Chess and . . . Drugs? Addiction and Recovery in The Queen’s Gambit

Editor’s Note: Did you miss us? We experienced some technical difficulties last week. Hopefully, we’re back up and running smoothly now. Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

The fictional drug Xanzolam in The Queen’s Gambit. Image from Netflix.

Author’s Note: So as not to spoil The Queen’s Gambit for those who have not yet seen it, I will primarily focus on critical discourses of its depiction of drug and alcohol addiction in this post.

In the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, in October 2020 Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series adapted from the 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis examining the improbable rise of Beth Harmon, a fictional chess prodigy in the 1960s, as she strove to become a world champion in what, at the time, was exclusively a man’s game.

The show quickly became an unlikely success and cultural phenomenon, drawing over sixty million viewers less than a month after its debut. Critics and fans pointed to several factors to explain its unexpected popularity. They praised lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s compelling and dynamic portrayal of Harmon, as well as the program’s innovative cinematography that somehow made the world of chess dramatic and exciting. Many were smitten by its fidelity to a 1960s aesthetics, drawing comparisons to another period piece, the hit show Mad Men.

Others suggested that timing played a crucial role. Themes of loss, grief, alienation, and trauma figure heavily in the narrative, dramatizing what millions of people across the globe could identity with as they experienced the psychological and emotional distress caused by the pandemic. “It’s a show that seems tailor-made for our joy-starved minds in a somber modern world,” wrote cultural critic Kelly Lawler in a glowing review that deemed The Queen’s Gambit “the best piece of content in 2020.” And then there was the renewed mass interest in chess. Much like exercise equipment, chess sets quickly became unavailable in the pandemic economy as sales surged to staggering levels, increasing by as much as 1000 percent for some vendors.

The show also portrays copious amounts drug and alcohol consumption—another thematic element that perhaps helped to attract a large audience given spikes in substance abuse during the pandemic. A Google search of “The Queen’s Gambit” and pharmaceuticals yields dozens of articles explaining what, exactly, the drugs consumed in the show actually were. Most likely Librium or a similar benzodiazepine, Newsweek concluded.

In the debut episode titled “Openings,” viewers are introduced to a fictional drug called Xanzolam administered to young children in an orphanage to render them docile or—as one caretaker explained to an adolescent Harmon—“to even your disposition.” “The green ones are the best,” a friend named Jolene told the young protagonist when referring to them as “vitamins, magic vitamins.” Although encouraged to take them only at night, Harmon immediately ingested the green pills and experienced extreme sensory distortions. Despite the disorientation, Harmon quickly developed a dependency on the pills. “I like the way it feels,” she confided to Jolene. “I bet you do,” Jolene replied, “just be sure you don’t get to used to that feeling.”

The sequence is revelatory; showing how even at a young age Harmon was drawn to drugs to numb her pain. She relied so heavily on them that she was incapable of moderation and prone to substance abuse. Her dependency is dramatized when she attempts to pilfer the orphanage’s supply of Xanzolam after the institution abruptly stopped dispensing the drug. Many of the children—particularly Harmon who had been ingesting them by the handful—subsequently endured withdrawal symptoms. “There’s going to be a lot of jumpy orphans,” exclaimed Jolene, and the episode  concludes with Harmon breaking into the dispensary and desperately shoveling pills into her mouth. An act manifesting the despair she expressed upon learning that she was cut off from the one thing that had brought her relief.

Not only euphoria and escape drew Harmon to the pills, though; they also seemed to spark a sense of creativity and imagination. It was at the orphanage where she developed an interest in chess. Immediately after consuming Xanzolam, Harmon visualized a 3-D chessboard protruding from the ceiling and envisioned intricate movements of the pieces. This instilled the idea that drugs were responsible for her prodigious talent; a belief that continued into adulthood and perpetuated her reliance on drugs. “What I need is the pills. The booze. I need my mind cloudy to win. I can’t visualize the games without them,” she later told a friend as she prepared for a tournament.

Beth Harmon at a drugstore in The Queen’s Gambit. Picture from Netflix.

