Discussing the Queen’s Gambit

Spoiler Alert: Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit is a fascinating mini-series from a mental health perspective. The storyline is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, which follows the life of Beth Harmon from orphan to chess prodigy. The setting takes place in Kentucky through the mid-1950s and 60s and takes us around the US, ending in Russia. If Beth were to seek counseling, there are many areas that may be helpful to further explore, especially from a narrative perspective.

Beth is portrayed as a complex character as are several others characters who are an important part of her narrative. I would have loved to learn more about early significant relationships including her mother, friend at the orphanage, Jolene, and janitor Mr. Shaibel. Beth had multiple aversive childhood experiences- from parental mental illness, the death of a parent, and growing up in an orphanage. She was inspiring in so many ways in which she “beat the odds”, not only with her early trauma but also with the strict gender roles and societal expectations of her time. I would be interested to learn more about how she “made sense” of her experiences and assess for trauma-related symptoms. I would also build upon Beth’s resilience and internal coping mechanisms.

One thing that stood out was Beth’s body language–the way she moved her hands, quickly, yet skillfully. Her quirky sense of confidence was observed in a highly-competitive field and this was conveyed among her male counterparts. I love her determination and dedication. For those that are familiar with the subtle ways in which autism spectrum disorder presents in women, it could be argued that Beth was not neurotypical. She presents with distinct social communication differences in the ways that she responds (or doesn’t respond) to social cues and in the ways, she interacts with sharing thoughts and feelings with others. I noticed how Beth had an acute sense of how she might respond to certain situations such as dating/ sex yet appeared to not be totally prepared, consciously trying to figure out the socially appropriate response. Beth also demonstrated specialized ability in an area of high focus, showing obsessive qualities, with her dedication to the game of chess. Beth may be interested in delving into these areas, especially as she continues to navigate the social world.

I love Beth’s curiosity and commitment to learning the game of chess, after being introduced to the game by Mr. Shaibel. The power of their relationship was not expressed so much in words but within nonverbals; they had a life-long impact which was especially apparent by the end of the series. I am reminded of the power of mentorship and having at least one loving parental figure. While Beth’s step-mom was not perfect as she was battling her own issues with alcohol misuse, it appeared that she was trying to do the best that she could. Beth was impacted by grief/ loss as well as ambiguous loss. She may be interested in processing this. I noticed that she was looking for her stepmom’s presence at her chess matches but we are not certain how Beth was internalizing this after her death.

The themes of misuse of alcohol and pills were also portrayed with Beth, with her developing dependence on sedatives, given the fictional name Xanzolam although also referred to as Librium during her time at the orphanage. Many are curious about the drug and this raises concerns about addiction to benzos as Librium is considered a benzodiazepine. This medication has been used to treat anxiety and calm fears (e.g. before going into surgery). It was interesting how Beth made a connection to dependence on the green pills to perform, yet her greatest feat was achieved without them. Throughout the mini-series, Beth was battling her own inner demons, including insecurity and self-loathing which led to self-destructive behaviors. Beth may be interested in working on these areas. A maintenance plan to identify triggers, warning signs, self-care, and coping strategies for alcohol and drug misuse may also be helpful.

Beth’s journey was a tale of self-discovery. While Beth certainly had many “highs and lows” throughout her story, I was inspired not only by Beth’s resiliency but also by those who invested in her life to create a “family”. Within the therapy room, I have the privilege of being a part of individuals’ unique stories. Although Beth Harmon’s story was fictional, I felt part of her inner world by watching her story unfold with the rich visuals portrayed through drama in film/ television.

Written by Charlotte Johnson MA, LPCC 

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