A creature arrives in America. It appears human, but appears so emotionless that it suggests a foreign origin. Without parents and with a cut off way of speaking, the entity quickly integrates into society. With a single-minded focus, it settles on its mission: destroy anyone who opposes its goal of world domination.
The above paragraph describes two films: The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 science fiction classic, and The Queen’s Gambit, a new series on Netflix. Both deal with an icy character who travels back in time to prevent things from happening in the future. In The Terminator, Arnold, a robot named T-1000, lands in America in the 1980s to prevent the birth of John Connor, the man who would successfully fight the approaching dystopia of machine domination. In The Queen’s Gambit, the producers created a fictional mid-century America in which a robotic female chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) crushes the male opposition. The Queen’s Gambit is a feminist fantasy, starring Beth, a woman who forces the Cold War in America to wake up earlier than it’s done. Beth is an orphan who often appears to be more cyborg than human. She comes to Mad Men America to decimate patriarchy. She’s Arnold with a chess clock instead of a blaster.
Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit is directed by Scott Frank and written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. The story is an educational novel as Betty Friedan could imagine, or if Ana Marie Cox was a chess freak and had a time machine. Orphaned after her mother died in a car accident in the 1950s, Beth is taken to a Christian orphanage where all children are sedated. Beth learns chess through the school’s caretaker, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp). She soon wipes out the competition and wins tournaments in her native Kentucky. Her alcoholic adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) becomes her agent. Telling a character that “the strongest person is someone who isn’t afraid to be alone,” Beth has to learn how to make friends, have friends, get drunk and make mistakes – life is alive.
Ultimately, in the 1970s, as a grown woman, she played the greatest chess players in the world, the Soviets, whose greatest weapon was the master Vasily Borgow (Marcin Dorocinski). Not much time is spent on major geopolitical issues or the evil of the Soviet system, but this is an understandably dramatic decision indeed. The Queen’s Gambit is like a sports film where the emphasis is on the athlete’s single-minded focus on beating the closest opponent and ultimately on the best of the best. In the 1970s, the top tier chess players were Russian, and the diversion on broader political issues would flag up Beth’s story and even be unrealistic. Championship athletes tend to be obsessed with strategy, not politics.
When the Russian giant Luchenko is mowed down by Beth, he bows and smiles and enjoys his defeat as if he knew himself from the perspective of a Russian chess master in the 1970s that he is on the official right-hand side of history.
Anya Taylor-Joy is a talented young actress who conveys disdain in an exceptionally dry and confident manner. Trained in ballet, she holds herself up with a powerful, haughty demeanor that is also elegant and sensual. Her putative guides through chess and life are the men she faces, friends and lovers who have defeated former opponents. There’s the smart, arrogant Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the handsome DL Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and the calm, insecure Harry Beltik (Harry Melling). Most of them spend their screen time shedding Beth’s supernatural abilities and astringent criticism.
Film critic Arthur Taussig once described The Terminator as an example of “animus integration,” the story of a character who extracts male energy to defeat enemies. In this film, the protagonist Sarah Connor transforms from an unhappy waitress into a warrior, partly by being stabbed in the thigh by a strong male opponent. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth herself is the totem of the animus. The men around them absorb some of their strength, which allows them to reach a new level of maturity even as they spread. Harry can only live with Beth for a few weeks before deciding not to be a “chess bum” and to study engineering instead. Beth whips Benny so hard that he looks like he’s crying at a bar afterwards while drinking several beers. When the Russian giant Luchenko (Marcus Loges) is mowed down by Beth, he bows and smiles and enjoys his defeat as if he knew himself from the perspective of a Russian chess master in the 1970s that he is on the official and liberal right side of the Story.
However, an indestructible hero is a boring hero. It’s true that Beth loses a match or two on the way up and struggles with addiction, but these things are never really treated as serious obstacles. For most of the series, drugs and alcohol allow Beth to visualize a game of chess. The characters move gracefully in their hallucinations, presenting different situations and battle plans. Then, when she’s about to face her toughest opponent, Beth just decides she doesn’t need a chemical boost anymore. No withdrawal, no tremors, no panic attacks or freak-outs. The critic Lilly Dancyger said: “The next day, at the last game, we see her sober up her visualization trick for the first time. Problem solved, addiction, just like that. But that’s hardly how it works in real life. “
In other words, The Queen’s Gambit has a Mary Sue problem. A Mary Sue, the dictionary reminds us, is “a type of female character portrayed as unrealistic with no flaws or weaknesses”. Rey, the young heroine of the last few Star Wars films, is so great at everything she tries that all tension fades from the story. Beth Harmon is the rey of the alternate universe of The Queen’s Gambit. The film reflects this perfection, with flawless backdrops, confident direction and a great score by Carlos Rafael Rivera. It looks great. However, the film is dry and inevitable. In the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker himself lost a hand in a bloody fight he loses, something that would never happen to Beth. It is remembered that in the original classic Rocky movie, the last fight was a draw. Even Rachel Syme in the New Yorker had to pause: “And it’s true that Beth has a touch of Mary Sue’s fantasy when her boys show up for her like a bevy of tuxedo dancers accompanying Liza Minnelli off the stage. But I found it moving to see that Beth, who had spent so many hours and evenings studying the gambles of the dead in books, discovered that she had support among the living. “As if it were an indictment, Syme compares the great American chess player Bobby Fischer unfavorably with Beth:” Fischer was seen as the great hope of American chess during the Cold War, but he was also often unpredictable, antisocial and prone to long disappearances and angry Joke about the game. “
In other words, Fischer was completely human, including the flaws that make for personable characters. When Sarah Connor is shown in The Terminator blowing orders and dropping plates as a waitress, we immediately like her because we’ve all been there before. We want to see how it develops. Beth Harmon, a fully trained genius, doesn’t have such a difficult path. The Queen’s Gambit was a great success. 62 million households streamed the series in the first month. With numbers like this and no less than the self-affirming Queen Oprah cheerleading herself for Beth, there will undoubtedly be a second season. As the Terminator put it so memorably, “I’ll be back.”