What Are the Green Pills Beth Harmon Keeps Popping in 'The Queen's Gambit'?

Ah, the good old days, when children were addicted to tranquilizers.

netflix the queen's gambit pills
Netflix

If you binged the Netflix miniseries The Queen's Gambit over the weekend (and if you haven't, you should!!) you're probably wondering what exactly was in those pills that started chess master Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) on her path to being a high-functioning addict, competing in matches drunk or hungover or buzzed on tranquilizers. The show's portrayal of addiction is, mostly, a B-plot that slowly creeps up on the main action until Beth has to reckon with this problem she's had ever since she was regularly sedated in the orphanage where she grew up. 

In the show, if you pause and check out some pill bottle labels, the little green capsules are called "xanzolam," which isn't a real name for a drug, but is probably something along the lines of librium (according to the historians at Newsweek), a drug that really did exist and was freely prescribed by doctors during that time period. Like Beth, xanzolam is fictional, but it's a pretty accurate analogue to what was common medical practice at the time. 

Beth first encounters the pills at her orphanage, where they're handed out liberally to the children to keep them compliant. She's advised by the other girls to wait to take them at night, for relaxation (like an opiate super-melatonin). After Beth starts playing chess with janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), whenever she takes the pills at night she hallucinates a chess board on the ceiling and figures out how to play the game that way. By and by, the orphanage receives a missive that they are no longer to give benzos to the children, after which Beth experiences withdrawal symptoms and does anything she can to get her hands on more. 

This behavior continues after she's adopted, when she realizes that the anti-anxiety medication her adoptive mother has been prescribed is the same green capsule she got when she was a kid. She also starts drinking, heavily, relying on substances to give her her edge in chess. She even has a line in the finale, when she's finally forced to confront what addiction has done to her, where she explains, "I need my mind cloudy to win." Beth is what is referred to as high-functioning, which basically means a person who is addicted to a substance like alcohol or hard drugs but gives the outward appearance of a normal, even successful, life. But no matter how high functioning you are, it's not the kind of behavior that can be kept up for your whole life, and Beth is forced to confront her addictive personality and push through it to win her final game. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.