NOVEMBER 20, 2020
A FEW DAYS BEFORE THE ELECTION, I wrote a tweet thread about The Queen’s Gambit, about the particular work that show was doing for us in the days leading up to the election: what if, the show proposes, everything bad didn’t happen?
If you’ve watched the show, you’ll have felt what I was describing: over and over again, the show strongly suggests — through a variety of genre and narrative cues — that something bad is about to happen. And then . . . it just doesn’t. An orphan is sent to a gothic orphanage and the staff . . . are benign. She meets a creepy, taciturn old man in the basement . . . and he teaches her chess and loans her money. She is adopted by a dysfunctional family and the mother . . . takes care of her. She goes to a chess tournament and midway through a crucial game she gets her first period and . . . another girl helps her, who she rebuffs, and she is fine anyway. She wins games, defeating older male players, and . . . they respect and welcome her, selflessly helping her. The foster father comes back and . . . she has the money to buy him off. She gets entangled in cold war politics and . . . decides not to be.
In short, everything that could go wrong . . . simply does not go wrong.
Beth still struggles with the traumatic memory of her mother’s suicide, and of her father’s rejection, and she uses drugs and alcohol to calm her anxiety and dull her pain. But these struggles are minor, making her eventual, inevitable triumph the sweeter. And while she actually treats many of the people around her quite poorly — she doesn’t even pay Mr. Shaibel back! — no one ever punishes her for failing to be what she’s supposed to be. The reverse, in fact: her community seems beyond her ability to alienate, a family that absolutely refuses to give her up. At just the right moment, she is rescued by her super-duper magical best friend, who teaches a valuable lesson and loans her life’s savings despite Beth having never apparently given her a moment’s thought since childhood. “I’m here because you need me to be here,” she says: “that’s what family does, that’s what we are.” And in the climactic moment of the show, she gets a phone call from her ad hoc team, a group of boys she’s defeated, collected, and then discarded: no matter how carelessly she treats them, her chess “family,” they absolutely refuse to abandon her.
The joy of the show is this pair of wish-fulfillment fantasies. She escapes every gendered societal double standard with as much ease and grace as when she wriggles out of traps on the chess board, an awkward social outcast that is abruptly, suddenly, a stunning fashion icon. But her history of abandonment becomes, just as abruptly, the discovery of community. They pass every love test. If chess is usually considered an antisocial game, her genius draws everyone closer to her, healing every hurt and betrayal. And if her origin story is traumatic abandonment, her superpower makes everyone love her, support her, and stick with her.
This is fun to watch, like when a superhero thrashes all of the bad guys. Things looked bad for a minute there, but, luckily, everything is fine now thanks to how, well, super the superhero is.
As a chess story, The Queen’s Gambit is a good one, making chess look exciting and dramatic. And it’s a satisfying sports story, too, of an underdog rising to the top. But it couldn’t exist without the most famous and infamous story about chess genius: Bobby Fischer. Beth not only obviously resembles him, but the structure of her story consciously parallels and re-writes his mythology. When Fischer beat The Soviets, “The Match of the Century” would be remembered as the kind of patriotic cold war narrative that could have been (and sort of was) scripted by Henry Kissinger, a cultural proxy war for the main cold war campaign: a lone, eccentric American overcomes the group-think of the communist machine by sheer force of his genius. When Beth beats Borgov, however, she both is and isn’t alone: she wins the game on the strength of her own improvisatory genius, but it’s the support of her friends and discovered family that gets her there. More importantly, winning only wins her more family, from Borgov’s applause to the final scene when she is embraced by a mass of anonymous Muscovite chess players. Throughout the show, the better she gets at chess, the more others are drawn to her, filling her orphan’s life with a surrogate family and community.
It is, however, the darker side of Fischer’s mythology that haunts the culture, a figure of self-destructive genius that has outlasted the cold war. Fischer was raised by an activist, leftist mother, a Jewish Russian émigré at a time “when ‘Jew Communist’ were equated” as a contemporary put it, two words for one concept. When he was a child, his mother instructed him never to answer anyone’s questions about his family, never to talk to strangers that might, for example, turn out to be the FBI. When the patriotic anti-communism that made him a Nixon-era hero would fester into an unstable and toxic paranoid, self-hating antisemitism, it’s easy to tell a story of man consumed by his childhood trauma, exactly as Beth isn’t. After the celebrations of his 1972 victory — Fischer is King! — began to recede, and as Fischer got weirder and more elusive, the mythology of his name — in movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer or Pawn Sacrifice — becomes a cautionary tale about self-hatred, obsession, and individual genius. “Bobby Fischer’s Pathetic Endgame” was to die a stateless recluse in Iceland in 2008.
