This essay appears in the upcoming Winter 2021 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe, click here.


In 1986, on a trip to London with my mother and sister, I had the pleasure of seeing the musical Chess, created by Benny Andersson (music), Björn Ulvaeus (music and lyrics), and Tim Rice (book and lyrics). An adaptation of the hit concert album, the musical was a quintessential ’80s product: bold and bombastic, full of large personalities (an American grandmaster loosely modeled on Bobby Fischer!), melodramatic plot twists (a love triangle that disrupts the championship!), and big themes (superpower rivalry or celebrity culture—which is more corrupting?). I had a blast.

I can’t say I learned anything about chess, mind you, but that’s not what the show was about, any more than Casablanca is about an (entirely fictional) refugee crisis in Morocco. Written in the shadow of the Cold War (but not in service to it), Chess takes a more jaundiced view of fateful choice than does Michael Curtiz’s film. You may think you’re a grandmaster, but the powers that run this crazy world are always several moves ahead of you. That being the case, the best you can do is retain your integrity: refuse to throw the match, even if it means returning to the country and the family you were trying to leave. Both love and idealism are pieces you must be willing to sacrifice to stay in the game. That’s not the quality of sentiment most people go to musicals for, and so Chess was never more than a mixed success. It has been repeatedly revived but also repeatedly revised, as though playing the match over and over might somehow make it come out as something more satisfying than a stalemate. But that endgame may be inescapable. It is built into the Cold War context of the story, the surprise ending of which cannot be read back into even the last stages of the conflict without doing violence to the experience of the time.

Doing violence to experience, though, has become the American way of historical fiction—or so I felt after watching Netflix’s blockbuster hit limited series The Queen’s Gambit, another chess-based story that takes place during the Cold War. Set from the mid-1950s to the late-1960s, the series follows a fictional chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who arrives at a Kentucky orphanage at age nine after her mother’s death in a car accident. There she is introduced to the game by a forbidding but ultimately devoted janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), and to the tranquilizers that she becomes addicted to by the cold and repressive orphanage administration. After being adopted by an unhappy couple (the husband abandons his wife almost immediately after the adoption is finalized), she breaks out with remarkable fanfare onto the circuit as the great female American chess hope, struggles with love and addiction, and ultimately triumphs over the Soviet antagonists that have loomed vaguely in the background for much of the series.

I would apologize for spoilers in the foregoing, but doing so would be especially superfluous in this case. Whatever draws audiences to The Queen’s Gambit, it is not the delight of surprise. The series gives the audience everything that Chess did not: a single protagonist to root for unequivocally; an extremely linear plot, with a predictable and escalating sequence of challenges for that protagonist to meet; and an ending that resolves all conflicts, such as they are, in a neat package, leaving the heroine not only champion of the world but completely self-actualized and free. If people believe that playing chess can give you all that, then perhaps it’s no surprise that sales of chess sets nearly doubled within three weeks of the series’ debut.

To be fair, COVID-19 is the likelier reason for that spike; jigsaw puzzle sales surged even more dramatically early in the pandemic. But it is clear that the series has struck a chord. The question is, why is this story resonating so strongly at this time? What is The Queen’s Gambit actually about?

Abstract Americans

One thing it definitely isn’t about is the Cold War. The American propaganda interest in defeating the Soviet Union is treated as at best a distraction; the only characters who care about it (an American diplomat and the emissaries of a Christian group who offer to pay Harmon’s way) are transparently odious figures whom the protagonist gets cheap points for ditching. The Soviets, meanwhile, are depicted primarily as fanatical chess fans, eager to embrace this young American woman for loving the game as they do. This isn’t just bien-pensant left-wingery; it’s part of a pervasive disinterest in actually capturing the feel, as opposed to the look, of an era. While The Queen’s Gambit has been much compared to Mad Men because of its production and costume design, these lack the meaning they held for the previous series, fundamentally concerned as it was with the use of beautiful surfaces as tools of repression. The Queen’s Gambit has copied Mad Men’s flat diction and sleek look, but they are empty signifiers, mere historical tourism.

Moreover, for all the hype about the story’s social conscience, the series has barely any real interest in the struggles of either a woman in a male-dominated field of competition or of a high-stakes performer addicted to drugs and alcohol. Harmon faces essentially no obstacles due to her sex; on the contrary, she’s lionized from the beginning for the novelty of being a rare female chess prodigy. Most of the men she meets—including competitors—prove exceptionally nurturing, and the ones who aren’t (like her adoptive father) are absurdly easy for her to best and dismiss. She doesn’t even worry about birth control. The series’s engagement with race is if anything more condescending; Harmon’s best friend at the orphanage, Jolene (Moses Ingram), is black, and I cannot recall the last time I saw a major character so utterly lacking in authentic internal motivation, whose entire purpose is to serve the needs of the protagonist. Much the same could be said of the treatment of the sole gay character.

