So, here’s a question: is there anything Beth cares about beyond chess?
OK, sure, she has her vices. She’s a drug addict, and that means she’s rather vulnerable to all kinds of illicit substances ranging from alcohol to pot to tranquilizers. Especially tranquilizers. Alma isn’t much of a help there being she’s an alcoholic herself from the looks of things. Learning Beth is hanging out at a bunch of college guys’ off-campus 60s swing pad, Alma’s only real concern is that Beth be careful about what she smokes and leaves it at that.
But I don’t think it’s fair to say Beth cares about these things she keeps inhaling, drinking, or otherwise imbibing. She wants them, she takes them, and they make her feel good. That’s about it. She doesn’t go out of her way to read up on them or anything. She seems more bored than anything else when one of the college guys pops her cherry. Granted, the sex looked awful, but then again, Beth didn’t care one way or the other. She got some good weed and a place to hang out alone for the weekend.
Her only real passion is chess though this episode, noted by flashing back to Mr. Shaibel and overheard in a conversation between a Soviet grandmaster and his keepers is that she’s a very angry woman and chess is her outlet. To be fair, the Soviet guy, Borgov, sees it as something the two have in common and perhaps something to exploit when the two meet up at the end of the Mexico City tournament the two are playing in.
Plus, Beth does defeat one up-and-coming Russian. It’s a kid of, like, 13, and the match takes two days, but she does win.
However, that whole “does she care about anything else” keeps popping up again and again. Alma asks her that many times while the two are in Mexico City. Alma, reconnecting with an old pen pal of the male persuasion, is having a blast enjoying the city and seems to even be loosening up enough to play the piano for other people in their hotel lobby. Beth barely heads out most of the time anyway, mostly palling around with the handful of people she already knows there from the American circuit and not really getting out much.
Beth doesn’t go out much to begin with.
Then she finally does meet Borgov in a match and it’s the usual intense for this series. Only Beth loses. Her reaction is interesting. She’s not upset necessarily. She’s actually a bit in awe as she goes back to her room, telling Alma about the loss, saying how she saw it coming, how Borgov never betrayed anything but quiet confidence, and she seemed to take his play as more of a thing of beauty to be admired than anything else.
And then she notices Alma is dead. Most likely from hepatitis.
Yeah, if there was something beyond chess Beth cared about, it looks like it was Alma, a woman she called “mom” but treated more like a friend and constant companion so far as Beth had either friends or companions. The phone call to Alma’s ex-husband Allston does not go over well. He clearly doesn’t care much about his former wife, giving Beth only as much information as she needs to get Alma back to Kentucky and buried in her family’s plot. He even says Beth can keep the house if she can maintain the mortgage payments.
It’s a credit to Anya Taylor-Joy’s acting that while the script doesn’t have anything like Beth having a massive crying fit over Alma’s death or a big speech about what the woman meant to her that she still manages to display some measure of grief and tribute in her bottled up emotional sinkhole of a self. It doesn’t take her long to go looking for more tranquilizers, and she does toast Alma on the flight home with Alma’s drink-of-choice as Beth sits next to an empty seat, so there’s something there that needs human contact. Beth isn’t the kind of person to say so out loud, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less true.