Article of the Month

Brains + Breakdown: The relationship between the genius and addiction in TV

Emily Fletcher

The ‘Genius’ and their experience of addiction can be seen in Netflix’s new original limited series The Queen’s Gambit, which was recently released. It takes on a young girl’s ascent into the world of competitive chess and her descent into an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. This is undoubtedly a surprising synopsis for those who haven’t yet seen the show. But the trope of the genius and their relationship with addiction is nothing new to television.

The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit’s protagonist, Beth Harmon, begins her addiction at a young age due to the practice of giving tranquillisers to children in her orphanage (which was common around the middle of the 20th century). With her consumption of the drug, we see her hallucinate a chess board on the ceiling of her dorm room, which enables her to practice the game introduced to her by the orphanage’s janitor.

There is a clear appreciation that the show is honest about the destructive aspect of addiction

She continues the addiction as a young woman, turning to it when she becomes overwhelmed by the high-pressure environment of competitive chess. Her reliance on it isn’t helped by the fact her adoptive mother also falls back on the prescription drug to deal with her anxiety, making it easily available to Beth through the manipulation of the prescription notes. This kind of addiction is presented as a steady spiral downward into complete reliance until Beth comes to realise that she is able to perform at the same level regardless of the drugs she takes.

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who is open about her own experience with addiction, wrote an Instagram post praising this depiction, saying that: “As a public sober person and recovering drug addict and alcoholic, the brutal honesty of the destructive aspects of alcoholism and drug addiction are dramatically explored and shown in this wonderful limited series. As we all know, drugs and alcohol seem very glamorous in the movies and on TV and the myriad commercials that tell us how happy it makes people. Of course, that’s just advertising. This is reality. Well done”. Although I disagree that the show is without glamour, there is a clear appreciation that the show is honest about the destructive aspect of addiction, when Beth’s chess career begins to fall apart because of it, the point where she almost completely quits.

This perception of addiction is perhaps one of the most brutal and life consuming which in no way relates the genius’s abilities to their drug taking.


The American rendition of the often-recreated stories of Sherlock Holmes, Elementary, also takes on this conflict between a genius and their struggle with addiction. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock is defined by his history of addiction and journey to sobriety with a few storylines which explore a potential relapse. The show ensures it presents addiction as permeating every aspect of the addict’s life. Sherlock is surrounded by a support system of fellow addicts and, arguably the most important relationship of the series, Joan Watson comes to be with Sherlock through her job as a sober companion.

Beth Harmon has her own support through her chess community, but they do not relate to the nature of addiction the way Sherlock’s network does. Sherlock’s AA meeting is frequently the location which important story conversation takes place, or where he experiences his revelations on a case, making them a normal part of this genius’s routine.

This perception of addiction is perhaps one of the most brutal and life consuming which in no way relates the genius’s abilities to their drug taking.

House M.D.

Similarly, inspired by the Sherlock Holmes characters, House M.D. brings the experience of addiction into a medical setting. Dr Gregory House is constantly seen using, and abusing, painkillers. The dry humour of the show presents his drug use in a fairly light-hearted way, with both himself and other characters often brushing off his reliance on the painkiller, Vicodin. It has been pointed out by medical professionals that the show does little to recognise the extended effects the overuse of Vicodin can have, including permanent hearing loss which is never mentioned on the show. Instead, the show focuses on his moments of genius revelations which are guaranteed to appear at around the 10 minute mark prior to the end of each episode. The show’s use of addiction here, is one that excuses Dr House’s petulant and sarcastic nature, allowing him to blame his attitude on his constant pain with the medication being a device to control it.

Breaking Bad

Finally, the use of drug dependency is centrally used in the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad. Although not a struggle the genius character Walter White deals with, it is central to fuelling the decisions Walt has to make as he enters into the drug-making business in order to provide an income for his family.

The characters within the show that experience addiction are depicted as having stumbled into the environment

His companion in the scheme, his ex-student Jesse Pinkman, takes on the role of the stereotypical drug dealer who himself uses the drugs, and his life appears worse off for it. Breaking Bad explores the whole environment of addiction, which Walt uses to his advantage, and those who control the business of drug-dealing. The moral implications of Walt’s involvement in the industry is a constant fight he deals with throughout the series, always arguing that he is doing it for the benefit of his family. The characters within the show that experience addiction are depicted as having stumbled into the environment- that it was not a conscious choice they made.

The ‘high-functioning addict’ (which describes Beth Harmon and Dr. House) does not receive much recognition here because it doesn’t fit with the nature of the show. Those who are addicted appear destitute and troubled, culminating in Jesse’s girlfriend losing her life after taking heroin. When these completely drug-dependent characters are around, Walt has more chance to take advantage, and the conflict between his good and evil side reach ultimate contention, arguably with the evil side winning out in the end.

These depictions take on various aspects of addiction, and the influence they have on the work of the genius. Some come to find that their abilities are maintained outside of their drug-taking. However, for some the journey to sobriety is central to the story, and others simply use the lives of addicts to fuel their ‘evil genius’ plans. All of these shows do well in separating the work of the genius from their addiction, often making the conclusion that their mind can function just as well in sobriety.

The genius and the nature of addiction are used to show audiences that even the best and brightest of us can be subject to this illness. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon is ultimately saved from addiction, and able to conquer the world of competitive chess through her own non-judgmental support network; an intention we should all take with us when attempting to understand others going through issues, or even dealing with our own. The Queen’s Gambit is streaming on Netflix now.

Emily Fletcher

Trailers courtesy of Netflix and CBS via YouTube.

Featured image courtesy of Halacious via Unsplash. Image use license found here. No changes made to this image.

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