In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon’s crush on Townes will forever go unrequited – but that’s a good thing, since they’re much healthier as friends.
Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit deconstructs the “manic pixie dream girl” trope with its protagonist Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon and her complicated relationship with her childhood crush and unrequited love, Townes. The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth’s lifelong quest to become the world’s greatest chess player, starting with her traumatic childhood in an orphanage and addiction to tranquilizers. After meeting Townes at her first chess tournament, Beth develops a crush on him, and the two navigate a complex friendship that follows them for the rest of their lives.
Although Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) has multiple relationships throughout the course of The Queen’s Gambit, Townes (Jacob Fortune-Loy) is one of her strongest and most enduring. For Beth, Townes represents her platonic ideal of a perfect romantic partner that is forever just out of her reach, and her childhood crush that turned into an unrequited love. Years after they first met, she name-drops him to Cleo when they’re drinking together, and Townes finds a way to stay in her life even after he stops playing chess competitively. In many ways, Townes is one of the most constant and dependable men in Beth’s life.
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Beth’s carefully cultivated persona comes across as a “manic pixie dream girl” – and her complex relationship with Townes is one of the primary ways that The Queen’s Gambit explores and challenges that convention. Townes’ toxic impulse to sleep with Beth because of his attraction to a fantasy version of her, and his subsequent rejection of that impulse is what finally lets them have a healthy relationship. Beth and Townes are much better friends than they are lovers, and whatever mutual attraction that they share is based on their fantasy of who they want the other person to be.
Why Elizabeth & Townes Never Sleep Together
The most obvious reason that Beth and Townes don’t sleep together in The Queen’s Gambit is the implication that Townes is gay. The closest that they come to becoming lovers is in episode 3 “Doubled Pawns”. Beth and Townes run into each other at a chess tournament, years after they first met, and share an intimate moment that’s interrupted by the man Townes is living with, Roger. Townes doesn’t address that moment until episode 7, “End Game”, when he travels to Russia to help Beth in her final tournament, and apologizes for the incident.
However, there’s a deeper reason that Beth and Townes never sleep together. A major part of Beth’s arc is her refusal to deal with her abandonment issues, and her attraction to Townes – a man that, by definition, she can never have – is a part of that. Beth was abandoned by her father and her adoptive father, and her idea of Townes as a romantic partner is just as impossible as a relationship with her father. It’s key to Beth’s arc that she eventually lets go of that and the two can just be friends.
Why Elizabeth’s Romantic Relationships Are Toxic
Beth is extremely lonely for most of her life, and most of her relationships are an attempt to simply find companionship. After her adoptive mother dies, she lives alone and socializes mostly with the chess players she is competing against. However, her relationships with the other chess players, especially the ones that she’s sleeping with, aren’t based on mutual respect: Beth is looking for someone to make her feel less alone, and the men are treating her like a fantasy instead of a person. As long as she’s still thinking of Townes as a potential romantic partner, they are unable to engage with each other as actual people instead of a fantasy. In her later relationships, Beth is never able to get past that stage with Harry (Harry Melling) or Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as long as they’re only in love with the idea of her, instead of who she is.
An example of this is found with Beth’s relationship with Harry, who also met Beth at her first tournament. Harry is in love with an idyllic fantasy of Beth that simply does not exist. Although he recognizes her destructive instincts, he spends his time trying to fix her, not understand her. Their romantic relationship ends when Harry comes to terms with the fact that the fantasy-version of Beth isn’t real, and leaves the chess world entirely. In her later relationship with Benny, Beth finds herself with someone who views her as a mystical “other,” and is trying to take advantage of her pervasive loneliness, something Benny feels that they have in common.
Neither of Beth’s romantic relationships are healthy. Benny and Harry can’t respect Beth because they don’t actually understand who she is, and both of them are trying to change her into their idea of who she should be. Beth, for her part, is trying to mask her loneliness and find companionship through romantic relationships. She’s refusing to confront her abandonment issues, and her relationships represent her search for the father figure she never truly had. She’s only able to be friends with Harry and Benny when they can let go of the fantasy of a romantic relationship. When the guys are able to come together and treat her as a peer in the final episode, Beth is finally able to have a healthy relationship with them.
The Queen’s Gambit Is A Love Story: Elizabeth’s Self-Love
Although Beth spends The Queen’s Gambit trying to find someone to fall in love with, ultimately she learns to love herself. Her closest and most honest relationships are with the people who actually see Beth for who she is, such as her longtime friend from the orphanage, Jolene, or Townes after they mutually realize that they don’t have a romantic future. The way that Beth sees herself, for most of The Queen’s Gambit, is shaped by how she’s seen by other people: she buys into her savant persona and refuses to accept failure, growing increasingly reliant on tranquilizers to maintain the fantasy. When her friends actually get to know the real Beth and can dispel their version of her, Beth is finally able to see herself – and start to visualize her chess games without the drugs or alcohol.
The Queen’s Gambit builds Beth up as a chess prodigy and an enigma, and then systematically deconstructs her persona over the course of the series. With Townes, and her subsequent romantic relationships, Beth is struggling with an idyllic version of herself that she desperately wants to be true, and slowly comes to terms with the fact that it’s not. As Beth begins to untangle her abandonment issues and deconstruct her own persona, it becomes clearer and clearer that the relationship between Beth and Townes is one of the most important parts of The Queen’s Gambit.
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