Searching for Theme in The Queen’s Gambit

Although theme is often overlooked when discussing dramatic works, it can have an outsized effect on an audience. It is typically the theme of a movie that causes it to linger on an audience’s mind days after the showing. Theme is most effective when it ties directly into the central tension of a dramatic work. If theme does not serve story, the resulting dramatic work will likely feel hollow. Moreover, the theme of a work is ultimately the author’s worldview of the culmination of events that comprise the story. Perhaps David Howard and Edward Mabley state it best:

Since it hardly seems possible to write a screenplay, even the most frivolous one, without an attitude toward the people and the situations one has created, every story must therefore have a theme of some kind. And there is one spot in the screenplay where this theme can invariably be discerned: the resolution. For here the author reveals, perhaps even unconsciously, what interpretation he or she puts on the material.

The Queen’s Gambit has definitely struck a chord with audiences, as it was the “most-watched scripted limited series” on Netflix shortly after its premier. Despite its popularity, critics seem to fail to understand what exactly the theme is. Even series creator Scott Frank misunderstands the theme, citing it to be “the cost of genius.” While this may be a secondary theme, it is not the dominant theme of the series, as it does not tie directly into the main story or, as Howard and Mabley discern, into the resolution.

So then, what exactly is the story and ultimately the theme of The Queen’s Gambit? The series, based on a Walter Tevis novel, begins in medias res with protagonist Beth Harmon facing off with Borgov, the Russian world champion, in Paris. The story then backs up and starts with a nine-year-old Beth in an orphanage. The story builds over several episodes, returning to the match in Paris, then culminating with a rematch against Borgov in Moscow. Therefore, the action that starts the series, carries it, and ends it, is Beth’s quest to beat Borgov. This is the storyline that carries the major tension: will Beth defeat Borgov? Since this is the major tension, the major theme must tie directly into this action.

So how do we derive theme from this action? To do so, we must look at how the writer is coloring the action and what message the writer seems to be conveying.

In the middle of the series, one of Beth’s friends mentions that the Russians are so good at chess because they help each other. This is different from how the Americans play. The Americans do not help each other. Americans are individualists. And upon this, a world of theme has just unfolded. We think back on Beth’s whole life. She has always wanted family but was orphaned at a young age. In the orphanage, she was isolated and unable to connect with others. When she finally was adopted, she went to a broken home where she was more servant than daughter. However, in the end, it is chess that allows Beth to find her family. And it is this family that will help her beat the Russian.

The theme of the series expands again when we consider the context of the Cold War: America versus the Soviet Union. America, a country of capitalist individualists each trying to get ahead of the other versus the USSR, a union of disparate people working together to lift each other up. When Beth is given money by a Christian group to denounce communism, she refuses, even though she desperately needs the money. She is learning the value of cooperation and community. And it is Beth’s community that helps her strategize and defeat Borgov in the final match of the series.

The theme is pushed even further by the CIA agent that accompanies Beth to the Soviet Union. He is dismissive of the USSR and only wants Beth to beat the Russian to make the US look superior. When Beth gets her victory, with help from her community, she does not dash off to the airport to triumphantly return to the US as the agent wants, rather Beth decides to walk in a public park and commune with the people of the USSR. In the park she is approached by a group of admirers and agrees to play chess with them. She has foregone elitism and individualism in favor of community and commonality.

Despite the critics’ and even the show creator’s sentiments, the theme of The Queen’s Gambit is not the cost of genius. The series’ theme is the strength of community. The series teaches us that we are strong and will survive if we surround ourselves with people that support us and believe in us.

Of course, any good script will have multiple themes—and Frank is right, the cost of genius is one such theme, but it is not the dominant theme of the series. As Howard and Mabley instruct, theme ties directly into the main action of the story and is best discerned through the resolution.

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