'The Queen's Gambit' Explained: What Are The Green Pills?

The Queen's Gambit is the latest show to reach the top of the Netflix TV series chart, with many viewers becoming gripped to the story of chess wizard Beth Harmon (played by Isla Johnson as a child and Anya Taylor-Joy as an adult) and her battles with addiction to a green pill.

In the first episode, "Openings," young Beth finds herself at an orphanage, where every day the children are given a green pill. This pill is revealed to be a tranquilizer, which keeps the children calm and sedate. However, Beth stops getting the pills halfway through the episode after the state understandably creates a law that prevents kids being given tranquilizers.

However, by that time, the damage has been done. Beth has become addicted to the pills—an addiction that goes right through to her adult years.

This green pill is called xanzolam in the Netflix series, though it is likely a fictional version librium or chlordiazepoxide, which was a new pill in the 1960s when The Queen's Gambit is set—it was approved for medical use in 1960. It is a benzodiazepine sedative that was often delivered in half-green capsules, used as a treatment for those with anxiety or insomnia, as it was often prescribed to deal with the symptoms that come with withdrawal from alcohol and/or drugs.

the queens gambit green pills
'The Queen's Gambit' sees Anya Taylor-Joy play a chess prodigy addicted to green pills called "tranquility medicine" by one character. Netflix

However, as seen in The Queen's Gambit, the drug is habit-forming, explaining why young Beth finds herself breaking into the pharmacy room after her supply is taken away in the first episode of the Netflix show.

At the end of that episode, Beth is shown collapsing after taking multiple pills. This scene is ambiguous—does she faint because she has a vision of her absent mother, or because she is overdosing on the pills?

In reality, a librium overdose has a wide array of indicators, which include sweating and chills, muscle tremors, fever, difficulty breathing, rashes, irregular heartbeats and seizures.

Beth's pill consumption comes straight out of the Walter Tevis novel The Queen's Gambit is based on. Right on Page 1 of the book, her pharmaceutical life begins:

In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to "even their dispositions." Beth's disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage.

Librium, meanwhile, is mentioned three times in the book, after she gets a bottle to help with her nerves in Mexico.

The drug suits the '60s setting of The Queen's Gambitt, when the drug became a big-seller for those who wanted to deal with anxiety without relying on barbiturates, which had much harsher side-effects. By 1975, per the New York Times, it was the fourth biggest-selling pill in America, with one billion capsules sold a year. That year, strict government controls were put on the drug due to DEA concerns that it was being misused.

However, in the Netflix show, these controls are in force in the 1960s when Beth is still a teenager. The 1975 controls on librium limited the number of times that a prescription could be refilled to five, whereas in the time The Queen's Gambit is set refills were unlimited. In one scene of the Netflix show, however, a pharmacist says that Beth's foster mother has "three refills left."

Librium was often marketed to women to deal with the anxieties of everyday life at the time. As a Roche ad for the drug, reported on in a New York Times piece about the history of tranquilizers, read: "The new college student may be afflicted by a sense of lost identity in a strange environment ... Her newly stimulated intellectual curiosity may make her more sensitive to and apprehensive about unstable national and world conditions."

Librium also paved the way for Valium after its inventor Leo Sternbach tweaked the formula of the original pill.

The Times piece said of this development: "Librium turned out to be a great first act, teaching Roche how to pitch a psychoactive drug to doctors of healthy patients who just needed a little something to unjangle their nerves."

The Queen's Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.