Finding Family in The Queen’s Gambit

Deb Koster

What does it look like to be the church in the life of an orphan? How do you find community and build connection from nothing? The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix series that gives us a glimpse into how God places the lonely in families, enfolding them into community.

This seven-part series is based on Walter Tevis’ book by the same name. The series follows the life of an orphan named Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon. On the one hand, Beth is a lonely girl who is just trying to find her place in the world. Isolated and yearning for community, her life is filled with flawed people who have failed her in many ways: a mentally ill mother, father figures who abandon her, and caregivers who remain emotionally distant. She is an outcast seeking to find her place in the world. Yet Beth has a superpower. Early in her time at the orphanage, she discovers chess and amazes all who see her play. Like a superhero, a rock star, or a famous child actor, she is something special.

There are a dozen competing tropes in The Queen’s Gambit. As the story unfolds, we wonder if this will be a rags-to-riches story, or a feminist story of a woman succeeding in a man’s world, or a star-that-burns-too-bright story. Is Beth Harmon the superhero savant who will change the world? Is this a commentary on mental illness, as Beth lives in the shadow of her mother’s struggles? Or is it about addiction, as we watch Beth flounder when out on her own, getting lost in alcohol and isolation? Is this just a dazzling 1960s period piece? These elements are all present, but the surprising, tender question that emerges at the center of the series is this: Who will be Beth’s family, away from the game? My heart was tugged by the series’ glimpse into what it means to be a community. In fact, The Queen’s Gambit paints a picture of what it looks like to be the church—the family where we find true community.

Over the course of the series, Beth is seamlessly played by three different actresses. From 5-year-old Beth, played by Annabeth Kelly, to young Beth, played by Isla Johnston, to young-adult Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, we see her tentatively searching for meaning and connection as she grows. We watch Beth explore relational connections through trial and error. As Beth grows up in the orphanage, full of wary people and cool relationships, she forges community wherever she can find it. Befriended by an older fellow orphan, she finds a friendship that challenges and blesses her life. Fascinated by the janitor’s chess set, she convinces him to take the time to teach her how to play. The intellectual thrill of the game guides her to engage the janitor in competition, and both seem a little surprised to find a bond beyond the board.

As Beth engages with the community of professional chess players, she finds coaches and colleagues who will both use her and enrich her life. The period art direction is surprisingly rich for a show about a board game. Beth’s delicious costuming reveals something of her inner state as she grows and engages a sophisticated world beyond the gray orphanage. The true beauty of the series is not so much in her superpowered gameplay, but in Beth’s embrace of vulnerability among her makeshift community.

The Queen’s Gambit paints a picture of what it looks like to be the church—the family where we find true community.

We are people fashioned in the image of a God who exists in the community of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We too cannot help but need one another, even though we are each broken. Beth finds blessing even in the imperfect acts of connection as she searches for true community. This is, of course, what the church is supposed to look like. Beth’s upbringing includes the religious structures of the orphanage, but she does not find deep connection in the mandatory hymn-sings or factory-like culture. These things miss a chance to follow Jesus’ example of being incarnational. Beth’s heart needs a faith that is expressed in human connection. Later in her life, a Christian organization wants to fund her career for the advancement of their political agenda. These people want to use her notoriety, but they are uninterested in investing in her relationally. In Beth’s story, religious organizations fail to meet her spiritual needs.

In chess, a gambit is an opening move where the player will sacrifice pieces to gain a positive strategic position later in the game. Beth has experienced significant losses in life, but they do not get the last word. The loss and abandonment in her childhood are only a part of her story. Our heartaches and mistakes do not define us. We are more than just the sum of our disappointments. By God’s grace our losses equip us with the empathy and fortitude to overcome obstacles later in life. Within a community we can learn from one another and our past pains become opportunities to learn and grow.

The church is our adopted family where we find true community. Article 34 of the testimony Our World Belongs to God describes what the church should look like:

"In the new community
all are welcome:
the homeless come home,
the broken find healing,
the sinner makes a new start,
the despised are esteemed,
the least are honored,
and the last are first.
Here the Spirit guides
and grace abounds."

In God’s true church, we invest in one another and live out God’s gifts. In God’s community, we can be vulnerable and share our struggles. The church is supposed to be the family where we care deeply and sacrifice for the good of one another. We see that generous love expressed in The Queen’s Gambit. The friendships in the series show a generous compassion, one that speaks the truth in love and abounds in grace. As such, the show calls us to do better as the church in stepping into the messiness of each other's lives and living out the gospel we preach. This series invites us to see the distance between what the church is supposed to be and what kind of church we are in reality. Will we have the courage to be the incarnational church that God calls us to be?

It is our move.

Topics: TV