The Queen’s Gambit & Kentucky

Place in visual narrative and why this show is over-hyped

The way setting is employed in a visual narrative is a microcosm of the quality of its writing and directing. If you happen to know a setting well, it doesn’t take long to recognize a mediocre show.

I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, where Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is set. I am skeptical of recommended content, but when they referenced New Circle Road in the first 10 minutes — I kept watching.

It’s not often that big productions are set in Lexington, so I was curious to see what they’d use. There were some real references (Henry Clay High School! The Herald Leader! WLEX!) and a lot of fiction.

Then, in episode 5, when a character mentions living on New Circle Road (nobody lives on New Circle Road, it’s a highway) — I finally understood: Lexington was a device. It existed in service of the main focus: the prodigious and beautiful protagonist.

This was a disappointing revelation, but it made me realize that the treatment of setting in a show or film is a bellwether of its overall quality.

I get that things are rarely filmed on location. I also get that the show is not about Lexington or Kentucky. I assumed that the setting would just be a backdrop that underscores Beth Harmon’s unlikely rise to international fame. And yet Lexington / Kentucky as a place and idea kept resurfacing, and every time, it felt hollow.

Beth Harmon approaches her fake Lexington home

Why use Lexington at all? The easy answer would be: because the show is an adaptation of the novel, which is set there. Walter Tevis, I’m sure, drew from his lived experience in central Kentucky and wove it into fiction.

But plenty of on-screen adaptations of books thoughtfully alter the setting so a story can be rooted in a realistic sense of Place — not just a location but its culture, its people, and the way it feels to be there. Jill Soloway’s adaptation of Chris Kraus’s book I Love Dick did this well.

I Love Dick’s literary action is scattered across New York, the Los Angeles area, and a southwestern road trip. But Soloway’s show takes the three main characters (Chris, Sylvère, and Dick) and drops them in Marfa, Texas, where it was filmed on location. The result feels cohesive and grounded, a narrative that interacted with and was informed by a sense of Place.

Kathryn Hahn in Marfa, in Jill Soloway’s “I Love Dick”

They chose Marfa, undoubtedly because it’s hip, but also because it served as a fitting backdrop for the core development of the characters. Chris and Sylvère could be City People Academics removed from their element and dropped in an unfamiliar rural setting. Dick could be a Loner Desert Cowboy Artist. And they could all intersect in a small town Texas art scene where locals and outsiders mix and drama and gossip ensue. It worked well and Marfa felt like a character instead of a prop.

So, back to Director/Writer Scott Frank’s treatment of Lexington in The Queen’s Gambit. I’m convinced he didn’t care. He used Lexington perhaps as continuity from the novel, perhaps for the “humble origins” factor, but not because he was thoughtful about how a place shapes a character. And certainly not because he cared to bring an actual Beth Harmon to life.

Beth Harmon, as portrayed in the Netflix show, could have been from anywhere. As an audience, we are supposed to be impressed by how exceptional she is, despite her orphaned origins and the “small-town” environment she’s raised in. Director Scott Frank makes the actress’s beauty the true focus of the show, seizing every opportunity for a slow zoom-out or pouty-lipped close-up.

But “Kentucky” as an idea is employed as a contrast to the ideas of “Moscow” and “Paris” and “New York.” When a character says: “I’m just a former chess champion from Kentucky…” we’re supposed to believe this as evidence that they’re not as good or smart as players from bigger and international cities. “Kentucky” represents something to overcome on the path to real achievement.

Beth and her mother arriving in their first fancy hotel

By treating Lexington as a prop, Scott Frank is missing an important narrative opportunity. We are who we are because of where we’re from. And we seek to recreate or replace things from our origin, especially if we leave that place. So when Frank ignores how Lexington, Kentucky might have shaped Beth Harmon, when her personality and mannerisms and speech patterns have no relation to regionality, he does the whole show a disservice.

The Queen’s Gambit could have been set anywhere. Like Ontario, for example, where most of the Lexington footage was filmed. It wouldn’t have changed the narrative arc, and it wouldn’t have felt as disingenuous.

I‘m not interested in criticizing the way Lexington or Kentucky is represented in Hollywood. That’s a losing game. But I am interested in holding big studio writers and directors to a higher standard around the treatment of Place. When Place is thoughtfully incorporated into visual narratives, it elevates the entire work. When it’s not, it shatters the fictional world.

It shouldn’t be enough to have an attractive lead character, a cliff-hanger storyline, and some glamorous interiors. If you’re going to use a setting to communicate something about a character, then do the work of creating a believable environment. Read one book about the city or zoom in a little further on the map. Or if that’s too hard, find a person who lives there and pay them a consulting fee to help you write something believable.

But failing that, The Queen’s Gambit does nothing for me except to keep me up past my bedtime.

Product Designer and Musician in San Francisco.