“She’s an orphan. A survivor. Losing is not an option for her. Otherwise, what would her life be?” A statement Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon overhears while standing in the back of a packed elevator as her life and career are publicly dissected by foreign men; a concept she has undoubtedly been familiar with since she was a child.
In The Queen’s Gambit, the Netflix original show based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same title, Beth Harmon is a wunderkind in the game of chess. She began playing in the basement of a Kentucky orphanage named The Methuen Home while being taught by a janitor working in the establishment: Mr. Shaibel. Though a dour man, Mr. Shaibel quickly became her chess mentor. Throughout her childhood, Beth continuously impressed the adults around her and exceeded people’s expectations of her skill in chess on account of her gender as well as her age.
However, the loneliness of being a child prodigy burdened Beth Harmon into adulthood. Beth struggled to form lasting romantic connections with others, as most men she became involved with romanticized their ideals of her, lusting over what Beth represented as a chess prodigy rather than cherishing Beth herself. In addition, Beth battled addiction since she was nine, even utilizing her substance abuse to do what she felt made her such an expert in chess.
Lastly, Beth grappled to find her sense of purpose or to know who she really was outside of the methodical game of chess. Similar to Beth, child prodigies will entangle feelings of self-worth with success because they confuse the hyper-praise they receive from adults as love. Additionally, child prodigies are often burdened with adult responsibilities and robbed of a proper childhood, resulting in higher rates of anxiety and fear of failure at too young an age.
“With heightened intelligence comes the ability to make sense of adult concepts, which makes child prodigies extremely wary of failure,” Hrashita Dagha explains in her article discussing the reality of being a child prodigy for The Naked Truth. “Children, normal children, I mean, are allowed to make errors as they learn, but for some “obvious” reason, a child prodigy can’t be seen doing the same. Deep down, I was unhappy, so very miserable.”
The Queen’s Gambit illustrates the life-long and burdensome loneliness that accompanies those labeled a child prodigy, reflecting Hrashita’s words and experience. For example, after the death of her adoptive mother, Beth is shown standing alone on the balcony of her hotel room in Mexico City. The camera pans out as she disappears within the wide shot, conveying how small Beth is, how lonely she feels now that her mother is gone or rather how lonely she’s always felt.
Chess had continuously kept Beth company as people came and went out of her life. As a result, as Beth grew older throughout the season, she became increasingly depressed, turning to substances and alcohol to cope. She eventually hits “rock bottom” after losing to world-renowned Russian chess player, Vasily Borgov.
This loss is especially devastating because of how much self-worth Beth places into being the best at chess, like many child prodigies do. Beth had to learn to heal and find herself outside of chess by, ultimately, making the executive decision to choose herself over people’s oppressive expectations of her and who she should be.
Overall, the show was so enjoyable to watch. Beth’s journey was enriching and inspiring. The cast was amazing all around with especially standout performances from Anya Taylor Joy, Moses Ingram, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. The cinematography was stellar thanks to the show’s director, Scott Frank.
Although I wasn’t a child prodigy like Beth, I think many people can relate to feeling burnt out upon young adulthood because of the ways we are conditioned to intertwine our own self worth with our accomplishments and, in turn, words of affirmation from adults. Given this aspect of relatability, viewers can connect with the show in a real, meaningful way and hopefully learn to detach themselves from the opinions of others and put themselves first, as Beth learned to do.
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