~Spoilers for the Queen's Gambit alert! If you haven't seen it, turn back now.~
I like many Americans binged the Queen's Gambit over the last few days. If you haven't seen it, this post has spoilers so beware! The Queen's Gambit is a Netflix limited series about a fictional chess prodigy named Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). While chess is obviously the centerpiece that brings all the characters together, I found that the show was using the game as a cover for what it really wanted to talk about, which is the dark side of success. The show explores what it means to be the best, and how without the right mindset, the pursuit of more can destroy you.
Beth is really good at chess. While many sports (Chess is recognized as a sport by the Olympic Committee, look it up) movies feature an underdog team that squeezes out a win against overwhelming odds, Beth is a nigh invincible conqueror on the board. The show intentionally breezes over many of her games after a few moves, and gives the viewer the sense that Beth is not struggling. She strikes piece after piece from the grid, often causing her opponents to abdicate in the early stages of the game. Yes, the show is about a chess player playing chess, but I don't think the viewer is meant to see chess as Beth's main obstacle. Rather, Beth's struggle is largely against herself.
We're not wired to believe we ever have enough. Squirrels are always one winter away from going hungry, so they spend all year finding nuts to stockpile. Each spring, the squirrel has to start from scratch and save nuts all over again. Humans figured a way out of this food rat race. By planting crops and domesticating animals, we no longer had to worry as much about where our next meal was coming from, or at least not as much as everything else crawling around.
Despite that realization, we're still stuck with the hardware that thinks it's only a matter of time before it all runs out, before we have to go find more water, food, or both. This is what drives people to make more money even once they have enough to provide for their basic needs. This is what drives people to climb and climb the ladder of success until they're out of rungs. We all have this sense that if we had just a little more money, fame, or success, that all our problems would miraculously fade away, and The Queen's Gambit does an amazing job of shattering this fantasy. Beth is at the top of her game, has her face on the cover of magazines, and a decent amount of money (chess winnings aren't exactly the same as an NFL salary). And yet, we never get the sense that it's enough for her.
A scene that illustrates this is when Beth is in Paris getting drinks with Cleo, the night before a big rematch with Borgov, the current grandmaster.
It's clear that Beth has fallen in love with the city, and is musing about what her life would be if she moves there. After matter-of-factly stating that she'll be world champion in a few years, she then lists off the things she'd do after winning and moving to Paris: going to plays and concerts, visiting a new café every day, and adds, "I would dress the way women do here. So smart with their nice dresses and perfect haircuts." We've all dreamed of living in Paris at some point, but it feels strange coming from someone with world class talent, something we all might all find even more elusive.
The show acknowledges this feeling in the viewer by having Cleo's very next line be, "You already have so much more than they do. And something that none of them have." This line chilled me, and clearly made Beth freeze. We realize as Beth does that even with all she has, that she isn't happy. That despite her unrivaled proclivity for chess and her nation-hopping adventures, she feels a sense of emptiness that she believes material things like wearing fancy clothes can fill. This mirrors the belief of many of us that fame and fortune will fill the emptiness that we feel. So we the masses, and Beth the prodigy, stand on opposite sides of the same coin of unhappiness, each wanting what the other has, and unaware that the same feeling of dissatisfaction waits on the other side. What's the solution? Cultivating a sense of enough.
The show shows us what this might look like through Harry Beltik. Harry is a former rising star in the chess world who after spending time training with Beth, decides to give up the chase for champion once and for all, instead opting for a more traditional path of going to school to become an electrical engineer, working as a grocer in the meantime.
The show makes some of Harry's character growth evident in his choice of vehicle; The first time we see Harry driving, they have a long shot of his car's flame decals that pauses on the script denoting the model, a Bel Air. It's a fancy car with an obnoxious exterior, much like Harry himself. Fast forward to the last time we see Harry drive, he shows up having wrecked the first car and driving a much more moderate, and fittingly unnamed coupe. He even quips, "this one's more me."
Ostentatious to practical.
In front of that very coupe, Harry confronts Beth about her clear substance abuse issues that have unmistakably spiraled out of control by this point in the series. She lashes out at him, attempting to ridicule him for giving up on chess and taking up a job at a supermarket to help pay for school. He responds calmly by saying, "Yeah, I like working there. It's a good job and the people are nice."
We then have a direct juxtaposition between the famous, rich, prodigal Beth, and the more relatable Harry, and we the viewer are asked, who seems happier? Who seems more fulfilled? There's no question.
Beth goes on to win it all, eventually defeating Borgov but not before having a similar realization to Harry. Beth is meant to be the world champion, but she never seems at ease with that fate until the very end. She no longer needs to live in a cloud of pills and booze to win games or feel happy. She no longer yearns for a life she doesn't have. She feels no rush to bask in the flash of cameras or even to get congratulated by the President. Instead, she spends the final scene setting up a board for a game with an elderly man playing chess in a public square, possibly her first game with no stakes. She no longer loathes her talent, and has found equanimity in playing the game for its own sake. Beth has found enough.