Netflix checkmate

The Queen’s Gambit has been one of Netflix’s most successful recent shows. The plot is taken from a novel by Walter Tevis, based on the story of Bobby Fischer, the US chess champion who defeated the Soviets at their own game. The Fischer character is made into a young girl who is inspired to learn chess while growing up in an orphanage. Chess is a predominantly male sport. Currently, the highest ranking woman in the chess world is 64th. Thus her quick rise to become world grandmaster is all the more miraculous.

While the show is beautifully made. I particularly enjoyed the colours, featuring orange-green combinations in modernist 1960s interiors. The way chess is turned into a dramatic arena is particularly impressive. But in the end, I agree with Lucy Mangan’s Guardian review that the “virtually frictionless” plot gives it the feeling of a fairytale rather than gripping drama. But the drama ends up the plot loses touch with reality, particularly at the end.

So what is the narrative explanation for Beth Harmon’s magical success? Descending the orphanage basement, she discovers the janitor playing chess alone. Beth is already shown to be mathematically gifted in class, which is something she had inherited from her mother. The orphans are managed with daily doses of tranquilisers, which she saves for bedtime. That night, a chessboard appears on her ceiling with moving pieces. This becomes the space for honing her skills. It appears at the dramatic climax at the end as the source of her magical power.

Narratives often have a fantasy space within them that is disconnected from the real world. but harbours secrets and messages that can be useful in meeting the challenges of the plot. What happens in these dream spaces can explain the reversals that enable a hero to recover from difficulty and achieve victory.

I’m interested in how this kind of space helps us to watch Netflix. The dominant rationale for Netflix watching is the “binge”. Like Uber Eats, it’s a remissive product that tries to absolve viewers of any qualms about their actions.

It’s possible to see the ceiling chessboard as Beth’s Netflix, which she watches at night in her drug-induced torpor. But rather than being a space of oblivion, this experience proves to give her powers that she can use in the contests of the real world. Our suspension of disbelief about the magical rise is aided by the social justice value of a young woman ascending a traditionally male domain.

But in the end, the purpose of Netflix is to make you watch Netflix, just as our dreams at night distract us from the idea of waking up. This ceiling chessboard is like those dreams within a dream, which seem to give the framing dream a feel of reality.

Yes, I watched it. It was my guilty lockdown secret indulgence. But I have no illusion it was anything other than an apparition.

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