As for Harmon’s addictions, for most of the series they barely slow her down, only becoming a real problem after the one time she can plausibly blame a loss on overindulgence, which triggers a depressive spiral. That in itself is not unrealistic; there are plenty of high-functioning addicts in the world. Her “rock bottom,” though, involves little more than wearing garish makeup and behaving rudely at a high school chess tournament. And once she decides she doesn’t need drugs or alcohol to relax (which she must do to visualize the potentialities on the board—bluntly literalized as visions of giant chess pieces that stretch down from the ceiling like stalactites), well, that’s it: she takes a deep breath and instantly achieves the concentration she needs to triumph. This is the one through line that the series appears to be taking seriously, and it resolves in the most audience-reassuring manner possible.

Eliminating Complications

There are gestures toward other themes that could have been developed, but they never get beyond the opening moves. Taylor-Joy’s performance suggests a character who is neuro-atypical, perhaps someone with Asperger’s syndrome, and, having known several successful people with the condition, I would have liked to have seen the attendant difficulties grappled with, particularly in the context of a world that didn’t yet have a name for what it was observing. But the writers swerve away from anything that might limit audience identification, so all we get is affect. Similarly, Harmon’s celebrity status gives her financial independence at a very young age, a situation fraught with peril. But again, while suggestions are dropped here and there that maybe her adoptive mother likes having a meal ticket a bit too much, and that maybe her own impulsive choices risk financial disaster, these function mainly as box-checking exercises. Once the writers have established that they were not blind to these possibilities, they feel comfortable dropping them—in the mother’s case by abruptly killing her off, eliminating the only character besides the protagonist with a persuasive interiority (thanks in part to Marielle Heller’s sensitive performance), and also the only one with whom she could have a real emotional relationship.

In favor of what, though? While it takes structural elements from a host of other genres, The Queen’s Gambit is really a superhero movie, the most familiar genre of our era. Our heroine’s story begins tragically, in orphanhood and addiction. This tragic origin is bound up with her superpower—an innate, preternatural ability that she would never have discovered without the help of a mentor whom she only met because she was a lonely girl in an orphanage, and that she would never have developed without the poisons that the orphanage used to pacify her. The carefully curated trials she faces force her both to develop her powers and to confront and transcend her tragic origin story so as to fully become the heroine she innately is. Even the cinematography, with its extensive use of wide-angle lenses and reliance on CGI cityscapes, and the unabashedly manipulative underscoring, are reminiscent of the Marvel style; watch The Queen’s Gambit and Captain America: The First Avenger back to back and the resemblance is unmistakable.

But Harmon’s power is . . . playing chess. It’s an activity with literally no purpose beyond its own perfection. While the stakes of superhero films are absurdly inflated, with the existence of the entire world frequently in jeopardy (a quite real prospect during the Cold War, something our culture has never really come to grips with, which may perhaps explain its persistent threat inflation in art and life alike), Harmon’s chessboard is a hermetic universe; nothing hinges on her winning but her personal victory.

That didn’t have to be the case. Chess has been made much of as an analogy to human conflict, including the Cold War (which is why Chess used it as a grand metaphor), but that’s not how it functions in The Queen’s Gambit, where the contest of societies is treated as silly. The game has also been valorized precisely for its hermeticism, as a haven from the world of signifiers and signified; that’s certainly one thing Marcel Duchamp loved about it. But while chess itself is hermetic, Harmon isn’t remotely in retreat. Indeed, the more she succeeds at chess, the more her story is about celebrity; she lives in a world where the local drugstore displays chess magazines in the dead center of the rack. Even the personal journey that Harmon goes on—learning to love herself, discovering that she is loved by others, and abandoning the crutch of drugs and alcohol—is essentially hermetic, notwithstanding that she is only able to win because of the support and assistance of her friendly male chess rivals back home. Why, after all, does winning even matter?

Everything Is at Stake

Chess, in The Queen’s Gambit, is an entirely abstract activity that, if mastered, is nonetheless the gateway to fame and fortune, love and glamour, and above all: status. In that sense, the series is a kind of purification of the meritocratic hero’s journey. From Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, our culture has been increasingly obsessed with placing young people in competition, often deadly competition, with that competition being bound up with the fate of the world. That may be one way of making our children, forced to jump through ever more complex hoops, feel a sense of purpose about their distressingly unfree lives. But these heroes must always step outside the system to one degree or another to become themselves. And they must step outside themselves as well, must make moral choices that affect others—for good or ill—as part of their journey toward maturity.

In The Queen’s Gambit, though, Harmon does not have to make those kinds of choices. She is hurt by others and (more often) is helped by others. But she does not have to hurt anyone, nor to help anyone; she only has to take care of herself. She has to learn how to use her powers, but not how to use them for good, because they cannot be used for good, or for ill, as chess has no intrinsic moral dimension. She does not have to win one for the Gipper, nor does she have to achieve some sublime work of beauty—at least not one we can appreciate from where we sit. Harmon is herself the thing of beauty, in her physical being that is the constant focus of the camera’s eye and in the play that we never actually come to appreciate ourselves but only appreciate through the reactions of others.

That, finally, is all we really experience in The Queen’s Gambit: the vicarious sense of being a natural winner, and being loved by everyone for being one. It’s a chillingly ­asocial fantasy, and I shudder that we seem to have embraced it like a weighted blanket to relieve the pain of our pervasive isolation.   

Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.