Let me start by saying that I passionately believe addiction deserves a place on our screen. Personally, one of the greatest beauties I see in cinema is its capability to bring out empathy in its viewers towards struggles they might not otherwise get the opportunity to understand on a personal level. We desperately need more scripts that center around mental disorders and addiction because these populations are so regularly subjected to cruelty from those who would sooner demonize them than practice patience for them. Of course, these scripts don’t do us any good if they don’t commit to realistically portraying these experiences.
You’ve been warned, spoilers below.
- Beth’s Breakdown Scene
If you haven’t seen “The Queen’s Gambit” yet, don’t worry, you really don’t need to have to see how awful this whole sequence is. First, of course, we have to start with the outfit she’s wearing. Specifically, a skin-tight lacey camisole, a pair of similarly out of place white lace panties and a loose cardigan (you know, for modesty’s sake). Said cardigan they have her intermittently wearing on-and-off-the-shoulder might actually be my favorite part, as it so clearly is an attempt to save the costuming from critique. It’s undeniable that this is Beth Harmon at her worst, but did the normally-fantastic costuming have to nosedive alongside her?
You might be wondering how much effort I had to put into identifying each piece of clothing, but don’t worry, the answer is basically none, thanks to the directing of this scene. The cameraman makes sure nobody can miss just how sheer the fabric of the panties is by lowering the camera, so we’re looking directly at Anya Taylor-Joy’s ass while she dances into her living room. Being able to easily summarize Beth’s outfit is just a convenient byproduct of how objectifying this scene is.
But the costuming is just the foundation to the moment that makes this voyeuristic sequence irredeemable. During Beth’s drunken dance spiral, she falls and hits her head on her coffee table, lying sprawled on the floor while her ex tries to reach out to her. While some might think Beth is actually unconscious while Harry tries to communicate how worried he is about her, I actually maintain that she can hear him and is willfully ignoring his attempts to help her, a behavior very demonstrative of addiction. Unfortunately, we’ll never know either way because of the angle Beth is filmed in this scene. That is, from behind her head, so the audience cannot see if her eyes are open or shut, but can definitely indulge in observing her scantily-clad body on full display. I rewatched this particular moment a few times prior to writing about it and was honestly unable to determine if she’s unconscious or not. The sizeable fake eyelashes she’s wearing are just too in the way to tell.
The stark difference between how Harry is filmed on the outside of her door and Beth is positioned on the floor, with Harry’s face filling the whole frame in his shot compared to how Beth’s breasts are the center of the frame in her shot, is just the icing on the sexist cake. Of course, this whole sequence received valid critique for how it so clearly is prioritizing maintaining Beth’s sex appeal during the lowest point in her life. This viral tweet that set off a ton of debate on the topic of depictions of women at rock-bottom will forever have a special place in my heart.
- Beth’s Addiction Narrative
The first episode of “The Queen’s Gambit” sold me on the whole show with how it introduced Beth Harmon’s substance abuse. Reflecting the overall structure of the show, Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers takes up just as much space in the episode as her interest in chess does. This centering is a real highlight of the show for me, as it does not fall into the trap where characters battling addiction are either solely defined by their addiction or do not authentically struggle at all. Beth’s struggle with substance abuse isn’t linear, and in that sense, it is also wonderfully realistic.
Less realistic is how the show continually bends over backward to ensure that Beth’s battle with addiction remains palatable to a general audience. Beth struggles with two major addictions throughout the show (tranquilizers and alcohol), both of which she falls victim to because of the irresponsibility of the adults around her. Just as nine-year-old Beth is instructed to take the tranquilizers, she later abuses by the adults running the orphanage, teenage Beth’s first experiences with alcohol are made possible by her adoptive mother.
Highlighting how substance abuse is often enabled by the social connections in an addict’s life could be a good representation of addiction if it wasn’t the sole version of addiction the show offers. Addicts who are responsible for their first experience with a substance are still completely worthy of our empathy. If Beth had sought out alcohol on her own, we would still root for her to overcome her alcoholism. In the Netflix special “Creating The Queen’s Gambit,” Scott Frank, writer and director, states that the way in which Beth is “her own antagonist” is what drew him to her. Yet, the show insists on giving us undeniable scapegoats to blame for Beth’s struggles. Though it would make all the logical sense in the world for Beth (driven by the anxieties of facing off against her ultimate rival the next morning) to seek out the bar in Paris on her own, Frank creates Cleo so we can conveniently blame the French model for encouraging Beth to break her sobriety.
Yet even worse is how Beth’s journey with addiction ends. That is, with six lines of dialogue between Beth and Townes that can be summarized by Beth stating she needs the pills to win, Townes saying she doesn’t, and Beth… suddenly accepting that? Certainly, Beth’s chess friends helping her brainstorm all the moves she could make against Borgov can be interpreted as a lovely replacement for her maladaptive ritual with the tranquilizers, and it’s a part of the narrative I think is successful. However, the fact that this dialogue with Townes is the last time Beth’s struggle with addiction is mentioned is unforgivable. In the same Netflix special, Frank expresses that “for [him], the whole story is organized around” whether Beth will self-destruct or overcome her addiction, and I think this is clear with how Beth’s struggles evaporate completely as soon as it complements the traditional structure of the storyline. As unintentional as it may be, this fantasy resolution arguably trivializes addiction and sours not only Beth’s journey but her character as well.
Like many other “The Queen’s Gambit” viewers, I fell in love with the character of Beth Harmon. She deserved better, and so did the real people whose struggles she represents.