess. Later they attend the Championship in Ohio, where he beats her soundly in a speed round. He asks her about her drinking and pills and insists she be completely sober while he trains her. Through him she meets Cleo, who makes her see something in herself, allowing her to finally beat Benny. With Benny, she has good sex for the first time in her life, representing that she has discovered her intellectual match. She also has a brief romance with Cleo, during which she relapses after a period of sobriety.
Benny’s main role in Beth’s life is to challenge her. She is used to attaining triumph, and when she meets Benny she is knocked off her high horse. One of the most valuable things Benny teaches Beth is that she can still master chess without altering her state of mind. Despite her refusal to come back to him after bombing in Paris, he doesn’t collapse in on himself but rather continues to encourage her, and, in a feel-good sports movie moment, arrange a call to her in Russia. It is a moment that shows how far Beth has come, and it is infused with just the right amount of sweetness, illustrating that the little orphan girl has found a family and perhaps even the man who can be her match.
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