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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