In perhaps the most unforgettable scene in the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, chess prodigy Beth Harmon refuses to sign an anti-communist statement.
By the time we reach this scene, Beth has earned the opportunity to participate in the World Chess Championship in the Soviet Union, after becoming the top-ranked player in the United States. Despite her status as national champion, she can’t afford the trip to Moscow alone. So, an organization called Christian Crusade volunteers to pay for her flight. But there’s a catch: in exchange for the funding, representatives from the organization demand Beth issue a public statement against the “spread of communism.”
As they put it, the fact that the spread of communism also implies the spread of atheism is simply a matter of “Marxist-Leninist fact.” After giving the pre-written statement a once-over, Beth unceremoniously rejects the offer. If it means having to attach her name to “fucking nonsense,” she’d rather not take the money.
This scene is so memorable in part because it encapsulates everything that makes Beth such a compelling protagonist — giving the viewer a snapshot of her confidence, integrity, and outspokenness. More than this, it also lends itself to being read as an explicit statement of the series’ politics — a politics strikingly critical of both Cold War anti-communism and actually existing American capitalism.
Life Under Actually Existing Capitalism
Beth’s life in the 1950s and ’60s United States in no way resembles the classic Hollywood image of High Fordist utopia. A victim of the nuclear family, Beth’s biological father refuses to admit to his affair with her highly gifted mathematician mother, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his bourgeois family idyll. Suffering from mental illness, her mother ultimately commits suicide, leaving Beth orphaned.
If Beth’s adoption in her early teenage years brings a modicum of stability to her life, her new home is hardly a more loving environment than the orphanage in which she had been living. Beth’s adoptive father disdains and patronizes his depressed aspiring-concert-pianist-turned-homemaker wife, mainly agreeing to the adoption to keep her busy. Meanwhile, she and Beth only appear to approach something resembling genuine happiness when drinking together in hotels, without men.
In addition to Beth’s adoptive father, virtually all other characters in the series who lead “normal” middle-class lives come off incredibly poorly. The general store owner in Beth’s small Kentucky town prefers to trash his unsold chess magazines rather than give them to Beth. Her romantic partners project the woman of their dreams onto her without opening themselves up to her trauma or personal history. Her classmates exclude her from their cliques because of her clothes, a marker of social class.
The only people Beth genuinely connects with in the series are her adoptive mother, the janitor at the orphanage who teaches her to play chess, a fellow orphan who is black and turns toward radical civil rights organizing later in life, and Bohemian types who live a life removed from social clichés — in short, people who exist on the margins of (capitalist) society.
Soviet Chess Paradise
Yet what’s especially interesting about The Queen’s Gambit is how it breaks with standard pop cultural depictions of Cold War relations. Well dressed and polite, the Soviets are gracious winners and losers. They do not suffer complexes vis-à-vis the United States, nor do they feel compelled to assert their superiority over their opponents through propaganda. Their society is one in which large groups of retirees spend hours upon hours together in parks, playing chess. Even an individual sport such as chess is treated as a team endeavor, as community is viewed as important.
On the other hand, in the United States, solidarity is a foreign concept. Everything can be acquired, but not by everyone. Those who lack interest in chess but have money can purchase chess sets; others cannot. Many of the classic signifiers of the superiority of the American way of life, such as Elvis Presley films in drive-in theaters, are not accessible to people from circumstances such as Beth’s. However, cheap alcohol, pills, and cigarettes are readily available to all seeking to take the edge off of reality.
Set against its portrayal of life in the Soviet Union versus the United States, The Queen’s Gambit’s depiction of American anti-communism appears all the more grotesque. A movement spearheaded by reactionary fundamentalists who see themselves as doing God’s work, its basic function is to preclude domestic class consciousness and international working-class solidarity.
Reactionary Nostalgia Just Ain’t What It Used to Be
It’s important to maintain a sense of perspective when analyzing the critical political utility of any TV drama, especially one on Netflix — a billionaire-owned streaming platform that also hosts hagiographies for rich and powerful capitalists. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how frankly The Queen’s Gambit contradicts the standard Cold War narrative in which the “free” capitalist West must take on the villain of the “totalitarian” Communist East.
In the world of The Queen’s Gambit, the only “villain” Beth has to take on are the social realities preventing her from achieving her full potential. And these realities are a product of the ostensibly free capitalist system. Ultimately, Beth can only triumph over these obstacles by acting in solidarity with others. This is a lesson she learns in no small part from her chess “opponents” in the Soviet Union, a society that appreciates the value of solidarity far more than does American society.
Regardless of whether viewers of The Queen’s Gambit learn the same lesson as Beth, one thing is sure: its immense popularity suggests that the Cold War narrative no longer enjoys the hegemony it once did. From an anti-capitalist perspective, this can only be seen as a good thing.