The Flight Attendant and The Queen’s Gambit Embrace Difficult Women

For the past nine ( ninety??) months, it’s been impossible for me to concentrate on any new content — especially if it’s dramatic in any way. Which is why I’ve spent most of my ample free time revisiting old, reliable faves–The Vampire Diaries, Mad Men, The Real Housewives of New York City, Nora Ephron films. (Hulu’s Normal People is one of the only new dramas I watched all year—and I only got through it because it was horny.) It wasn’t until The Queen’s Gambit dropped on Netflix in late October that I actually sat down and watched something serious without doom-scrolling on Twitter, complaining in a group chat, or rereading Colin Farrell’s Wikipedia page for the twenty-seventh time. Not long after, on one early December afternoon that I was feeling especially numb and directionless, I watched all of the five available episodes of HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant in one sitting.

The Queen’s Gambit—a character study and semi-sports show muted in both color and vibe tells the story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a resilient orphan-turned-chess prodigy who aspires to become the best chess player to ever live. The Flight Attendant is a saturated, splashy, fast-paced murder mystery revolving around Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco), the titular attendant who wakes up to find the very hot man she spent the night with brutally murdered. The shows are polar opposites aesthetically, tonally and narratively but both series feature protagonists whose addiction to alcohol interferes with their emotional maturity and damages their relationships—both women rely on drinking because it is the only thing protecting them from their trauma.

Historically, mainstream entertainment has given us two options for women who behave badly: hate them or feel sorry for them. Typically the latter route is engineered by making them a mother, or giving them a love interest. The Queen’s Gambit and The Flight Attendant do neither. Instead, they do what stories usually reserve for male characters, especially during television’s Golden Age in the 2000s: they simply let them be themselves, unapologetically.

Similar to antiheroes like Don Draper and Tony Soprano, Beth and Cassie are not the kind of people you’d want to know in real life. They’re unreliable, self-servicing, and emotionally draining to everyone around them. Beth actively chooses not to connect with people because she doesn’t want anything getting in the way of chess, and she is brutally honest to a point of being offensive. Cassie is a magnet for destructive behavior who lies to her friends and family constantly. What makes these characters — who deal with trauma by using substances in very different ways — so appealing and such a breath of fresh air is that their journeys don’t rely on male saviors (love interests on both shows are tertiary, even if they’re essential to the narrative) or motherhood, or any other traditionally female trope to humanize them. And neither show is actively trying to make you hate Beth or Cassie, either.

Beth is deadpan and aloof; Cassie is quick-witted and erratic. (Isn’t it amazing how even women can have different personalities?) Both lost parents to a car crash that they survived and both of their addictions started as children, via negligent and malfeasant parenting. Their resistance to acknowledge their awful childhoods gives them foggy memories of their own lives. But eventually, and after many benders, both women start to learn that they can acknowledge their trauma without letting it define them.

Both women are glamorous people, often surrounded by glamorous settings: flights to and from Europe, decadent hotels, stunning outfits. (Beth in particular goes on a journey from frumpy orphan smock to mod icon.) Their fashion and beauty choices come naturally to them, but they also present a facade to the outside world, and to themselves: they look put together at a glance, but they’re far from that internally.

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