In a year when cultural consumption has felt increasingly out of time, perhaps it’s appropriate that one thing everyone can agree on is The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s miniseries about chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) set during the Cold War. The series begins as a Victorian orphan story and quickly morphs into something like a Marvel superhero film when Beth’s adoptive mother realizes her talents at chess and starts taking her to tournaments. Cue a series of exquisitely shot matches where Beth repeatedly triumphs over mediocre men — and in great style: Her ascendency takes place in sumptuous rooms while donning increasingly glamorous outfits and coiffures.
“Stylish chess drama fills the hole left by period pieces such as Mad Men,” writes Morwenna Ferrier in the Guardian. The New Yorker’s Rachel Syme describes The Queen’s Gambit as calling “to mind the aesthetic enchantments of Mad Men.” (References to Mad Men abound.) Mike Hale in the New York Times points to the “creamy texture” of its production and cinematography as “reminiscent of another Netflix period piece, The Crown.” The AV Club calls it “as expertly made a period drama as can be,” languishing on “the many period-specific details the series nails, along with spot-on, swoon-worthy ensembles — there is a velvet look to die for in the finale.” Whether evoking Mad Men or The Crown, these comparisons always wind back to the show’s aesthetic pleasures, suggesting that it depicts history less by way of content than style. But a better comparison for The Queen’s Gambit would be The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Both shows knock you out with their overly lush costume design and production, while their beautiful white heroines somehow slip unscathed past all the roiling traumas of their respective ages. The Queen’s Gambit might as well be the Forrest Gump of chess. It is what one friend dubbed a “fake deep period piece.”
A great period series is a very particular kind of fantasy. Its value lies not in realism or authenticity, but in the tension between the past it depicts and the viewer’s present. The white admen of Mad Men have no clue what’s about to hit them in the 1960s. Meanwhile, the viewer watches knowing how it’s all about to go down. This attenuation of dramatic irony opens the first scene of that series, when the camera lingers long and hard on Don’s cigarette. The modern viewer’s response ideally unfolds as one of conflicting tension: Smoking a cigarette inside a restaurant both triggers nostalgic longing (that looks good!) and knowing dread (smoking actually is quite bad for you!). Each new season of The Crown observes the British monarchy hanging on for dear life as the prior season’s world order breaks down.
Recall the gorgeous objects that fill each frame of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The effect of all that beauty is supposed to be devastating — claustrophobic and melancholic all at once. Especially in the wake of Merchant Ivory prestige cinema, the visually ornate period piece approaches something like a nostalgic fetishization of whiteness in decline. They should not make one feel: “I want to go to there.” Instead, the effect is more like: “I can never go back there again.”
The Queen’s Gambit begins almost as a parody of history: a disheveled Beth wakes up in a sumptuous hotel room in “PARIS 1967,” as a lavender intertitle boldly announces. The wallpaper, curtains, and décor here scream fin de siècle excess (especially in lead up to the turmoil of May 1968), but over the course of the show, this opulence settles into the pleasing background of its mise-en-scène. Nice wallpaper doesn’t necessarily hurt — but a period piece’s aesthetic immersion is typically meant to jar with the world’s imminent collapse. The world-building details in The Queen’s Gambit are instead literal and inert: Beth’s vintage beer cans and constantly coiffed hair provide visual pleasure and not much more. They signify in the show the same way they would at some hipster bar today. As Beth effortlessly wins a series of increasingly high-stakes chess games, even her frequent spirals into addiction — a product of growing up in an orphanage that plied her with tranquilizers — no longer register as moments of concern, so much as opportunities for cinematographic play while Taylor-Joy stumbles around in her underwear. Everything potentially traumatizing or problematic gets actively taken up as fodder for beauty.
Because The Queen’s Gambit sets itself up generically to be a Victorian bildungsroman, how aggressively it mimes historic costumes and setpieces actually ends up being part of the problem. (Compliments to Gabrielle Binder’s costume and Uli Hanisch’s production designs — their only crime might actually be doing their jobs better than the show’s writers and directors.) The show constantly serves up visual reminders that it takes place during the Cold War (the muted color palettes, geometrical patterns, claustrophobic wallpaper), but it never delivers any sense of global suspense associated with its historical moment. Instead, it offers a different vision of the Cold War — a happier, less paranoid one. Russia is not villainous in The Queen’s Gambit, and that seems precisely the point. While the country is structurally set up to be Beth’s (and by extension, America’s) opposition, the Soviets end up representing something closer to virtuous gamesmanship. The final episode, in which Beth travels to Russia to compete against grand master Vasily Borgov, is a remarkably optimistic one. With the collective help of chess-playing men from her past, Beth takes home the title, winning through a collaborative effort that feels remarkably Soviet. There is something off about the way Beth represents American national spirit as one that trusts in teamwork. The Queen’s Gambit represents an America at the crossroads of global conflict as one that can turn potential war into a positive feeling.
If anything, the show’s distinctly Cold War vibes — good sportsmanship, beautiful dames, wreckage of empire — made me wonder if the pleasurable indulgence of this film was a sign that we are once again back in a Cold War. When the going gets tough in America, America responds by trying to feel good about itself. (This is the era of Peak Comfort TV, after all.) Think of the beach party movies, or, honestly, EPCOT. Period dramas typically represent the Cold War as an era of anxious dread, but cultural production during the actual Cold War more often sought to mitigate that sense of threat through good affect.
In the end, Beth is not a tortured lonely genius, but one surrounded by people who love and care for her and who always seem to rescue her at just the right time. The show gets to have it both ways: a beautiful heroine who leans in to the edge of near self-destruction, but never entirely, because of all the male friends she makes along the way. That it ends with a Beth who is only more happy, beautiful, and safe — when everything about her personal life and her historical moment suggest otherwise — feels like wish fulfillment. Such fantasies can of course be pleasurable, guilty or otherwise. But if we take The Queen’s Gambit to be emotionally satisfying or true, then we’re not only getting worse at reading history, but also failing to understand our own present moment.
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