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Queens Gambit Takes on Addiction

When you watch The Queen’s Gambit you may show up for the chess competition but you end up staying for the story. This show portrays an honest look at addiction, and tells how even if it starts by accident in childhood, addiction will lead to a life of uncertainty, lack of connection, and unnecessary chaos. Probably should have said spoiler alert.  I watched almost solely due to the Netflix recommendation alone but when I saw the lead actress was Anya Taylor-Joy from stand out roles in such films as Split, Glass, Emma, and Thoroughbreds, I was drawn in without hesitation.  She has a very distinctive face which displays her various expressions in the most unique of ways, really drawing the viewer into her storylines. Her performance in The Queen’s Gambit does not disappoint either and as a viewer you will be drawn into her story. Rooting for her success, concerned when she makes the wrong choices, it almost becomes interactive viewing in this riveting drama available on Netflix.

The show starts by bringing us back to 1967 Paris where we meet our main character who appears to have had a rough night.  She appears fully clothed, sleeping off whatever it was she was drinking the night before in a full bathtub, soaked and clearly late. She pulls herself together quickly and impressively as we see she is young, possibly in her early 20s and has the most luminous skin as well as on point fashion choice. She then snaps us into her reality as she downs an airplane bottle of booze in no time. Clearly all is not right in her world. She has to rush to her chess match, pretend she is not hungover and/or drunk as paparazzi snaps her photo and apologizes to her much older competitor for her lateness.  He says nothing but shakes her hand, they sit and stare each other down before we are taken to a flashback.

Our leading lady who we find out is named Elizabeth Harmon, became orphaned due to a car accident when she was just a child. It seems she was also in the car when the accident occurred but she managed to have barely a scratch on her while her mother was not so lucky and passes away. Elizabeth is taken to an orphanage where she will spend the majority of her childhood wishing and hoping to be taken in by a kind family. In her first day she meets a friend named Jolene who shows her how to live unbothered within the orphanage.  The girls are all required to take certain medications each day, a green pill for disposition and an orange and brown pill for building a strong body, as the orderly tells them. Jolene, on the other hand, suggests Elizabeth take the little green pill at night for it to be most effective.  We later find out these green pills are tranquilizers and set up our young protagonist for a lifetime of addiction and the various obstacles this life throws her way.

Chess comes into play fairly early on in the series as we learn she was turned onto it as just a girl. During her time at the orphanage Elizabeth finds herself bored with her classes and often finishes her school work long before her classmates due to her advanced intelligence. Her teachers will send her off on random errands to pass the time and she is able to explore the building. Elizabeth soon meets a kindly but introverted janitor who often plays chess by himself in the school storage room within the basement. Lucky for him, Elizabeth is interested in learning how to play and he becomes an unwilling mentor. She soon excels at the game and attracts big attention as she starts to compete at higher and higher levels, the one constant that she will have throughout her life.  I can not say I knew a lot about competitive chess going into this show, but you really do not have to in order to get drawn into the excitement of it all.  It seems to be similar to other competitive endeavors in that there is a winner, a loser, and the anticipation as the matches proceed.

The Queens Gambit takes us on a journey not only through Elizabeth’s life but also details the journey of a life in which a person suffers from addiction but continues to be essentially functional.  Elizabeth grows in popularity with her various wins and successes and is required to attend certain events.  We see her show up in a form that would not be described as her best, interacting with people who either do or don’t care about her with what I might call a drunken regard. We see the family dynamics that led her to be predisposed to a life of addiction as well as the sequence of events that tend to occur once that addiction starts within her own life. Friends who put themselves out for her notice her issues and start to become concerned. Thomas Brodie-Sanster who is the mustachioed, older version of Liam Neeson’s son in Love Actually plays his part quite well as the bad boy of chess who takes Elizabeth under his wing as she embarks on the competition circuit.  Their relationship starts to overshadow his poor choice in facial hair and we as the audience start to share in his concerns for her.  Individuals who come in and out of Elizabeth’s life continue show us the impact of knowing/working with/caring for someone who suffers from addiction.

Addiction does not discriminate, and I fear there are many who have a certain picture of it in their heads therefore making excuses for those who suffer from functional addiction. Elizabeth is clearly one of the more intelligent people in her time, successful, good looking, and it grasps her by all she has.  Money becomes no object to her and her personal relationships are few and far between, so there is very little stopping her once she gets started. Gripping as this tale may be, we have to keep in mind we are watching someone destroy themselves, their life, and all their relationships. Knowing someone with addiction is to watch someone fall backwards in slow motion without being able to do anything about it. Watching someone live with functional addiction can feel similarly, except because they are functioning, the fall can be harder to see. It is so important to shine this light on this disastrous epidemic particularly if there are people out there who are either unaware of the cost, or simply don’t want to see it. Turn on The Queen’s Gambit for a riveting, well written, and well performed coming of age story that will provide all the feels as well as an accurate depiction of the cost of the opioid epidemic.

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