Beth never meets Bobby Fischer, who in 1963 declared that women are “terrible chess players” and suggested with a grin that they shouldn’t “mess into intellectual affairs, they should keep strictly to the home.” No one says anything like this to her or about her — one of the litany of bad things that never happen to her. But more importantly, she also doesn’t become Bobby Fischer: her trauma and obsessive self-absorption never curdle into cruelty, and the more she pushes the world away, the more it forces its way back in. But just as you have to know how gothic orphan tales usually go to feel relief when this one doesn’t, you also have to know the Bobby Fischer story to feel the relief at his absence. In this sense, Fischer is everywhere because he’s nowhere, with Beth the Bobby Fischer-shaped hole left behind when you remove him from his story.
Why write this fantasy? Why make the tragedy of Bobby Fischer into a feminist fantasy, a superhero story?
Annie McClanahan observed that Netflix is being not-HBO, that “HBO proves its quality by punishing you (and its characters) while Netflix wants to give you a ‘lil pleasure, for a treat.” This is obviously correct: if we find HBO’s “Not TV” aesthetic in the variety of edgy narrative sadisms by which you, the viewer, are punished for your dirty, filthy desires — you bad, bad boy! — Netflix is TV that you binge or chill or fall asleep to, TV for relaxing. HBO would never make a “fireplace” TV show. And so, like Netflix’s Stranger Things or House of Cards or The Crown, the immaculately rich interiors and production detail of The Queen’s Gambit make it less a period piece than a kind of fantasy of what the past was like, or could have been, the past re-imagined as product.
“There’s historical truth and then there’s the larger truth about the past,” as The Crown’s historical consultant put it, a moment before acknowledging that, actually, what he really means is that we’re in the business of entertaining, not “educating.” This is why The Crown gets all the clothes right, all the rich and sumptuous details: it means you can let all the unpleasant stuff go by the wayside. Pointing out that they didn’t really have wallpaper like that, or complaining about the fantasy Black best friend who exists to magically save you (but also is going to law school for the revolution), well, it’s a little like the Conan Doyle Estate suing Netflix for depicting Sherlock Holmes having emotions. What do you think we’re doing here? Asking why no one has a Kentucky accent is like asking why The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t have anything to say about the murder of Breonna Taylor: that’s just not what it’s here for.
History is wholly the wrong word for what shows like The Queen’s Gambit are doing with the past, like calling mass-produced Pottery Barn interior decorations “antiques.” They didn’t put the clothes from The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit in the Brooklyn Museum because they’re historical: they’re meant to remind you of the past, give you a comforting feeling of past-ishness, but mostly they’re meant to attract ticket-buyers. They’re meant to satisfy, like stuffing yourself with warm turkey at Thanksgiving and not thinking about genocide. Don’t ruin the meal. The goal is drowsy comfort, falling asleep on the couch with your family.
Drowsy comfort, falling asleep on the couch… this felt good the weekend before the election.
“Nothing bad happens” is an attractive fantasy when, like every day for the last four years or so, it felt like everything bad could and would happen. The worst are not only filled with a passionate intensity, but they’ve been winning in ways it remains difficult to comprehend or predict or even explain: so much of the horror of the Trump administration and the newly re-fascisted right is that they shouldn’t exist, that they just shouldn’t be. The Nazis were defeated in the forties, after all, and President Donald Trump should have never been more than a punchline. His candidacy should have ended with the Access Hollywood tape and Hillary Clinton should have been elected the first woman president. After all, didn’t Obama demonstrate that a new era had dawned? Had we not come together to remake this great nation so that it might always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals? Does not the arc of history etc etc etc blah blah blah?
That was a fantasy, obviously, but take a moment to re-inhabit the fantasies the Obama administration sold us in 2008. Read these lines without the 2020 knowledge that none of this came true:
Generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal this was the moment when we ended a war, and secured our nation, and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment, this was the time when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves and our highest ideals.
What happens to a fantasy when it becomes impossible? When it cracks into pieces and becomes too implausible to entertain? What replaces it?
Dread is the answer, and a dreadful, paranoid certainty. It wasn’t just the experience of 2016, though as we watched the electoral returns defy the polls, again, many of us re-lived that rather traumatic experience. Everything that came after that only re-confirmed a deep and nagging sense that nothing good can happen. When the certainty that Donald Trump could never be elected was so decisively shattered, and when it was re-shattered every day since then, you started to lose your sense of how the original fantasy had been so persuasive in the first place.
What kind of fool would ever imagine that “progress” was the way the world works? What kind of idiot would imagine that good things happen?
