(Editor’s note: The following piece contains spoilers for “The Queen’s Gambit,” including the ending.)
By the time Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), the beguiling central figure of “The Queen’s Gambit,” has sex for the first time, she has already survived the death of her mother, a harrowing orphanage stint, developed multiple addictions, and wiped the floor with chess masters twice her age. She reaches coolly across the nightstand to light a cigarette, strawberry curls framing a placid expression, as if she’s performed this time-honored post-coital ritual a million times before. Gazing across the endless divide with puppy dog eyes, her odd bedfellow asks sheepishly, “So, um…should I stay here or go back to my room?” Without glancing up from her book of chess plays, she replies nonchalantly: “Whatever you want.”
It’s the 1960s equivalent of sitting down at your desk after a one-night stand, firing up the laptop and diving into work emails, and it’s absolutely brutal. Poor Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) never stood a chance against wunderkind Beth Harmon, in the tournament or the bedroom.
She’s much better matched with someone like Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, AKA the “Love, Actually” kid all grown up), whose knife-toting swagger makes him just as much of an anomaly in the chess world as Beth’s sex makes her. After early losses to Benny in an important tournament and multiple rounds of speed chess, Beth finally exacts her revenge, finishing him in 30 moves to claim the national championship. (Beth: “Was it that many?”) When she finally beds him after a preemptive rejection, flipping the script on typical gender roles, she announces breathlessly: “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like.” No time for a cigarette.
Visually sumptuous and darkly compelling, the story of “The Queen’s Gambit” belongs entirely to Beth, an orphan chess prodigy using booze and pills to outrun her childhood trauma. Created by veteran Hollywood screenwriters Scott Frank (“Minority Report,” “Get Shorty”) and Allan Scott (“The Preacher’s Wife”), the series is an unusual example of men writing an autonomous woman character who is fully empowered to enjoy sex.
Like a strong chess opening, the seven-episode miniseries sets Beth up as a precocious and emotionally reserved child who becomes addicted to little green “tranquilizer” pills, handed out willy-nilly to the girls at her orphanage. After convincing the surly custodian (Bill Camp) to teach her how to play during furtive sessions in the basement, she displays a remarkable aptitude for the game.
What follows is her ascension to the top of the world chess rankings; the series ends with a triumphant visit to Moscow where she finally beats world champion Vacily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). But first, she has a slew of men to get through. While her complicated but loving relationship with her adopted mother Alma is a major highlight (featuring a star-turn from filmmaker Marielle Heller as TV’s best drunk), the show hinges mainly on Beth’s relationships with men — first as opponents, then as lovers.
Throughout the series, Beth blows through lovers as breezily as opponents, always seemingly in charge, though the audience can see her internal doubts. When Harry first kisses her, she’s taken aback by his abrupt advance. “I just wasn’t ready,” she explains. “I’m ready now.” Closing her eyes, waiting for Harry to take initiative, she adds firmly: “Now or never.” After being curious about sex for awhile, Beth takes her fate into her own hands. Similarly with Benny, it’s her brushing of his hair that lets him know she’s interested. Playing hard to get, he assures her there will be no sex during their chess training. After Beth creams Benny and his friends in multiple rounds of speed chess, Benny’s discipline is no match for the allure of her genius.
Beth’s predilections are not exclusive to men, either. Though it qualifies as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it queer moment, she also has a dalliance with chic Parisienne Cleo (Millie Brady). Cleo may not be the best influence over Beth’s drinking (what chic Parisienne is?), but she has a seductive way of aiding in her self-discovery. Continuing the sophisticated Frenchwoman caricature, Cleo asks Beth bluntly, “Do you like to fuck?” Though Beth feigns coyness, the answer becomes resoundingly clear the next morning, when the camera lingers definitively on a sleeping Cleo wrapped luxuriously in Beth’s mussed sheets.
The one man she never beds is the dashing Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a former player turned journalist who happily documents her rise to prominence. An intimate hotel room photo shoot proves embarrassing for Beth, when their amorous moment is interrupted by Roger, a peppy fellow in bright green short shorts who reminds Townes that dinner is at 9. Though later admitting he was “a little confused,” Townes says he was drawn to her as a friend. “You kind of broke my heart,” he tells her. To which she replies, as only a world-weary soon-to-be world champion could: “I have a way of doing that.”
Beth is a mad genius, a tortured drunk, and a consummate seductress. In short, she’s every alluring male character in the history of cinema. The men in her life revolve around her, not the other way around. She uses them — whether for sex or companionship or chess practice — graciously, but always for her own gain. She likes sex, has a decent amount of it, and is never punished for doing so. She is completely in charge of her sexuality, unbothered by feelings or what it might mean; all the tedious drama that typically accompanies women enjoying sex onscreen. “The Queen’s Gambit” allows Beth to be a whole human — with desire, ambition, and feelings — without compromise. After all, she has much more important things to worry about — like beating Borgov.
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