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Transcendance and Material Gain in Queen's Gambit

(Spoilers for Queen’s Gambit, Pan’s Labyrinth, Monsier Lazhar and Seven Samurai.)

Queen’s Gambit errs in the same way as every other American show: Characters develop spiritually, but only for the sake of material gain.

It’s a narrative analogous to the real-world misappropriation of self-care-as-productivity-hack. You mediate not to find inner peace, but to leverage that peace into productive output.

Similarly, the final episode takes us through Harmon’s recovery from alcoholism and reconnection with old friends. But these successes are not considered intrinsically valuable. They exist only for the sake of delivering a final victory against the Soviets.

In the penultimate episode, she is largely sober, crushing every player before her. Then, in a moment of weakness, she goes out drinking, wakes up hungover, and loses horrendously to Borgov.

In the final episode, she recovers from her alcoholism, flushes her pills down the toilet, reconnects with friends, and crushes Borgov in the final match.

Stated otherwise: it is only through appeal to material gain that her sobriety is considered valuable.

To be clear, this narrative is not inevitable. As far as I know, no other national cinema insists on it so consistently.

Consider the French Monsieur Lazhar where a teacher forms a genuine bond with his students, but then gets fired anyway. Or the Japanese Seven Samurai where elite warriors learn to understand the lives of peasants, but then mostly die anyway.

Or consider the Mexican Pan’s Labyrinth which actually inverts the trope by having Ofelia die in the material world, but then rule as a Princess in the underworld. This is an actual spiritual narrative, one that places inner lives first, and the material world second.

Instead, we get the American version where not even friendship can be an end unto itself.

Appendix: Against the Umbrella of Substance Abuse

Nearly every review I’ve read conflates Harmon’s use of alcohol and Librium under the umbrella of “substance abuse” or “addiction”. That’s an easy reading, but it’s totally undermined by the text itself.

Alcohol, specifically, is responsible for her loss to Borgov in Paris, her subsequent slump, and her mother’s death from hepatitis.

In contrast, Librium never causes Harmon to lose a game. The only time it becomes problematic is when she’s forced off of it and goes into withdrawal.

Reviewers’ inability to distinguish between the two, points at a disturbing whitewashing of the show, and an unwillingness to accept the validity of drug-induced mysticism

Harmon’s childhood genius and accompanying hallucinations were the result of Librium, and was the vast majority of her career. When she quits drinking in the final episode, she doesn’t quit taking pills, instead bringing them with her to Moscow.

She does flush them down the toilet before the final match, but then acquires more. Whether or not she takes them is left ambiguous, but there are ample clues:

  • Harmon says she can’t visualize the board without Librium
  • Before the final match, she tells Townes that she’s asked the front desk for pills
  • The next morning, Townes wakes her late in the afternoon, saying “Lady, you were out!”

And then in the final match, Harmon goes on to hallucinate pieces on the ceiling, which only happens under the influence of Librium.

There is no evidence either, that Librium has a negative effect on her mother, or any of the other students at the orphanage.

I’m not making any kind of moral judgement on drug use, nor suggest that anyone in real life should take prescription drugs.

But within the show, the message is clear. Medication helps Beth win, and has no discernible negative side effects.