Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Queen's Gambit on Netflix.
“Sex is inherently quite funny and awkward,” Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy tells Refinery29 over the phone. “So, I’m really glad that it was important for Scott to let us see that experience.” “Scott,” is Scott Frank — the director and co-writer of The Queen's Gambit. Frank unapologetically leans into the awkwardness of sex for Beth Harmon, Taylor-Joy’s genius heroine.
“The first time that Beth does have sex with somebody, I added a pat in. And then I was worried that Scott was going to be like, ‘You need to take that away,’” Taylor-Joy continued. “And I was like, ‘But, she doesn’t know how to finish anything.’”
Taylor-Joy was correct — and Frank kept her “pat” in, which viewers can find in the first five minutes of fourth episode “Middle Game.” It’s during this episode that, as Taylor-Joy said, Beth has her first sexual experience. It’s wildly unfulfilling. She is essentially still fully dressed. Once Beth’s unnamed hookup flops off of her in a stoned stupor, she lays there in bed, unsure of how to move forward. As he drifts off to sleep, all Beth can do is give the guy two resounding pats on the shoulder.
“Any time she’s played a game of chess, she’s always shaken hands with somebody. So she feels like she needs to close the chapter on whatever just happened,” Taylor-Joy says. “She’s like, ‘Well done. You tried. Thank you.’”
Most series would only be brave enough to have one cringe-worthy sex scene like Beth’s first. The Queen’s Gambit is chock full of them — and devoid of the nudity and XXX hookups that so many supposedly sexy dramas gorge themselves with just to prove their edge. Instead, viewers usually glimpse Beth’s sexuality through her uncomfortable post-coital moments. After the success of this spring’s Jane Austen adaptation Emma., star Taylor-Joy has become the go-to actress for depicting the curves of female desire without ever needing her character to remove a glove, let alone reveal her body in a sex scene. For Taylor-Joy, such a visually modest approach was the only way viewers could really get to know Beth Harmon.
“With Beth, it’s not that [explicit nudity] would detract from the story, it just wouldn’t add anything. You’re on this journey with her, and the journey is with her mind,” Taylor-Joy (a self-described “sucker” for romanticised movie sex scenes) said. “There’s not anything physical about it, apart from the abuse that she subjects her body to through substances.
Beth’s most intriguing post-sex scenes shows up in the Queens Gambit’s series premiere cold open and reappears for full context in sixth episode “Adjournment.” In the latter chapter, Beth meets up with beautiful model Cleo (Millie Brady) in her Paris hotel’s bar. The mood is obviously flirty. We see Cleo coax Beth into chatting up some men at a nearby table. But, in the morning, Cleo is naked in Beth’s bed — not either of the men. Queen’s Gambit never wrings its metaphorical hands over this implicitly queer romantic development.
“One of my favourite things about Beth is because she exists semi out of society, she is genuinely baffled whenever people bring her gender into everything. She genuinely does not understand what it has to do with the trashing that she just delivered to her opponent,” Taylor-Joy began. “Much in the same way she doesn’t really understand what the ‘60s told people was appropriate.”
It’s this disinterest in norms that brings Beth to Cleo in Paris. “From the second Beth first sees Cleo, she is fascinated by her,” Taylor-Joy said. “So with the guys in the background [at the hotel], she’s like, ‘Eh, you’re not really that interesting. Cleo, you’re cool.’”
Still, even Taylor-Joy admits Beth could be a little kinder to her conquests. “I really enjoyed getting to explore Beth’s sexuality with her. She is so not-great with people. She has very little tact,” she explained. “Those are the moments that, as an audience member, when I’ve watched it back, I’ve been like, ‘Ooh, Beth. That wasn’t that well-played. You should possibly apologize to that individual afterwards.’”
For Taylor-Joy, Beth’s breakup conversation with fellow chess prodigy Benny (Game of Thrones’ Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is an example of one of those distressing scenes. “He’s like, ‘Wait a second. You just left me and basically said you wanted to be a drunk and you didn’t want to hang out with me anymore. And now you’re asking me for money?’ And she’s like, ‘Yeah?’” Taylor-Joy recalls. “Every time I hear it, I’m like, ‘Ooh. Bad move.’”
Knowing chess player Beth, she would be proud to say she kept all of her “bad moves” in the bedroom.