A New Narrative: The “Queen” Doesn’t Go to AA

“The Queen’s Gambit” is about a traumatized chess player who gets better.

Posted Nov 23, 2020

“The Queen’s Gambit” is streaming on Netflix.  The show is built around Beth Harmon, a fictional young girl and woman chess prodigy. Set in the 1950s-'60s, the show doesn’t depict modern problems. Except for the absence of parental love and addiction, which are evergreens.

Beth has problems — well-earned problems. Raised in a strict orphanage, she is given tranquilizers to keep her quiet. These do not serve her well in later life. 

Mercifully, she finds an unlikely chess mentor at the orphanage, a janitor. He doesn’t sexually molest Beth or run power trips on her. In general, “Gambit” is absent of villains. A bit of a Nurse Ratched and an acquired absent father. But no one attacks or intentionally hurts her.

Adopted by said invisible father and a desperate housewife, Beth eventually makes common cause with her adoptive mom. Her mother wants her to succeed if only to liberate herself.

People are nice in the chess world, it seems. Oh, there’s sexism, of course. But even the guys who look down their noses at her when she first appears at tournaments come to appreciate and help her.

The same is true for her chess boyfriends, whom she throws over for one reason and another. Oh, they have their problems. But they’re not abusive.

Along the road, when Beth’s pill-popping turns to around-the-clock alcoholism, people — men — are there for her, along with a good girlfriend and a female lover as well.

Beth has to kick the juice to succeed at the top of the chess hierarchy. How? She doesn’t go to AA, rehab, or therapy. Instead, she learns to rely on the well-meaning people in her life. Beth has understandable trust issues. But the universe as portrayed by “Gambit” is not a hostile place. It rewards genius, initiative, and personal connection. Even the Russian chess-playing automaton she must face isn’t such a bad guy.

Thus, although Beth qualifies for “trauma” and “addict” identities, she doesn’t take them on and let them weigh her down permanently. Intimacy does elude Beth. And will she ever be able to have a glass of wine as she matures? These could be topics for future seasons of the show.

Is this a new narrative that is finally emerging from the fog of 50 years of addictive disease and trauma theory? Rather than addiction and trauma permanently marring people’s lives, “Gambit” presents a far more humane vision. According to “Gambit,” people can change and develop when provided with human support, when they apply their skills, and when they take responsibility for themselves rather than drowning in self-pity or sorrow.

While the fatalistic disease and trauma tropes still dominate our therapeutic landscape, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a hopeful sign that there is room to maneuver beyond them and to achieve more accurate, optimistic, and successful therapeutic outlooks.

The surprising truth — that’s how recovery usually occurs.