A creature arrives in America. It appears human but acts so emotionless it hints at an alien origin. Without parents and with a clipped way of speaking, the entity quickly integrates itself into society. With a single-minded focus it sets about its mission: destroy anyone opposing its goal of world domination.
The above paragraph describes two films: The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 science fiction classic, and The Queen’s Gambit, a new series on Netflix. Both deal with an icy character who travels into the past to try and prevent things that will happen in the future. In The Terminator, Arnold, a robot called the T-1000, lands in 1980s America from the future to prevent the birth of John Connor, the man who would successfully wage battle on the approaching dystopia of rule by machines. In The Queen’s Gambit, the producers have created a fictitious mid-century America where a robot-like female chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) annihilates the male opposition. The Queen’s Gambit is a feminist fantasy, with Beth a woman who forces Cold War America to become woke sooner than it is ready. An orphan who often seems more cyborg than human, Beth arrives in Mad Men America to decimate the patriarchy. She’s Arnold with a chess clock instead of a blaster.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit is directed by Scott Frank and written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. The story is a bildungsroman as it might be imagined by Betty Friedan, or if Ana Marie Cox was a chess freak and had a time machine. Beth is orphaned after her mother dies in a car crash in the 1950s, and is sent to a Christian orphanage where all the kids are sedated with tranquilizers. Through the school’s janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth learns chess. She is soon obliterating the competition and winning tournaments in her native Kentucky, with her alcoholic adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) becoming her agent. Told by a character that “the strongest person is someone not afraid to be alone,” Beth has to learn how to make friends, have boyfriends, get drunk, and make mistakes—live life.
Ultimately in the 1970s, as a grown woman, she plays the greatest chess players in the world, the Soviets, whose greatest weapon is the master Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). There is not much time spent on larger geopolitical questions or on the evil of the Soviet system, but this is actually an understandable dramatic choice. The Queen’s Gambit is like a sports movie where the emphasis is on the athlete’s single-minded focus on victory against the closest opponent, and eventually facing the best of the best. In the 1970s the top-tier chess players were Russians, and diverting to broader political themes would make Beth’s story flag and even be unrealistic. Championship athletes tend to be obsessed with strategy, not politics.
Anya Taylor-Joy is a gifted young actress who is exceptional at conveying dry, self-confident contempt. Trained in ballet, she holds herself with a powerful, haughty posture that is also elegant and sensual. Her putative guides through chess and life are the men she has faced off with, friends and lovers who are defeated former opponents. There’s the sly, arrogant Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the handsome D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), and the quiet, insecure Harry Beltik (Harry Melling). Most of them spend their screen time ricocheting off Beth’s preternatural ability and astringent criticism.
The film critic Arthur Taussig once described The Terminator as an example of “animus integration,” i.e., the story of a character extracting male energy in order to defeat foes. In that film, the protagonist Sarah Connor goes from a hapless waitress to a warrior, in part by being stabbed in the thigh by a strong male opponent. In The Queen’s Gambit, the totem of animus is Beth herself, with the men around her absorbing some of her power, which allows them to reach a new level of maturity even as it sends them sprawling. Harry can only handle living with Beth for a couple weeks before he decides not to be “a chess bum” and instead go and study engineering. Beth whips Benny so badly he looks like he’s going to cry at a bar afterward as he downs several beers. When Russian giant Luchenko (Marcus Loges) is mowed down by Beth, he bows and smiles, enjoying his defeat as if he knows, even from the vantage point of a Russian chess master in the 1970s, that he is on the official and liberal Right Side of History.
However, a hero who is indestructible is a boring hero. It’s true that Beth loses a match or two on her way to the top, and struggles with addiction, but these things are never really treated as serious obstacles. For most of the series, drugs and booze allow Beth to visualize a chess game, the pieces gracefully moving in her hallucinations, presenting different situations and battle plans. Then, as she’s about to face her hardest opponent, Beth just decides she doesn’t need a chemical boost anymore. No withdrawal, no tremors, no panic attacks or freak-outs. As critic Lilly Dancyger put it, “The next day, at the final match, we see her do her visualization trick while sober for the first time. Problem solved, addiction beat, just like that. But that’s hardly how it works in real life.”
In other words, The Queen’s Gambit has a Mary Sue problem. A Mary Sue, the dictionary reminds us, is “a type of female character who is depicted as unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses.” Rey, the young female hero of the recent Star Wars movies, is so marvelous at everything she tries that all tension evaporates from the story. Beth Harmon is the Rey of the alternate universe of The Queen’s Gambit. The film reflects this perfection, with immaculate sets, self-assured direction, and a great score by Carlos Rafael Rivera. It looks magnificent. Yet there is an aridity to the series, as well as an inevitability.
In the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker himself lost a hand in a bloody battle he loses, something that would never happen to Beth. One recalls that in the classic original Rocky film, the final fight was a draw. Even Rachel Syme in the New Yorker had to pause: “And it is true that there is a tinge of Mary Sue fantasy to Beth, as her boys show up for her like a bevy of tuxedoed dancers escorting Liza Minnelli from the stage. But I found it moving to see Beth, who has spent so many hours and evenings studying the chess moves of dead men in books, discover that she has support among the living.” As if it is an indictment, Syme then compares the great American chess player Bobby Fischer unfavorably to Beth: “Fischer was seen as the great hope of American chess during the Cold War, but he was also often erratic, antisocial, and prone to long disappearances and angry rants about the game.”
In other words, Fischer was fully human, including the flaws that make for sympathetic characters. When Sarah Connor in The Terminator is shown blowing orders and dropping plates as a waitress, we instantly like her, because we’ve all been there before. We want to see how she evolves. Beth Harmon, a fully-formed genius, has no such difficult path. The Queen’s Gambit has been a massive success, with 62 million households streaming the series in its first month. With those kinds of numbers, and with no less than the self-affirmation queen Oprah herself cheerleading for Beth, there will no doubt be a season two. As the Terminator so memorably put it, “I’ll be back.”