Beth’s mom Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) died in a shocking moment during The Queen’s Gambit, but it was not completely unexpected — and was a necessary event for Beth’s overall character development. The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit is an adaptation of the popular novel of the same title by Walter Tevis, and is largely a coming-of-age story centered on its female protagonist, Beth Harmon. Both of Beth’s moms – but particularly Alma – are important characters on The Queen’s Gambit, not only informing the protagonist’s decision-making but shaping her success as a grandmaster. It was clear that Beth’s adoptive mother had issues from the getgo, ultimately leading to Alma’s death in Mexico City.
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In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is orphaned at the age of seven following a car accident (that is heavily hinted to be her unhinged biological mother’s attempt to commit a murder-suicide). After spending several years in an orphanage, Beth is adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley. Soon after the adoption, however, Allston abandons the family, providing very little money for Alma and Beth to live on. The seemingly unfortunate turn of events is revealed to actually be in Beth’s favor: the newfound need for additional income is the impetus for not just Beth’s burgeoning chess career, but also her close relationship with her adoptive mother Alma. Beth’s mom becomes her manager, traveling all over the country with her in order for Beth to compete (and win) various chess tournaments. The two even travel to Mexico City, where Alma gets to fulfill a life-long dream of meeting her pen pal and romantic interest, Manuel. Unfortunately, Alma’s death in The Queen’s Gambit covers the trip like a dark cloud, leaving Beth to cope.
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Tragically, Beth enters her hotel room after losing against Vasily Borgov in The Queen’s Gambit, only to discover the reason her mother never showed up at the important match: Alma was dead. At one point, Beth referenced that Alma’s death may be related to hepatitis, although she doesn’t specify what strain. Hepatitis refers to an inflammatory condition that affects the liver, which is the organ responsible for filtering toxins from the body (like alcohol and medication). While there are several versions of the disease, Beth’s mom likely developed the non-infectious version of the disease, either alcoholic hepatitis as a result of her frequent drinking, or autoimmune form. Alma struggled with substance abuse in The Queen’s Gambit and based on the evidence presented in the show, this is a likely explanation — one that was set up shortly after Alma was introduced.
What Alma Died From In The Queen’s Gambit
In addition to taking pills to stabilize her mood — likely because of her unresolved trauma stemming from her biological child’s death, as well as the general anxiety caused by her emotionally unavailable and cruel husband — Beth’s mom also drank. Although she isn’t shown drinking to excess to the same degree Beth would later in the miniseries, Alma did drink regularly and had done so for a long time. She also was shown smoking cigarettes. While much of this was commonplace for the times it doesn’t negate the fact that these behaviors would’ve aided in Alma’s death in The Queen’s Gambit.
If Beth was correct that Alma Wheatley had hepatitis, she could have died from cirrhosis of the liver. Considering the cocktail of pills, tranquilizers, and alcohol Alma was taking in it would do major damage pretty quickly to anyone’s liver, let alone a person with hepatitis. Another possibility was that Beth’s mom experienced an aneurysm as a complication from hepatitis or some other undiagnosed condition related to her liver, such as cancer. This would explain why she didn’t have more obvious symptoms prior to her death in The Queen’s Gambit, such as jaundice.
How The Queen’s Gambit Foreshadowed Alma’s Death
In The Queen’s Gambit episode 3 “Exchanges,” Beth overhears Allston and Alma arguing over him taking the car on a business trip, with him remarking “Remember what the doctor said. Some exercise will do you good.” In addition to establishing that Allston is an absentee husband, treating Beth’s mom poorly and spendings weeks away from home, it also sets up that Alma has some medical issues. Later in the episode, when he unexpectedly returns home a week early (but only to stay the night), he makes the snide remark “I’ll have a beer — if there’s any left.” This hints that Alma also had a drinking problem, which at that point she had been successful in hiding from Beth.
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As The Queen’s Gambit progressed, there were more hints that Alma was unwell. She first sent Beth to fill her tranquilizer prescription because she was sick in bed with an unknown illness. Later, Allston comments (unkindly) that Alma is sick a lot. If Beth’s mom did suffer from the autoimmune version of hepatitis — which is three times more likely in women than men — it would explain why her symptoms varied and were chronic. With the exception of jaundice, most symptoms of hepatitis are subtle, like abdominal pain, weight loss, and general flu-like symptoms. All the times she thought she was sick with a cold could have been signs of her damaged liver, ultimately foreshadowing Alma’s death.
