I watched this series in two evenings, as I did not feel that it is one to let go. It was an absolute binge-worthy marvel.
The series portrays a life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a chess prodigy who discovers a passion for chess in an orphanage in the 1950s. She starts playing chess with the janitor in the basement because the predictability of moves and because the order of the chessboard presents a distinct opposite of her chaotic life. She got orphaned in a car crash that killed her mother so one chaotic life with her mother got replaced with another chaotic life in an orphanage. In the orphanage, Beth develops an addiction to tranquillising pills and this later turns also into alcoholism.
The series is a story of addiction, loneliness, chaotic upbringing and its consequences on later life, but also of fashion. The fashion of the 1960s was beautiful with ’less is more’ colours, straight lines and also with Dior’s New Look skirts, which were praised at the time but also criticised because they enforced femininity at the time when media and wider society attempted to push working women back to the role of the housewife, which is well known in scholarship. But jumpers, blouses and hairstyles of the1960s as well as colours remain beautiful and made me nostalgic because today’s fashion is largely everything but kitschy. I long for the return of the ‘60s and ‘70s into fashion cycles, and when they do, I will be sure to stock up to survive future dark ages such as the present one with ever more tight and ugly jeans and kitschy blouses resembling notorious ‘80s style.
What is also beautifully portrayed is Beth’s feminity. The series goes from showing acceptance of Beth as the only woman in chess tournaments and at points, the series feels utopian. But, then again, we also see discrimination and most importantly this comes also from the media when a woman reporter tries to challenge Beth for being a woman in a man’s world and suggests other hobbies. I could not help myself but get angry at this interview, especially since much of my work is about blokish women but also about Queen Bee’s who succeed in a man’s world (which journalism still is) and then undermine other women.
However, one can say that the series is too utopian because women are not as successful in chess as men and at the time when this series is centred their numbers and successes were almost non-existent. But, we could equally say that the series attempts to portray a man’s game in a way that can be appealing to girls watching this series and the series can encourage them to play chess more. This would be a welcome development as in 2020, only 14.6% of chess members in the US were women and men still show more interest in chess than women (see here)
What I also liked about this series is that this is probably the first time I saw an American production moving away from an old and tired portrayal of Russians and Soviets as nasty and grim communists who are after American heroes fighting for freedom. Quite the contrary, this series showed this discourse coming from one American religious organisation (many such organisations still exist in the US) who offered generous funding to Beth in exchange for her statement against the Soviets and their atheist regime. Surprisingly, Beth refuses and struggles to borrow money to attend a tournament in Moscow where she is not abused or poisoned but actually encounters genuine support from Russian chess fans and earns friendliness and respect from her Russian competitors. This was a very refreshing development because there is no reason to portray everyone badly and I was pleased with Netflix’s portrayal of the crowd supporting American chess player and old men sitting in parks playing chess, with Beth ultimately joining them at the end of the tournament to the delight of everyday people. These moments showed that politics is one thing and people quite often another.
Finally, the series is also very dynamic and it goes from Beth’s private life to excitement of championships in a very good and balanced way. Also, for those of us who like chess but have forgotten about this old pashion with the craziness of life, this was truly enjoyable reminder and a rekindling of an old passion.
Thank you for reading.