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.

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Pot on Television: A Break from Election Anxiety

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

It needed to be done. After an election day [week] spent trying to avoid the inane punditry on cable news (by endlessly refreshing news sites and counting the number of different ways CNN.com tried to headline Joe Biden’s impending electoral victory), I decided to take a break and binge-watch a few recently released cannabis-themed shows I had planned on reviewing for Points in the coming months.

As someone who isn’t a culinary expert (but has 12 years’ of foodservice background), isn’t a particularly avid watcher of food shows (though I’m still obsessed with Alton Brown’s Good Eats), nor is a television critic (though an avid fan of the small-screen), what follows is my review of Vice TV’s Bong Appétit (2016-2017) and its third season re-boot Bong Appétit: Cook-Off (2019), alongside a brief introduction to the Netflix shows Cooked on High (2018) and Netflix’s Cooked with Cannabis (2020).

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“What if the CIA did Woke?”: Reviewing Netflix’s “The Business of Drugs”

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He reviews the new Netflix series “The Business of Drugs.”

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Netflix’s new series The Business of Drugs investigates six psychoactive substances—cocaine, synthetics, heroin, cannabis, methamphetamine, and opioids—tracing them to global hot spots—from the remote villages of Colombia, to the ailing slums on Kenya’s periphery, to Myanmar’s contested regions, where ethnic strife is fueled by the factory-level output of methamphetamine (or “yaba”). Other installments are less global, and narrowly tailored for American consumers, catering to hot-button domestic issues: the causes and consequences of the opioid epidemic, MDMA’s potential as a breakthrough therapeutic, and the overregulation of California’s legal cannabis markets. 

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Review: “How to Fix a Drug Scandal”

Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a PhD student in history at Southern Illinois University. He reviews the Netflix series How to Fix a Drug Scandal, a mini-series released earlier this year. We also wanted to point out an article from The Conversation, a site that, like Points, offers academic insights on contemporary and historical events. Did you know that the Mother’s Day flowers you might have bought last Sunday are potentially tied to the US war on drugs? You can read more about that here

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How to Fix a Drug Scandal is a four-part docuseries directed by Erin Lee Carr streaming on Netflix. The scandal centers on two chemists: Annie Dookhan and Sonja Farak who were employed by the state of Massachusetts to perform chemical analysis on drugs in criminal cases, verifying their authenticity. The two pursued their crimes quite differently. Dookhan was good at falsifying reports. She did it through so-called “dry labbing” or visual testing: say police sent an evidence bag filled with a white powder to her office. Maybe the substance was table salt or maybe it was cocaine. If it was table salt rather than cocaine and you were the defendant in the case, you definitely didn’t want the evidence to be analyzed by Dookhan because the drug certificate submitted was going to say cocaine. Was there a specific reason Dookhan did this? Not really. We know she didn’t care about accuracy or the real-world effect of her actions, which had devastating effects on the lives of individuals and their families. 

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