How Netflix busted stereotypes about women and chronic illness in “The Queen’s Gambit,” tackling it in a way that broke with Hollywood tradition

If you’re like millions of others, you were hooked by the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s the story of a young female chess prodigy Beth Harmon. It follows her from her life in an orphanage in the 1950s through her meteoric rise through the chess world in the 1960s.

Warning, this post contains spoilers.

For me, it was Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma, who captured my attention the most. At first, all we see is a woman who seems the typical bored housewife of the cold war era.

But then her husband leaves her. Mother and daughter are thrown together in a new way. We wonder if they’ll sink or swim.

Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Heller, photo, PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

Beth and Alma make an odd pair. Beth is shy and brainy. Alma is distant and seems lost in her own world.

Despite this, the relationship between mother and daughter grows. In one key scene, Beth comes home to find Alma playing the piano. It’s a side of her she’s never seen. We realize she has hidden emotional depths.

The two support each other as they travel the world together thanks to Beth’s chess brilliance. But there’s a dark cloud over their lives—Alma’s undiagnosed chronic illness.

Over and over, Alma takes to her bed, exhausted and sick with what she believes are migraines. She’s not getting any kind of medical care that we can see, except a prescription for tranquilizers.

Here’s what makes “The Queen’s Gambit” one in a million: it takes Alma, and her illness, seriously. She’s never regarded as a hypochondriac or a drama queen, even though it’s not clear what’s wrong with her.

This is the opposite of how women like her have been portrayed on TV and in movies forever. I can’t think of how many times I’ve seen a woman who’s claiming to be sick, only to turn out to be a neurotic attention seeker. It’s so common that it’s hard to imagine how else a character like this would turn out to be.

Yet here she is. A woman who’s ill with something mysterious. And she’s not faking it.

Watching Alma struggle to manage her illness, I felt seen. She’s undiagnosed, or more to the point misdiagnosed as an anxiety case. This has been my story, and it’s the same for so many others who have chronic illness and/or pain.

In one scene, Alma and Beth are on a plane traveling to a tournament. Alma enjoys the lifestyle that Beth’s talent affords her—travel and hotels. But she’s drinking too much.

Beth becomes concerned as her mother orders yet another cocktail—a Gibson, her favorite—from the stewardess.

“Maybe all that alcohol is making your illness worse,” she says.

How rare it is to see something like this. We the audience are being told to worry about Alma, just as Beth is. It’s like an alarm ringing: this woman is sick, and no one’s helping her!

We know that Alma self medicating with alcohol isn’t helping matters, but we understand it. She’s not getting her medical needs met.

As it turns out, Beth is right. The alcohol is making her worse. This is because, as we later learn, she has hepatitis.

The pair go to Mexico City for a major chess tournament, and Alma confesses she has a secret male penpal who lives there.  She’s excited to meet him. He doesn’t impress Beth, as he comes across as a sleazy operator.

Still, Alma seems to be having the time of her life. She goes out with him every night, coming back to their hotel room late.

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) MARIELLE HELLER as ALMA WHEATLEY in episode 103 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020


After a few days, the man leaves town. Alma, by then, has overdone it. She’s unable to get out of bed. This crashing is all too familiar to many of us who are chronically ill.

Alma tries to dismiss it as a flu, but we know better. Again, what a difference from how this is shown most of the time. Alma is playing down her illness. She’s trying to be strong, even though it’s obvious something is wrong.

In a scene that shows how close the mother and daughter have become, Beth snuggles up to her sick mom, resting her head on her hip. There’s a quietude to the shot that shows the importance of their connection—and Beth’s concern about her mother’s health.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Beth returns from a chess game, and is babbling on about it. Alma doesn’t answer. She discovers to her horror that her mother is lying there dead.

Overcome with shock and grief, she contacts her adoptive father, Allston. He’s cold and uncaring. He tells her she can have the house if she keeps up the mortgage, and reluctantly agrees to help with funeral expenses.

On the way home on the plane, Beth orders a Gibson. She lifts the glass to toast her mother. She’s honoring a woman who, though flawed, gave her love and encouragement.

With so few portrayals like this on TV and in the movies, that scene was a like a balm to my soul. Finally, finally! A chronically ill woman is portrayed in a positive light. She’s far from perfect, but that’s good, because it makes her more real.

Allston gets a less flattering treatment. He later returns and demands the house back, claiming he never told Beth she could have it. He can’t even look at his daughter as he tries to push her out of her home.

In the course of their strained conversation, he refers to his dead wife as “pathetic.”

“She was stuck,” Beth retorts. “There’s a difference.”

Then she looks at him and adds: “I’m looking at pathetic.”

I’m fortunate enough to have a spouse who has stood by me through the ups and downs of my illness. He did this even as doctors and friends tried to convince him that there was nothing wrong with me—that it was all in my head. Yet many people with undiagnosed chronic illness and pain aren’t so lucky. There are plenty of Allstons out there.

Watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” I realized I had a backlog of anger, not only from the way doctors treated me, but also at how people like us are portrayed. Even a Canadian series I like, ‘When Calls The Heart,” has multiple plotlines in which characters are ill or disabled in some way—and it turns out to be an emotional issue.

I’ve seen too many shows and movies like this. The all knowing doctor says there’s nothing physically wrong with her (or, in some cases, him), and that’s it.

“The Queen’s Gambit” deserves credit for turning this tired TV trope on its head. We can all raise a toast to Alma—even if it has to be a nonalcoholic option.

4 comments

  1. Oh I am so glad someone wrote about this! Queens Gambit, honestly, is the best portrayal of CI and female autism spectrum, and/or general neurodiversity I’ve ever seen. And it did it all so quietly.

    As someone with parents of two not-so er shareful cultures, re: emotions, I cannot understand the fluency characters in other “atypical” shows have, when it comes to their needs being met. The phrase needs being met doesn’t exist in the British language of my mom’s era!

    QG nailed so well how things work, or don’t work, when there isn’t language or diagnoses to explain one’s incompatibility with regular life.

    It was more pleasurable for me to also see how they got along anyway. Because to continue on your point, yeah, women of not so distant eras never never ever —were formally diagnosed, let alone diagnosed correctly. As you say, having people just to validate that it’s tough, makes up for a lot.

    Idk, I dug it a lot, it broke so many stereotypes not by trying to but just by being (I presume) written by someone with experience in this stuff. I loved Alma and was also afraid they were going to demonize her as the evil stepmother, but of course her good points and understated love were the bigger part of her character. Rather than dubious business dealings.

    So sorry this is long I’m just glad you thought the same things! I read a few articles that treated Alma as a somebody who’d asked for it, and who had invited illness into her life by drinking (rather than the much truer other way ‘round). Or daring to live a little. Totally missing the character portrayal through four full episodes, immediately jumping to the least original trope of a woman going to the bad.
    The
    I was glad she at least had a romantic adventure before popping off.

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    • Yes, agreed! I was glad Alma had some fun. And had she been diagnosed while alive she would at least have known what the issue was with alcohol. So it was realistic in that way too—no doctor bothered, instead giving her sedatives because obviously she was a hysteric. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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  2. Sunshine, you hit every major point! And I was so attached to this show…perhaps because I had seen what you talked about with my son, with his dystonia. I loved this show—nothing was foregone, nothing was expected, and there was believable caring and attention from the prodigy to her mother—and vice-versa. I loved it all. My daughter hasn’t seen it yet–I just told her: I wish I hadn’t yet, too! Then it would all be ahead me! Love to you, Sunshine—I think of you a lot!

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