The last few years or so have ruined movies and television when it comes to having females in lead roles. Throughout movie history, we’ve had a myriad of fascinating female leads with interesting stories, and then modern feminism sunk its teeth into Hollywood and the quality just dropped off.
Gone were the days of Ripley from Aliens or Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Humanized women who make mistakes and have regrets. Women with flaws and weaknesses who overcome trials and tribulations in order to come out on top. In their place were put characters like Captain Marvel, the new Mulan, and Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy. They’re superbly powerful, always right, always good, and always so boring.
These women’s character arcs are almost non-existent. They start powerful and end even more powerful. Everyone loves them and throughout the series, the only flaw they exhibit is the flaw of not believing enough in themselves and holding themselves back. Once they get past this sole obstacle, they become the most powerful person in the room/city/world/galaxy.
Various movies do this in different ways but it’s always the same result. Even if there’s a female anywhere near the male lead, she’s more powerful or better than him in some way. She doesn’t earn it, she just is.
Cut to just last week and the word was getting around about a show called The Queen’s Gambit. One look at the picture presented to me on the selection screen already had me doubting it. A pretty woman looking confidently at me in front of a chessboard.
“Great,” I thought. “Smart and confident female protag whom everybody loves beats a bunch of evil white men at chess who said she couldn’t do it, proving the patriarchy wrong and embarrassing them again.”
Even the trailer hinted that this would be an overtly feminist story featuring dismissive men vs the power of a woman who is naturally better than them with the opening words being a warning to a girl that men were going to try to teach her things and that they should be ignored.
Regardless, my fianceé wanted to watch it so I clicked play. What then happened was a binge-watch session that had me enthralled the entire time. I was thrilled that my prediction was wrong.
Gambit is flawed, sometimes drawn out, and very, very good.
What makes it good is the fact that show creators Allan Scott and Scott Frank didn’t resort to Hollywood feminism to craft the main character Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Harmon is exceedingly brilliant but only at chess. In almost every other aspect of her life, she’s woefully inept.
Harmon starts off her journey having just survived her mother attempting to kill them both in an intentional car crash. Her mother, clearly a deranged woman, is killed and Harmon is taken to a girl’s school where she is destined to live out the rest of her childhood. The school quickly introduces her to a drug to “even out” her moods, and she becomes addicted.
At around the same time, she descends into the basement of the school and discovers what becomes her life raft throughout the madness. The school’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) is playing chess by himself, and Harmon is immediately drawn to it. Shaibel, a gruff, solitary man, somewhat reluctantly consents to teach her to play and it shortly becomes an obsession for Harmon. Using the pills to help her hallucinate a chessboard at night, she perfects her game while high. She reads every book she can get her hands on, and before she knows it, she’s become a wunderkind under Shaibel’s tutelage.
Gambit immediately breaks the feminist advice Harmon was given at the beginning.
Harmon works hard to earn her ability but at the same time, her ability comes at a great cost. This theme follows her around for the entire series.
Harmon is adopted into a home that quickly breaks. Her adopted mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) is quickly revealed to be less than motherly but both women find each other to be a point of light in the darkness they’re surrounded by. Wheatley sees the monetary value in Harmon’s chess-playing ability and this kicks off Harmon’s career as a chess player.
What follows is a fascinating tale of a woman who goes through the hero’s journey in a way that keeps you riveted. She obtains many victories and some very big losses, sometimes because she sabotages herself and sometimes because she just wasn’t skilled enough for the job. Every success is marred by a failure, be it a personal relationship that crashes and burns or Harmon’s addictions getting the best of her.
Gambit does something that other female-lead series hasn’t been able to do for some time. By the end of the series, you feel like Harmon deserves to be where she is. It wasn’t just given to her because she was just innately the best at what she did. She became obsessed with a game that allowed her to escape her trauma, and her obsession led her to perfect her craft, her perfection came at a cost, and the cost is something she pays for and eventually learns to overcome.
I can gladly say that Beth Harmon can take her place among female lead characters that are actually good. Not contrived or boring due to the injection of modern politics. She’s a fascinating character who earns it.
Don’t get me wrong. The show is dotted with nonsensical moments that seem more fitting for a feel-good Disney movie than a drama, especially in the last episode. There is some socio-political messaging laced within it that feels a little forced, like the creators were trying to inject just enough to meet the minimum requirements of Hollywood leftism.
But the acting is superb and every character was cast to perfection. Taylor-Joy and Heller execute their characters so well it’s hard to picture them playing anything else. Moses Ingram is fresh out of acting school but plays her character “Jolene” like a veteran. Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s fellow chess wunderkind “Benny Watts” is such a presence that he steals the show whenever he shows up on the screen.
If you haven’t canceled your Netflix subscription after the “Cuties” controversy and are looking for a show to sink your teeth into, I recommend The Queen’s Gambit.
Whether or not you see it, however, isn’t the point. Filmmakers should see it and understand that if you’re going to have a female protagonist, make sure she’s believable.