Saturday, October 24, 2020

REVIEW: 'The Queen's Gambit' - Beth Harmon Learns Chess While Becoming Consumed with Addiction in 'Openings'

Netflix's The Queen's Gambit - Episode 1.01 "Openings"

Sent to an orphanage at age 9, Beth develops an uncanny knack for chess - and a growing dependence on the green tranquilizers given to the children.

In 2019, the television industry aired 532 scripted shows across numerous outlets. The way people consume content now is different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, it's less necessary to provide ample coverage of each episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site provides shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series premiere of Netflix's The Queen's Gambit.

"Openings" was written by Scott Frank and directed by Scott Frank

By the end of this premiere, Beth Harmon is a 9-year-old in the complete thralls of addiction. It's a horrifying and visual image. As is common in this particular genre, the storytelling essentially equates brilliance and madness. It states that the same thing in Beth's brain that makes her a prodigy at chess also fuels her addiction. The story opens later on in Beth's life to dictate that she is still defined by these two aspects. She wakes up late for a highly publicized chess match. Her vices in the world distract her. And yet, she still makes it to the table to play. As such, she may be able to balance these competing forces in her life better later on. It's still devastating to see such damage done to a young girl. The orphanage she is sent to introduces the pills to her. It's a way that they keep the children in line. That makes them more acceptable for potential adoption. Those who lash out are the ones who would rather hoard the pills or take them at night to sleep. Beth learns her ways around this place by Jolene. It's a nice and genuine bond. She too wants Beth to succeed at chess. And yet, the world at large understands just how abusive it is to be pumping these children full of pills. Some sense of authority is aware that it is a problem and needs to be stopped. The adults in charge of this place don't particularly care. They abide by the rules eventually out of a sense of obligation. It's not out of a desire to protect these young minds. Jolene is also aware that cutting off the supply will lead to many young children in withdrawal. That happens to Beth as well. She just happens to be much more practical and industrious than most. The people in charge just want these young girls to have manners and devote their lives to religion. Beth is given a different outlet. She discovers chess in the basement from the custodian, Mr. Shaibel. He inspires her and challenges her. Sure, he is upset whenever she beats him. However, he sees just how talented she is right away. He may have the sexist mentality that girls can't wrap their heads around the complexities of this game. And yet, all she needed to do to prove otherwise was display some basic understanding of how the game works. After that point, he can show her how to play and actually allows others into the brilliance that he sees all the time. That is fundamentally uplifting. Her life may have started with tragedy. She may always be destined to struggle. But she also has this outlet and passion that provides purpose to her. Sure, the narrative is also a bit simplistic when showing how her mind works this way. It suggests that her genius came from her mother whose own mental illness derailed her scientific brilliance. She was abandoned by a father and mother. One left the family a long time ago while the other seemingly died from suicide with Beth in the car with her. It's traumatic. People hope they can provide a safe space to take care of a young Beth. And yet, it all builds and builds until she is desperately seeking out pills. It doesn't derail her ability to defeat players in the local community. No one at the orphanage or high school can beat her. She can run multiple games at once and still prevail in all of them. That is impressive. But it's still such a searing moment seeing her swallow handfuls of these tranquilizers. Jolene gave her two final pills to allow her to shine upon heading to the high school for the first time. That kindness was appreciated. It's all she could do though. She couldn't encourage this addiction any further. Beth's brain simply compels her to act and pick apart the security measures in place to ensure these pills are secure. She is still caught. It's a traumatic sight. One where her addiction needs to be treated. That may never come because of the time period. That may be setting the audience up to accept some dark fate for Beth eventually. Her fame may be crushed by this disease. But it's still joyous to see her triumph. It's small wins for now with devastating losses for her body. The sense of tragedy is strong here. But the victories need to be just as searing along the way. The command of tone feels more than capable in that regard.