We begin episode 1 of The Queen’s Gambit in Paris 1967 with Beth Harmon in her apartment popping pills and drinking. Interestingly, these little spirit bottles take the place on a chess board.
As she heads downstairs, Beth keeps her composure as numerous cameras strobe to her presence. Sitting opposite her rival, the two prepare to play. As she looks the man in the eye, flashbacks from the past show a young 9 year old Beth surviving a horrific car accident on a bridge.
This is where we begin our story, as orphaned Elizabeth is driven up to an orphanage where she’s shown around and introduced to the teachers. And resident party mouth Jolene.
Miss Deardorff tells Beth that faith will help elevate her and give the girl a better life than she otherwise would have had. This starts with her hair being cut (symbolically cutting away the old).
Beth immediately gravitates toward Jolene who asks what her parents’ last words were (“close your eyes”) and decides to lie and tell the girl she doesn’t remember. Lining up, she takes the pills given by Mr Fergussen and immediately feels spaced out. Lying in bed, further flashbacks reveal more about Beth’s troubled past.
Beth is kept in a trailer outside in the middle of nowhere. Paul does his best to persuade Alice – Beth’s Mother – to stop this but it’s no good. One lingering glance to Beth is enough before he drives away for good.
Back in the past, Beth heads down to the basement and cleans erasers after completing her exams in record time. Only, while down there she notices a man named Mr Shaibel playing chess and struggles to keep her mind off that. She even sees a chessboard materialize in her room.
An attempt to convince this man to teach her also draws up blanks too… at least to begin with. After demonstrating her knowledge, Mr Shaibel allows her to play. She’s immediately outmatched and beaten by the “Scholar’s Mate.”
That evening, Beth’s collected up pills allow her to see the pieces on the ceiling above her. She’s again schooled though, leading to an eventual breakthrough as she beats Mr Shaibel some time later.
Realizing she may be the real deal, Shaibel continues to teach her different formations and variations. All the while, Beth stores up her green pills to take in the evening. She even learns the Queen’s Gambit.
Her talent is uncanny, and he’s astounded by what Beth’s managed to learn. Shaibel hands over a book for chess moves and admits it’s the best book for her.
The next day, she takes up the usual position in the basement but is introduced to Mr Ganz from the chess club. After beating him, he’s clearly impressed and asks how she practices. “In my head…on the ceiling,” She says nonchalantly. With two chessboards set up, she beats both Shaibel and Ganz, even going so far as to work out the moves in advance of them occurring.
Although she’s a massive success, invited along to the high school to play on Thursdays, she’s no longer given the green pills she so badly depends on. Not only that, she also isn’t allowed to go in the basement either.
Despite her initial withdrawal symptoms, Beth manages to outplay every single person at the chess club, constantly beating each player. Charles Levy – the best in the class – is even beaten in an astonishing 15 moves.
Despite her brilliance, Beth’s dependence on green pills see her break into the pharmacy back at the orphanage to collect them up. Armed with a screwdriver, she breaks the lock and starts stealing the pills – gobbling them up like candy. With the jar in her hand, Beth collapses after overdosing as all the teachers and students catch her in the act.
The Episode Review
With a lovely opening shot, the miniseries manages to simultaneously show Beth’s talent, obsession with chess and her subsequent addiction to pills. This whole show-don’t-tell schtick perfectly communicates how to portray an empowering female on-screen without the need to add in Mary Sue personas.
The cinematography is beautifully done too and there’s little glimmers of foreshadowing here with Shaibel drinking whiskey. This potentially hints at a dark future ahead for Beth. Still, we’ll have to wait and see what the future holds but this is a very good episode to get things running.