Critics pounced on this narrative trope linking drug use and creativity, decrying the show for perpetuating what many considered a pernicious myth. “From the beginning,” wrote the author Lily Dancyger, “her brilliance at the game is presented as intrinsically connected to her use of substances, spreading a dangerous and flawed representation of the link between drugs and genius.” Even alcohol and drug recovery centers took umbrage with the show’s glamorous representation of addiction. Sandstone Care, for example, provided an analysis of Harmon’s character to dispel the notion of the “high functioning addict” and encouraged individuals suffering from substance abuse to seek help even if they were living ostensibly successful lives.

Harmon’s struggle, or lack of it, to overcome her drug and alcohol dependencies perhaps provoked the most ire from cultural critics. Some detractors condemned the show for being grossly insensitive to—if not entirely dismissive of—the problems faced by recovering addicts. Cultural critic Chris Korman considered the show “a lost opportunity,” lamenting that “it only [feints] at reconciling the long tail of mental illness, childhood trauma and addiction—then wallpapers over them when it’s time for a happy ending.” He continued:

My guess is that the people who’ve struggled with addiction or seen loved ones ruined by it will find the whole thing rather flippant. Addicts so rarely get those moments—and when they do they’re earned through diligent work, not because the reassuring words of an old pal helped them draw on previously untapped reserves of willpower. Addicts don’t simply lack friends to rely on, or have some inability to understand how to let themselves be propped up by those who love them. It’s never that clean.

The alcohol and drug treatment center Mountainside went so far as to declare the show’s depiction of recovery “dangerous,” writing: “While the show shined a bright light on Beth’s experience with addiction, they were not as consistent when it came to her recovery. The Queen’s Gambit made it appear as if it was easy for Beth to stop using and that her path to sobriety was simple.” According to Mountainside:

Portraying recovery as an easy process is not only misleading but dangerous as well. Sobriety is a challenge and requires the person struggling with addiction to be prepared to face it head-on. If viewers struggling with addiction are watching the show and conclude that recovery is easy, they might give up when confronted with challenges, thinking that they are incapable of sobriety. For those suffering from addiction, sobriety is the only way to heal and improve their quality of life. Thinking of it as just an easy choice is dangerous and can harm the very people that this series is trying to raise awareness for.

Much of this criticism largely stemmed from the portrayal of Harmon as staunchly independent. This sentiment perhaps derived from her mother who once told her: “The strongest person is someone not to be afraid to be alone.” Critic Matthew Gilbert writes of Harmon: “She is a dour loner with serious attachment issues, but,” he continues, “her commitment to chess (and pills and alcohol) is fierce, and she comes alive at the board.”

Orphaned at age ten, she seemed determined, as a kind of defense mechanism, to be an individualist reliant upon no one but herself. Understandably, the game of chess appealed so strongly to her: she alone could control the outcome. And just as in chess, she controlled and eventually vanquished her addictions without assistance from others, leading some critics—who subscribe to the belief that recovery requires ongoing social engagement and support—to deride the show’s depiction of substance abuse as deeply misleading.

Harmon’s struggles with alcohol and drugs are certainly common knowledge among friends and colleagues. And they advise against her preferred solitudinous existence knowing that it will exacerbate her substance abuse. Harry Beltik, a friend and love interest, at one point confronts her about secret alcohol abuse, comparing Harmon’s habit to his father’s silent yet tragic relationship to drink in which he “sank inside himself every night.” “He wasn’t mean or anything. He just got quiet and fell asleep in his clothes.”

Throughout the series, she is represented as a quiet addict, hiding from the world as she descends further and further into addiction. According to Taylor-Joy, this was the point. “I think having that respect for the quiet sadness of it and the quiet despair, I think, potentially people haven’t really seen that much of that,” she said in an interview. “And it shone a light in a different way.” Yet, as The Observer put it, “Regardless of our inner fortitude, detachment and loneliness will hold us back from our true potential. It is the people in our lives that anchor us to the real world, cutting through our obsessions and minimizing the madness we all have within ourselves in one way or another.”

Wherever one stands on the depiction of substance abuse and recovery in The Queen’s Gambit, we can be certain that, at the very least, the show dramatized for millions the peril and tragedy of drug and alcohol addiction, forcing them to confront and debate one of the more pressing and urgent issues we face today.   

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