Dressed up in some feminism and commentary of sobering addiction tales, “The Queen’s Gambit” is really from the stock of Hallmark Christmas movies or your standard rom-com.
Yes, there is darkness.
Yes, there is intelligence.
Yes, there is even a secondary female character with an interesting character arc.
But ultimately, “The Queen’s Gambit” rolls into a satisfying “everything went well” ending that leaves us all feeling as complete and resolved as the end of a ‘90s sitcom episode.
Take for example, the ubiquitous beaux of the show’s protagonist, Beth Harmon: in the series, she beds ironically both dopey- and narrow- eyed Beltik, the exciting Benny Watts, and the crème de la crème of rom-com boyfriends, Townes. They all love her and, in the finale, where she takes down the Russians, the ultimate goal of anyone playing chess during the Cold War, they all get together in Watts’s New York apartment to rally for her.
It’s standard rom-com/Hallmark magic, where the beautiful leading lady has legions of good choices to pick from, who all adore her, but has that extra special one saved for the ending.
Sure, they mixed things up a little bit to throw in an alluring foreign model for a little sapphic sophistication for Beth to have a romp with (and if I were further into gender studies than the occasional HuffPost reader, I’d probably have a bone to pick with the writer for making her tryst with a woman the only one to end up with Beth hungover and performing poorly at a chess match), but it’s just more glitter.
Then we have the problematic “magical negro” element of the show—which definitely is irksome as a woman of color—with Beth’s loyal friend Jolene, whose storyline as a would-be Black Panther, were it not for her ongoing affair with a rich, white lawyer who’s a partner where she is a paralegal, seems contrived and plastered on to placate the audience that the show is “progressive.”
Jolene is always second fiddle and exists as the last-minute savior for Beth, with her procurement of magical green pills for Beth for her first public showdown, and then $3,000 for Beth to go to Russia after fighting with some religious people.
Finally, that Beth is actually from wealthy, well-educated stock that went wrong from madness borne of genius in her erratic mother, is just too much of a nod to orphan stories of the 19th century to stomach, and is tinged with eugenics.
The popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit” is understandable: the cinematography is as lush as “The Crown,” the main actress is offset pretty enough to keep us rooting for her as a way of identifying with our own shortcomings, and it fulfills what all sports-themed movies do well—namely, a showdown with the Russians or some other enemy of the state to prove that all along, we were better, even with our foibles.
And perhaps, the world just needed a show that could assure the audience that all would be okay, but “The Queen’s Gambit” is just too shy of real consequences to truly drive that message of assurance home.
But like reading Dickens, you get caught up in the eloquence, and the flatness of the characters seems endearing because the plot is so wonderfully cute and tidy.
Definitely worth the watch, but “The Queen’s Gambit” is for those who like a little subversion—but not too much—for a warm and fuzzy feeling.