PUT RESPECT ON HER NAME

Much has been written about The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, and with good reason. It’s an excellent show.

For me, one notable feature was the stories it chose not to tell.

I’m so accustomed to certain plot lines. Each time I realized Queen’s Gambit was sailing right past those, without taking an easy off-ramp, I became more intrigued.

The boozy, pill-popping mother trapped in her own misery, adopting a child? There are so many obvious ways it could go wrong; when the show patiently refused to explore any of them, I realized, This show has a better story to tell.

I thought the same thing about the various boys and men who interacted with the troubled chess genius Beth Harmon on her unlikely ascent to greatness. I kept expecting standard types of conflict — sexual assault; unrequited love which turns into bitterness or revenge; the jealous urge to control or even stymie her greatness because it may eclipse his. When Queen’s Gambit failed to choose any of those paths, my curiosity mounted.

How refreshing to realize a new story is being told, or perhaps an ancient one, being re-told at just the right moment, in just the right way.

What then is the story which Queen’s Gambit waits so patiently to tell?

[SPOILER ALERT: plot outcomes are discussed below.]

The answer is different, of course, for each watcher. But for me, the show is about the difficulty of being both a genius and a girl. Yes, layers of further difficulty are added on top of that; Beth is an orphan and a drug addict, and she is growing up in the United States, which in the 1950s and ’60s was a chess backwater. But when I boil it down — when I try to pinpoint why I was so moved and entranced — it’s the struggle of a girl whose gifts set her apart, sometimes painfully so. The girl feels this greatness inside her. She is by turns scared of it, amazed by it, fascinated by it, angry at it, and so on. The show is the evolution of her relationship to that gift. It’s a love story not between her and a boy, but between her and the game of chess, between her and her own genius. There are early, unsatisfactory experiences kissing boys or sleeping with them. But the true passion is reserved for trance-like visions of a chess board on the ceiling of her bedroom, the pieces moving themselves, the game revealing itself to her at warp speed.

Along the way, while watching this show, I kept thinking, It’s not easy for this kid. I didn’t always like her, I was occasionally frustrated by her decisions. But I was rooting for her.

In the show’s final episode, I was crying from the bulletin-board scene onward. The gradual reappearance of all the boys and men she’d encountered along the way — the fact that they were supporting her, cheering for her, praying for her — well, I was moved. I appreciated very much this model of masculinity, a model perhaps more aspirational than realistic, but nonetheless stirring.

Two characters, in particular, illustrated for me what true strength, kindness, and masculinity look like — the shaggy, gray-haired Russian champion whose eyes sparkle and whose heart opens when he sees that Beth has recovered her footing and will beat him; and the daunting, handsome, ultra-disciplined Russian world champion who faces Beth in her final match.

How these two men behave in defeat contrasts beautifully with the way a certain high-profile American is dealing with his own very public loss right now. In my view, these fictional Russians behave exactly as we should teach boys in real life to behave, whether playing chess or ice hockey, sitting in a classroom, dating someone, or whatever else.

In defeat, the Russian masters lay down their pride and self-regard, open their hearts, and smile at the supernova exploding in front of them. They step back and give the full measure of their recognition and respect. They are moved by the beauty and power of her game. They understand it not only eclipses their own, but that it illustrates, for a moment at least, the mysteries of the universe. They are honored to be part of her story.

There are other things to like about the show. Wardrobe and art direction are superb. And the storytelling reminds us, in vivid, realistic fashion, that the difficulty of the struggle — the extent to which the deck appears stacked against the hero — is precisely what builds the strength necessary for her final push. Beth’s route to success isn’t one which anybody would draw up ahead of time. There are crucial mistakes, moments of heartbreaking self-sabotage. But she gradually develops the strength and discipline to stay in the pocket and stare down the final opponent.

She may not be the hero we were expecting — an odd, brusque girl who sees chess games unfolding on her bedroom ceiling — but she feels like the hero we need. She is single-minded, proud, fearless, and so much stronger, way down deep in her soul, than her slender frame may initially suggest.

Finally, as exceptional as Beth’s chess skills are, it’s worth considering, too, that all of us have a sliver of genius inside us. Indeed, part of the life journey is to discover what one is good at, to work at it, and then to offer it to others.

If this is true, then it also stands to reason that, like the Russian chess masters — with their impeccable manners, their deep respect for the game, their unexpected kindness to the young American — we should try, when interacting with anyone at all, to discern and focus on the person’s sliver of genius, not their flaws, weakness, or illness. In this way a girl is nudged toward the greatness which is her birthright.

Genius wants so desperately to be born. We should do whatever we can to protect and nourish it. And when it does burst forth, we should stop dead in our tracks, bear collective witness, and applaud. We should give sincere thanks. That is the proper response, even if we ourselves may sit on the losing side of the table.

