Netflix’s seven-episode miniseries about an orphaned chess prodigy in the 1960s, the Queen’s Gambit is the story of Beth Harmon, the chess genius who gradually ascends to be the greatest player of her era while battling childhood demons and substance abuse.
While the show hardly spends any time on extensive character development for people other than Beth, the one exception is Alma Wheatley, Beth’s adoptive mother played by the incredible writer-director Marielle Heller. Compared to Beth’s rather unimpeded and almost unrealistic path to self-actualization, Alma’s stifled desires and newfound yet short-lived hope resonated with me days after I finished the series.
Alma Wheatley in “The Queen’s Gambit”
The character of Alma Wheatley was introduced in episode two when the Wheatleys arrived at the orphanage to adopt Beth. Alma is a seemingly traditional and submissive housewife in a button-up cardigan and a matching long skirt, a woman who watches her every word in front of her husband.
Although she once dreamed of becoming a pianist in an orchestra, her pursuit was written over by a loveless marriage. The audience is predisposed to believe that Mr. Wheatley’s abandonment of his family after Beth’s adoption will cause Alma will to spiral due to her lack of means and alcoholism.
Instead, the moment becomes a turning point for Alma, who is able to break loose from her conventional restraints and grow into her complex self as she develops a unique bond with Beth.
It is easy to see Alma as a cautionary tale for Beth against following traditional gender roles, however, the two characters have similarities which form the basis of their bond.
Subverting Stereotypes: The Relationship Between Beth and Alma
One of, if not the most fascinating aspect about the Queen’s Gambit is the relationship between Alma and Beth. Although the two begin getting to know each other as mother and daughter, the relationship they develop together is best described as a partnership, both personally and professionally. As Beth inadvertently gives away on the day she was adopted, she was already 15 years old when she met Alma.
The Queen’s Gambit does not archetypal storylines of families that take in an older child, (generally either a heartwarming story about hard-earned love or a painful tale that comes with frictions and abuse). Instead, the show presents a relationship in which two individuals put their feelers out and gradually drew closer to each other in careful back-and-forth.
In an interview with journalist Kara Swisher on the podcast Sway, Heller shed light on her character Alma’s more uninhibited side. “I liked that she wasn’t a stereotype. Based on the writing, there was no one logline about this character… She’s like a wilted flower who sees Beth’s talent and going after this gift that she has, and it reminds her that she’s alive. And then she gets a taste of freedom, which is beautiful,” Heller said.
Although, the audience is kept on the edge of their seats wondering when the relationship would go south – is Alma an abusive alcoholic? Would her outdated beliefs about gender get in the way of Beth’s pursuit? And when Beth starts pulling in award money from chess game victories, would Alma become greedy and exploitative?
Fortunately, none of the fears holds true as Alma turn out to be a supportive confidant and considerably liberal parent to Beth.
Genius and Addiction in “The Queen’s Gambit”
Lilly Dancyger, editor of the anthology Burn It Down and daughter of an artist who passed away from heroin addiction, pointed out the dangerous association between drugs and genius in the show and the misrepresentation of sobriety which is depicted as a snap decision for Beth.
Similarly, we hardly ever see Alma without a drink in her hand, and even when she passes away on a hotel bed, she leaves behind a significant liquor bill from “the many margaritas she consumed”.
Like the portrayal of Beth and her substance abuse, what’s the most troubling is not the fact that Alma suffers from alcoholism but how her drunkenness is portrayed as being entirely inconsequential to her death.
Following her death, the hotel manager explains that Alma’s untimely passing was due to hepatitis alone with no influence from alcohol.
While Alma’s death has no direct link to her addiction, it does paint her story as a tragedy. During her last days in Mexico City, Alma’s life truly turns a corner. She dances in the arms of her new love Manuel, earned a round of applause for her piano performance in the hotel lobby, and shares a beautiful moment with Beth on the balcony.
However, her abrupt death rewrites her narrative. Instead of a woman who is able to freely pursue the life she wants after a bleak marriage, she is a tragic figure who finally embraces her freedom, only to be greeted by death.
Therefore, Heller’s wilted flower metaphor is accurate in many ways – we as the audience see the glimmers of Alma but never the shine. Her weak physical condition is a constant reminder that her liberation is fleeting.
As young women who live in the year 2020, it might be easier to identify with Beth than Alma. We are more comfortable pursuing the career of our true interests and challenging gender norms in professional fields whenever we see them. But in the Queen’s Gambit, a show that offers simple pleasures of escapism, Beth’s storyline is so straightforward and effortless that it becomes tedious, even for a seven-episode series.
In this show, the dramatic tension and intricate emotions lie within the character Alma Wheatley. We witness how she abandons the cocoon of a housewife life and becomes rejuvenated through her relationship with Beth. In the end, we are left wondering who she could’ve been in an alternative time and life.