Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Queen's Gambit - review

One of the most popular TV shows this year was The Queen's Gambit. It is based on a 1983 novel by an American writer, Walter Tevis. In brief, it tells the story of an orphaned girl, Beth Harmon, who becomes a chess prodigy in the 1950s and 60s.

Like most other people I enjoyed watching the series (it has a 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). One striking thing about the series, that soon becomes apparent, is the lack of rancour toward men and toward the era in which it is set. The men generally act as admirers of Harmon and become her willing mentors. Nor is there much heavy-handed criticism of the larger society; instead considerable attention is paid toward period detail. It is striking, too, that the character of Beth Harmon is allowed to be visibly feminine. She spends most of her time wearing beautiful outfits of the era - she is not the usual mannish type of heroine.

So that's the good part. There is, unfortunately, a more negative aspect of the series to report on. There is a tussle in the story between the forces of tradition (faith, love, service & family) and that of the new order (an independent, glamorous life based on money, consumerism, sex & career). The contest is not made one-sided, but ultimately the new order dominates.

Most disappointing is the way that family is treated. Some old tropes are wheeled out here. The girls who want to marry are portrayed as air-headed, mean girl types who get by, after marriage, with drink. And the only men who are portrayed negatively are fathers, who are coldly cynical and abusive.

I couldn't help but wonder, as I watched, how the new order would work for most ordinary people. We can't all be young chess prodigies feted for our extraordinary talent, achievements, beauty and desirability. The "goods" promised by the new order can only be enjoyed by a relatively small part of the population. And if we only live for ourselves, then how would a Beth Harmon ever survive the difficulties of her childhood? The people who gave themselves to her did so out of charitable love, motivated in part by religious conviction.

For all that, The Queen's Gambit is well-written, well-produced and visually stunning.

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