If you want to understand me, watch The Queen’s Gambit and watch Elizabeth Harmon’s face.
I want you to understand Elizabeth Harmon because so far she is the best explanation of the kind of painfully alienated pragmatism I feel unable to communicate about my innerworld. The walls are always closing in as your opportunity to shine feels like you might not make it: you can’t seem to control yourself, so you rely on unhealthy means to slow yourself down into a tractable state. There are people on your journey who helped you. They mean something to you, but you seem only to be grateful to them when they’re not around, because when they are around they can’t stop themselves from tinkering with your psyche like you were an almost-perfect clock.
Forgive the beginning for being a little too shrouded, perhaps, a little too stereotypical. Quickly we see the kind of person Harmon is: someone who is angry, but has been broken down enough that she knows the routines to run with. When she finds a way to slip through the cracks she does and grabs what she can.
Harmon is a genius. She learns how to manipulate the world a certain way and pursues it furiously, but rebuffs every attempt other people make at teaching her better manipulation strategies. Most of them can’t keep up with her in her forte, but many of them have something to teach regardless. The problem is they want to apply for a position that doesn’t exist, they don’t know how to interact with her and they’re constantly trying to frame things so that Harmon has less and less space to maintain the structure that keeps her mind together the way she needs to be. She does find a real person she can lay her shoulder on, but the only reason that person can be there is because she doesn’t really understand Harmon.
To find space to think Harmon is not just always looking for exits, she is creating them, imposing her game on the current social dynamics awkwardly and often at a cost. And yet, if one thing can be said about this, it is that it allows her to think. She goes around dealing with people like a talented amateur gymnast, making fantastic leaps and bounds, and sometimes injuring herself and retreating into the corner. Yet few can deny that from this flexibility is a kind of exploration, one she leverages as she continually digs herself deeper because she has trouble controlling herself.
The acting and the shots here perfectly capture the result: a constant ambiguity about whether the current moment is enjoyable. The shots and acting perfectly capture how she can never seem to decide if this situation is working for her, if this is what she wants. In a few moments there is a burst of joy and you feel it, because you realized the tension was pushing you back and forth across the margin between pain and pleasure.
And that’s the real key, the real reason why this mini-series matters so much to me. The scenes are structured right and there is enough silence that you begin to understand Harmon’s biggest issue is traversing her own mental landscape. Everyone else has stood in her way at times, but dealing with them only required a little pain, a little growth, and few goodbyes to previous standards. But dealing with herself is intractable, because she uses the way her mind functions as an engine. She wants to keep it hot, but it is painful to maintain and she does not know how to tune it up and down smoothly. It is a painful and damaging process that others assume should look different and so there is the struggle to present.
Harmon does love a few people, but she is a selfish person. She has to be. The world has made handles that are the wrong shape and wonders why she is complaining that her hands ache. She kicks the door open and does not apologize anymore, she has only one goal now and the door was in the way.
I don’t know if I can say she succeeds. Watch the show, and I’ll write a follow-up about exactly that.