Why Alma Had To Die In The Queen’s Gambit
While Alma’s death in The Queen’s Gambit was a sudden tragedy that resulted in her daughter having a downward spiral, her death was necessary to the series as a whole; especially when considering Beth’s character development. Alma was a loving mother to Beth in The Queen’s Gambit, but she was not always a positive influence on her daughter. As a mother, Alma was at times irresponsible and arguably put her needs ahead of Beth’s on more than one occasion. Still, Beth’s mom provided her with the sort of unconditional support and love that Beth had never had. Alma was genuinely interested in Beth’s chess career, all the way up to Alma’s death, even though she didn’t understand the game, and she was an emotional support for her daughter during difficult times. Even when Beth made cruel remarks to Alma — like when she lashed out after her first real loss to Borgov — she was met with acceptance, rather than rejection. Even when she tried, Beth couldn’t push Alma away.
Yet, that very stability and unconditional love was hindering Beth’s overall character development, which was the driving force of The Queen’s Gambit. In short, the plot demanded that the stability of that relationship be broken in order for the story to move forward. Beth needed to experience the tragedy of real loss in Alma’s death — not just losing a match of chess — to force her suppressed feelings of personal trauma to rise to the surface. Beth couldn’t progress as a person until she dealt with her personal demons. Beth feared that she was doomed to “go crazy” like her mother did, and she acted as though her addictions — which Beth’s mom also struggled with — were an inevitable byproduct of her genius. As long as Alma was alive, there was no character motivation for Beth to overcome her substance abuse issues, especially because Alma was, unwillingly, enabling the behavior.
Both of Beth’s Moms In The Queens Gambit Struggled With Mental Health
Both of Beth’s moms (biological and adoptive) lived with conditions that affect mental health in The Queen’s Gambit, with Alice Harmon’s struggles leading to suicide. While audience members got to experience Beth’s adoptive mother go through her issues in real-time leading to Alma’s death, her biological mother Alice Harmon was mainly shown through flashbacks. While Alma dealt with her addictions inwardly as a result of her trauma, Alice’s mental health struggles had dangerous consequences that led to an attempted murder-suicide. Her husband Paul was concerned with her dwindling mental faculties, which resulted in his abandonment of both Beth and his wife. When she begged for his help in raising Beth, he blew her off at first and then promised to talk about the issue another time. She took this as total abandonment and deliberately tried to kill herself with Beth in the car. Ultimately, Alice Harmon was the one to die, leaving her daughter behind to be adopted.
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Beth definitely inherited her biological mother’s intellect, as Alice was a Ph.D. and a Professor at Cornell prior to her downward spiral. However, there’s no telling if Alice also passed on her mental health condition to her daughter. While Alma coped using pills and alcohol in The Queen’s Gambit, Alice took drastic actions as a result of her unwillingness to remain medicated. As much as Paul begged and pleaded, she refused to use medication and ended up taking her daughter to live in a trailer in Kentucky. It’s no secret that both of Beth’s moms had mental health struggles, but they handled them quite differently.
The Queen’s Gambit ends with Beth overcoming her trauma, which is illustrated through her learning to visualize chess pieces without the assistance of tranquilizers. It’s a triumphant moment, made only the more resonant by how far Beth had fallen. After Alma’s death, Beth truly hits rock bottom, propelled into self-destructive and indulgent behavior as a way to ignore her grief. Without her mom, Beth feels she has no one to rely on but herself, and this forces her to confront the fact that she doesn’t like herself very much. It is only by confronting her issues head-on — with the assistance of childhood friend Jolene — that Beth learns to accept herself and quiet the voices of self-doubt. As Beth overcomes her inner saboteur in The Queen’s Gambit, she also masters the game of chess, finally fulfilling her ambition of becoming the world’s greatest.
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About The Author
Sarah Bea Milner
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Sarah Milner is the Weekend Lead Editor for Screen Rant’s Film/Television features (SR Originals) division. She is a writer, editor, and folk musician. She often watches movies — sometimes she reviews them too.
A graduate of Trent University, Sarah’s MA thesis examines Frankenstein adaptations and their relationship with popular culture. She has a fierce love of all things “spooky,” and a deep appreciation for classic cinema.
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