Directed by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, The Queen’s Gambit strikes us with its gripping storytelling and remarkably well-crafted characters. One of them is Alma Wheatley. Portrayed by phenomenal Marielle Heller, Alma is Beth’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) foster mother and one of the best characters of 2020. She breaks the stereotypical picture of the evil foster mother often presented in television and cinema.
Alma and her husband Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy) enter The Queen’s Gambit as a married couple seeking to adopt a child from the orphanage where Beth lives. There is an uneasy feeling about them; it’s not hard for us to suspect the worst. The couple adopts Beth, a quiet and witty redhead girl, and takes her to their suburban home. It instantly turns out the husband doesn’t want anything to do with Beth and puts all the pressure on Alma. The chess prodigy is a very observant young woman; she realizes that Alma is very unhappy, which causes her to drink more Gibsons than water every day.
Still, it’s surprising to see that Alma is so kind to Beth. She’s lost in the realms of motherhood, yes, but she manages to provide Beth with whatever she needs. When Allston decides to leave Alma (after treating her particularly heartlessly at the end), our thoughts gallop in a rather negative direction. Will Alma give Beth back to the orphanage? Will the woman blame the girl for her husband leaving?
This line of thinking comes from the image that pop culture frequently paints of foster mothers. Regina Mills, a.k.a. Evil Quinn in Once Upon a Time; the Dursleys in Harry Potter; or an even more brutal portrayal in An American Crime, based on the true story of Gertrude Baniszewski, who tortured and directly caused the death of Sylvia Likens, the girl whom she was supposed to care for.
So we expect the worst from Alma, especially after she suffers the loss of her husband. But that’s when the woman determines to prove to us just how wrong we are. The bond between Alma and Beth quickly grows. The first positive element in her portrayal is her immense support of Beth’s passion, chess. She’s more than willing to let her take part in a variety of chess tournaments.
When Alma ultimately realizes that Beth becomes a paid master of chess, we hold our breath. Pop culture has carved the image into our minds of foster mothers (or even biological ones) taking advantage of their gifted children. In Jessica Jones, the titular character lives with her best friend, Trish, and her mother, Dorothy; the latter craves to exploit Jessica’s supernatural powers for her gain.
But in The Queen’s Gambit, Alma shocks us and settles in the hearts of the viewers. She becomes Beth’s manager, asking for a small profit from her tournaments; but Beth is more than happy to give her more. There is unspoken equality between them that makes their relationship tender and beautiful.
Alma supports Beth as much as she can throughout her career. Even when the girl disappears all day long, partying more than she should, her mother checks in with her as often as she can and dearly misses her when she’s gone.
Perhaps it also deepens Alma’s dependence on alcohol. Beth worries about Alma’s drinking, but soon she too is on the road to alcohol and drugs. This is one of the negative aspects of Alma;s motherhood; she enables and outright lets Beth drink, even when the chess master is not of age. This factor is highly damaging regarding Alma’s overall kind and positive portrayal. It has a great influence on Beth’s life and the quality of her performances during chess tournaments. It also contributes to the early departure of two women, at the moment when Beth needs Alma the most. It’s also possible that Alma’s enabling of Beth’s is because she wants to be more friend than mother. This problematic aspect casts a shadow, but it doesn’t derail their bond; for better or worse, it brings them even closer.
When Alma dies due to the health issues caused by alcohol consumption, Beth is heartbroken. We can see her losing herself. But, in the end, she comes back to the top. Alma’s storyline in The Queen’s Gambit may have had a tragic ending, but her tender, beautiful personality demonstrates foster mothers’ commitment and the immense love they can have for their children.