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
This entry was posted in CHILD REARING, HEROES, MOVIES, SPIRIT. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to PUT RESPECT ON HER NAME

  1. Aleen Keshishian says:

    Holy shit Kit – what you wrote moved me to tears too. I loved the show for all of the same reasons. I was there crying with you throughout that incredible final episode. But your own gift is as great as Beth Harmon’s. Your mind and heart and your writing blows me away. It’s sublime. I am in awe and so lucky to know, love, and be married to you.

  2. Carrie says:

    Nice Kit – nice!

  3. Keith says:

    Ok sold. I have to watch this show! Thank you for the entertaining and moving story.

  4. Sonia Keshishian says:

    Not only this superlative series resonated with both me and George , but your similar experience in analyzing this masterpiece with the familiar Kit eloquence , intensity, passion ,depth , convincing those who haven’t yet watched in advance to radiate this gem for themselves . I agree as a retired teacher this would have been a requirement for my students . You are truly a gift and we love you .

  5. Wow! That was some piece of writing! I don’t watch television or movies but did happen to catch some footage of this drama whilst visiting a friend and found it compelling nay almost addictive viewing. I hope I didn’t overstay my visits at my friend’s house! I must say that even though I watched spellbound for no more than 20 minutes out of the whole thing it made an impression on me. Your thoughts are interesting and generous.

  6. Ah! Thanks for this! Everyone is raving about it and I know it’s supposed to be so good! But at the beginning when the little girl’s parents die and she’s adopted by the boozy mom….I turned it off. Seen it a million times before and thought, “ok. I know this formula and that it will end well for the child but I simply cannot wade through the prescribed abuse to get to the payoff one more time. Got it.” You say they take surprising turns though. Didn’t finish Your review past the spoilers because now, thanks to You, I just may watch! Thanks again and Cheers!!! 💖

  7. I’m so glad you wrote about this show. I just saw it and was mesmerized. I imagined watching it with the sound off as it was so beautiful. The designs were perfect and the basic colors of the whole show projected this perfect feeling hard to describe with how it went with the story. Even her red hair fit with the colors especially in the parts where colors were dulled down. I agree that the relationship was between her and chess I think probably more than her with her own talent. My favorite part is the chessboard appearing on the ceiling and the chess pieces coming down, her playing upside down with Da Vinci like abilities. It was most impressive that she could do it upside down. And when she said the first thing that drew her in was the board being ordered and predictable and safe; the actual board is what’s most magical.
    I was glad that romance was mostly not there. I liked that her personality was like chess, intense, quiet, missing nothing and kind of like a panther about to pounce. When she said something it was like a quick barb, no wasting of words. I think she saw men as mostly opponents in a kind of asexual way, people she moved with and through that she had to see as chess pieces more than people.

  8. Proper respect & response! Equally expected please.

  9. marymtf says:

    My young grandson’s interest in chess has revived. So I guess (haven’t seen it myself) it has many layers.

  10. msjadeli says:

    Best thing I’ve read on the series yet. Articulate and with great heart. You’re right, the challenges of the hero that build strength, and the admirable ego-less responses of the men in it are an excellent template for character development. I also love that mom! Beth never would have thrived under and ordinary parenting style.

    • kittroyer says:

      Good point about the mom. I really enjoyed the way that relationship unfolded. Wasn’t what I expected at all. I loved that the mom wasn’t jealous or intimidated by Beth’s gift, and the two became partners in crime, lying to school about absences, barnstorming the US to rake in chess tournament cash. They were great together.

  11. Victoria says:

    Your writing talent deserves a round of applause! You have an innate ability to look past the surface into the soul of the subject. Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. Wow!

  12. I much appreciate your critique of this program. It was a heart warming and beautiful series. I find it increasingly important to watch only what makes me feel good and avoid what makes me feel bad.

    • kittroyer says:

      I totally agree. Feels especially important during lockdown to pay attention to … what we are paying attention to, I guess. The isolation can really intensify moods. Thanks for reading the post!

  13. Margaret says:

    Interesting post kitt (think that is your name as no About section in menu).
    I have not seen this film but may download it on i player as it sounds quite fascinating.
    Thank you for visiting and liking my blog posts.
    Happy new year and take care 🙂

  14. K E Garland says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said here. This was a great review of the series.

  15. I was debating about watching it, but after reading your post, I will

  16. dinkydo123 says:

    Well written. Another point of interest to me was the relationship she had with her black roommate at the orphanage. The show brought to light very subtly the opportunities that started opening up to African American women as well. I enjoyed the show very much. Thank you for the review.

  17. usfman says:

    I taught gifted kids for many years whose unleashed talents kept me busy providing them with appropriate real life challenges. As Beth Harmon found a suitable outlet for her exceptionality in chess, she also learned to survive on her own. I wish there were more episodes I could watch as the series seemed too short for me.

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