Alma Wheatley died on The Queen’s Gambit while she and Beth were in Mexico; here’s what she died from & why her death was inevitable.
Alma Wheatley’s (Marielle Heller) death in The Queen’s Gambit was shocking, but 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.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth is orphaned at the age of seven following a car accident. 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. Alma becomes Beth’s 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 fulfil a life-long dream of meeting her penpal and romantic interest, Manuel.
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Tragically, Beth enters her hotel room after loosing against Vasily Borgov, only to discover the reason her mother never showed up at the important match: Alma was dead. The Queen’s Gambit doesn’t dwell on the tragedy, leaving the exact cause of Alma’s death mainly ambiguous. Beth references that Alma died from suspected 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, Alma likely developed the noninfectious form, either alcoholic hepatitis as a result of her frequent drinking, or autoimmune. 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
Alma struggled with substance abuse 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 — Alma 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 regularly, even in bed.
If Beth was correct that Alma had hepatitis, she could have died from cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver. Another possibility was that she experienced an aneurysm as a complication from the 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, such as jaundice, and why she was seemingly fine the night before her death.