The first episode, which takes place in the 1950s South, shows Beth and Jolene forming a bond that helps steady them as they spend their formative years in an institution. For Beth (played as a child by Isla Johnston), the rare moments of joy she experiences at the orphanage stem from chess — which she learns from a janitor in the building’s basement — and her banter with Jolene (played at both ages by Moses Ingram).
Ingram has been praised for Jolene’s wisecracking, scene-stealing interludes, which often involve her explaining aspects of life (sexual terms, drug use, their orphanage’s strict rules) to Beth, whom she calls “Cracker.” While Beth gets adopted by a struggling married couple at 15, Jolene seems resigned to spend her childhood at the Methuen Home. “I make out just fine right here,” she tells Beth, barely concealing her disappointment.
The Netflix series, which currently ranks high in the streamer’s Top 10, is earning overwhelmingly positive reviews for its compelling tale about a chess prodigy struggling with addiction. But the show blunders when it comes to Beth’s childhood friend, whose backstory and character development are so limited that she seems to exist merely to make Beth’s life easier.
When Jolene resurfaces at the end of the series — to inform Beth that Mr. Shaibel, the janitor who taught her chess, has died — she finds her childhood friend in a troubling state. Beth has been binge-drinking and aimlessly pondering her future in chess, but Jolene’s arrival literally and figuratively sobers her up. We know nothing of Jolene’s life before the orphanage, so it’s refreshing to get some details on her life as an adult: She’s a paralegal who hopes to go to law school; she is being courted by a dedicated suitor more interested in her than she is in him.
That jibes with the limited windows we get (sometimes frustratingly so) into the lives of Beth’s other friends, including her mentor and erstwhile hookup, Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and her chess circuit crushes, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) — all of whom help Beth in their own way. But there’s a difference between the White men who have befriended Beth and the Black woman who became her sister-of-sorts during the bleakest years of her life.
It’s Jolene who comforts Beth as she grieves Mr. Shaibel and, ultimately, it’s Jolene who gives her the wake-up call (and the financial loan) she needs to return to chess without the aid of alcohol and pills. Co-creator Scott Frank — who wrote and directed all seven episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit” — was presumably trying to avoid the trope of the Black friend who swoops in to rescue the White protagonist. It’s right there in the dialogue of the series finale as Jolene tells Beth: “I’m not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me.”
But even this exchange walks a fraught tightrope. When Beth compares Jolene to a “guardian angel,” Jolene pointedly reminds her that Mr. Shaibel wasn’t the only Methuen figure who kept up with her rise in chess. “I know how you lost to Benny Watts in Vegas and then beat him in Ohio,” she says, before confessing she once spent field trip money on a chess magazine with Beth’s face on the cover.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is a period drama, dedicated to an era in which Jolene and Beth’s friendship would not have been widely encouraged outside of Methuen’s walls. That certainly adds a challenging dynamic to portraying their friendship. But it doesn’t explain why the series devotes such little time to such a significant person in Beth’s life, especially considering all of the other social conventions Beth shuns as a female chess prodigy in the 1960s.
“I was all you had. And, for a time, you was all I had. We weren’t orphans, not as long as we had each other,” Jolene tells Beth before they again part ways. “I’m here because you need me to be here — that’s what family does, that’s what we are.”