Cynicism is one response to The Queen’s Gambit, but there’s something a little silly about being cynical about a fantasy, like caustically observing that a real fireplace would have burning logs, producing smoke and heat in addition to light. In the show, Jolene calls Beth a “cracker” but it’s only in the novel that Beth retorts with the obvious, predictable, and striking-by-its-absence racial pejorative. But, of course, no one should be surprised that the n-word was taken out of the show. Like every other Chekhov’s gun in the show, the fact that it doesn’t go off is the point. And a cynical reading of a show like this only produces more cynicism: what, you expected a searching historical analysis of American white supremacy… from Netflix? That would be like expecting this show to #SayHerName.
And yet fantasies only make sense in relation to the nightmares they’re suppressing. I’m not saying The Queen’s Gambit has incredible wallpaper because it wants to make you forget about The Yellow Wallpaper (though it does have incredible, eye-catching wallpaper and there are reasons why Charlotte Perkins Gilman picked that trope). But take a show like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: without the specter of Woody Allen, #MeToo, and the pervasive sexism of stand-up comedy, since forever, the premise of a magical perfect lady comedian in the 60s wouldn’t even make sense. It wouldn’t satisfy; without something it was struggling to absorb, digest, dissolve, and defuse, you’d simply wonder — as I’ve been wondering, falling asleep to Emily in Paris — what exactly is this show is trying to do? Why is it here?
Before the election, when a cloud of dread hung over us, and we were trying to make the hours pass so the suspense would break, getting lost in The Queen’s Gambit provided a real sense of relief: all of the threats and dangers that our paranoid brains were spinning up and endowing with a horrible inevitability . . . what if they just didn’t happen? But I find it harder to feel as enthusiastic about the show now, after a President has been elected whose campaign has been one long story of Donald Trump with a Donald Trump-shaped absence at the center. I’m glad Trump is gone — or going — just like I’m glad to watch a gender-swapped Bobby Fischer story with the paranoid patriotism stripped out of it. I’m an American, so what I like is a tragedy with a happy ending: what if, instead of defeating the bad guys, they simply never were? What if, instead of the cold war paranoia of Nixonland that brought us forward to Trump, we could simply stay, forever, in a 1965 where Johnson is still president? (Except no one is sexist, Black people are lawyers, and we don’t talk about the Vietnam war). What if the solution to politics is that there is no such thing as politics?
This is why all the things that this show isn’t suddenly seem more salient, right now: all the reasons I loved the show — in the week before the election — have become reasons I can’t love it so much right now. With Trump gone — or going — it suddenly feels important to remember that Trayvon Martin was murdered when Barack Obama was president. And all the things the show did so successfully, so pleasurably, and so necessarily — two weeks ago — don’t seem quite so important. Instead, we are left with what the show always was: a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a beautiful, white, fragile-yet-resilient heroine who everyone loves and who rises from nothing to conquer the world. As Namwali Serpell observed, what is new about that? It’s a staple of YA for a reason.
Once you peel away the novelty of a magical superheroine in a world without sexism, I think what’s left behind is a desire for calm and quiet, for the upsetting buzz of a world filled with people to simply go away. Walter Tevis might have recalled his childhood love of phenobarbital when imagining Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers, but the fantasy of those drugs — for her and for us — is that the world might just quiet down, shhhh, enough to think and sleep. The buzz of fear and anxiety tamped down enough to play a game. This, in the age of doom-scrolling 24/7 Trump dumps, is a desperately attractive fantasy. But when the president is boring again, what happens to this longing for inertness, for calm, for quiet? When Trump is gone, does politics become something we can ignore? As the cliché goes, do we all go to brunch?
One of Beth’s most disturbing qualities is her apparent lack of object permanence with regard to other people, who cease existing when they’re no longer in the room with her. This scans as a survival mechanism, a necessary (or inevitable) response to abandonment. When Jolene pops back up in the penultimate episode, we realize that Beth never even tried to find her childhood friend, and that she never repaid Mr. Shaibel, but it makes sense: they can’t abandon you if they don’t exist. But when Jolene explains that she isn’t Beth’s guardian angel — “I’m not here to save you” she says, to reassure the viewers that she is not, absolutely not the kind of plot contrivance that she absolutely also kind of is — she also says something else. “Someday I might need you. But if I do, you’ll come, won’t you?”
It’s not clear that she will. She doesn’t even say that she will, though her response — a “maybe” with a grin — lets us give her the benefit of the doubt. But nothing in the show encourages us to think that she won’t drive away her friends, yet again, when the moment comes; that isn’t part of the fantasy we’re buying. And the moment never comes; the show ends before it can be tested, so that Chekhov’s empathy can stay on the mantle. This, too, might be a certain kind of fantasy: if no one needs your help and solidarity — if you’re asleep, lost in a game, and feeling no pain — you never have to find out if you’re actually a good person.