Over the course of The Queen’s Gambit‘s seven episodes, Beth Harmon makes and loses a lot of friends, but they still all come back to help her win her final match against Borgov at the end. In the arc of the show, Beth is quick to make friends in the world of chess, but she also rejects, hurts, and runs away from them. Beth meets Harry Beltik in episode 2, when she beats him at her first professional tournament. He’s immediately impressed by her and when she’s older, in episode 5, he comes back into her life with romantic intentions. Beltik lives in Beth’s home briefly and is her chess trainer, but they part ways when he realizes she will never love him like she loves chess.
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A similar dynamic plays out with Benny Watts: they meet in episode 3 when she loses to him at the U.S. Open. The two become friends and develop a romantic relationship in which she goes to live and train with him in New York City, but after a devastating defeat in Paris, she leaves him suddenly and returns to Kentucky. Their last conversation is a fight over the phone. Even Beth’s friendship arc with her very first friend, Jolene, is a similar journey of closeness, distance, and reconnection.
Through it all, Beth is on a journey to win against the number one player in the world, Borgov, and that’s her main external conflict, but there’s also an equally-important internal emotional journey. Beth has always been alone in the world – ever since her parents’ death left her an orphan – and she struggles to let people in and build long-lasting emotional connections. This is most obvious in her self-destructive behaviors, alcoholism and drug use, and in her rejection of close relationships with Beltik and Benny. It seems like she’s always running away just when things get emotionally complicated. For this reason, when Beth is facing her biggest chess match yet, she realizes that the most important thing in her life isn’t her incredible talent, but the deep and mutually-supportive friendships she made along the way.
For Benny and Beltik, along with her friends Matt and Mike, Wexler, Levertov, and Townes, helping Beth win is a victory for them too, because that’s what love in all its forms is. Considering Benny and Beltik’s relationships with Beth were both romantic and competitive and that she left them on bad terms before going to Russia for her big game, it’s especially surprising and meaningful that they and the others rally to help her win against Borgov. It’s clear Beth’s friends know her well enough to forgive her self-destructive spirals and to help her when she needs them the most. Seeing her win makes them happy, even when they may not be talking, because they really only want the best for her.
Without her friends’ support, Beth wouldn’t have been able to win against Borgov, even though at the very final moment in the match when it all goes differently than planned, she has to rely only on her own skill. This is the lesson she had to learn: to balance independence and reliance on the people she loves. The Queen’s Gambit is ultimately about chess and about friendship and has a strong message that turns the typical American hero story on its head. Instead of the triumph of individualism, this is a story about how no one succeeds without a family – biological, found, created, even accidental – behind them.
Next: The Queen’s Gambit: Why Jolene Is The Only Person Who Can Help Beth
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