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‘The Queen’s Gambit’ subverts our fascination with the tortured genius

Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ruminates on Hollywood’s longtime obsession with prodigy archetypes

Why do Americans worship at the altar of the tortured genius? “The Queen’s Gambit,” written and directed by Scott Frank and released last October, answers this question and more in a strikingly gripping fashion. 

Perhaps we demand an explanation — or better yet a sacrifice — for greatness, as if the virtuosity of Van Gogh’s paintings came at the cost of his left ear. Perhaps we draw on this cultural archetype to excuse the behavior of the Picassos and Polanskis of the world. At night in bed, perhaps we use the genius’ torment as consolation for our emphatic normalcy. 

The seven-episode series is principally about Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan and chess prodigy, as she battles drug addiction and strives to become the world’s chess champion. “The Queen’s Gambit” tries on an impressive array of genre hats; at times it’s a Cold War thriller about besting the Russians, a high-stakes sports show, a grim study of addiction and trauma or the coming-of-age story of a young woman charting an unconventional path for herself during the era of the nuclear family. 

But the trope which “The Queen’s Gambit” is most aware of and ponders over is that of the tortured genius. The tortured genius is found across Western television. Simply look at Dr. House in “House, M.D.,” Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory” or the titular character of “Sherlock.” These characters are complex and distinctive, and yet they all fall more or less into the same formula. 

The garden-variety tortured genius is anti-social to the point of being callous and insufferable. They are obsessed with their particular wheelhouse to the detriment of other aspects of their life. And perhaps most importantly, their precocious gift comes at the cost of some profound turmoil that plagues their internal life. 

Initially, Beth exhibits all the trappings of a tortured genius. When Beth is invited to the Apple Pi Club by her giggly, cupcake-fingered peers, she instead decides to pocket a bottle of gin and run back home to play chess games in her head. She begins to skip school under the guise of mono in order to attend tournaments across the country. And her meteoric rise to the upper strata of the chess world is aided by a worsening dependence on green tranquilizer pills. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” keenly understands that the irresistible allure of the tortured genius is that it offers up two cherished pastimes of the American television watcher: idolatry and sadism. The twin sides of this coin dictate that as much as we like to see our brilliant heroes solve an uncrackable case or save a doomed patient, we revel just as much in watching them spiral downward. After all, it isn’t a mistake that so many tortured geniuses achieve fame only after their death; in some ways, our culture demands to relish their self-destruction and demise to sweeten the taste of their brilliance. 

This paradox is where the most interesting tension within “The Queen’s Gambit” lies. On one hand, we want Beth to reach the summit of her game, toppling opponent after opponent while they can only dumbly watch. But on the other, we derive sick pleasure from watching her swallow more pills or down more drinks in order to tap into the mechanics of her genius. In essence, to root for Beth’s ascendance is to also root for her downfall. 

So how does the series go about walking along this tightrope? “The Queen’s Gambit” eventually decides that Beth must shed the aesthetic skin of the tormented prodigy, pulling herself out of a prolonged depression and addiction relapse, in order to return to the chessboard cloaked in new fire. 

The show poses as its final question whether Beth can truly eschew the trappings of the tortured genius, and whether she can then prevail against her ultimate adversary, Vasily Borgov, without this archetypal identity. 

In the final episode, it is the cumulative effort of childhood friend Jolene and former lovers like Harry Beltik and Benny Watts that enables Beth to achieve chess superstardom. All throughout the series we are shown a moody portrait of a young woman through the pinhole of a mad genius, only for the show to take a hard left turn by revealing to us that Beth is more importantly a person capable and deserving of love. In the end, it isn’t Beth’s madness that carries her over the finish line, but her humanity.

As viewers, we want to see Beth pay the sacrifice for her genius in blood. “The Queen’s Gambit” denies this to us, instead upending our expectations of what the tortured genius can be. That’s an artistic move worth watching.


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