Putting aside the obvious first: Beth Harmon is mesmerizing. You can’t take your eyes off her. That flaming red hair, those huge chocolate-brown eyes.
At its core it’s a feel-good story, but a disturbing one, that’s cleverly set up and acted out. Her addiction to drugs appears to be fatal. We already know from the very first scene that she is headed for an epic fail at some point in her career. But will that be the end? – we are left in suspense. Meanwhile, we are fully absorbed in a lovingly recreated period piece where the ambience, the decor, and especially the clothes Beth wears express her personality and the changing times perfectly.
Seems like things are going to end badly for her no matter what her initial success is. Her life is on a perpetual knife-edge, a high-tension game of chess. But while we’re waiting for this to happen, she develops emotional self-awareness – mainly through the tender unspoken touchless love between her and her adoptive mom. She enjoys the same unexpected support from several other characters – almost all of them, in fact, except her schoolmates. We can’t see her as a “user”, because she’s potentially such a loser.
There’s a pivot point when she’s invited to join a teen-girl party. These schoolgirls had bullied her as an outsider, but now she has some status from her early chess triumphs. They are willing to embrace her and engage her in respectful conversation. Her little black dress is more classy and grown-up than what they’re wearing. Then a catchy song comes on the TV, and they start singing and dancing spontaneously. It’s a great scene.
She doesn’t have that kind of spontaneity – in fact, it kind of horrifies her. She can’t make sense of it. She flees the scene. We see later how their kind of teenage sensuality and passion ends. She is too smart, dispassionate, and driven by ambition to be seduced by that – life is black and white for her. She still has her demons of drug and alcohol addiction to slay before she can become a whole person.