Can chess make good TV? The surprising answer, as Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit proves, is unequivocally yes. Perhaps only when it’s a drama as well-executed as this one, though.
Glittering reviews, from audiences and critics alike, have followed the miniseries since its late-October release. Still reigning as the #1 most-watched series on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit has certainly solidified its status as one of the best new series to come out of 2020.
It may come as no surprise that the show features an abundance of talent in front of and behind the camera. Directed by the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Scott Frank, The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling and newcomer Moses Ingram. Each delivers compelling, memorable performances in their own right.
Unfortunately, though, the series comprises only seven episodes, each with an hour-long runtime. But what unfolds in those few hours is nothing short of incredible. The Queen’s Gambit tells of the riveting life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), from her days as a young Kentucky orphan to her fight to become the greatest chess player in the world.
The aesthetic is delightfully ‘60s, as it traces Beth’s life starting from the 1950s and onward. The first episode, aptly titled “Openings,” finds a 9-year-old Beth orphaned when a car crash kills her mother. Sent to Methuen Home for Girls, she’s introduced to an unlikely best friend Jolene (Ingram) as well as the addictive nature of tranquilizing pills.
Soon, she stumbles upon her life’s calling when she sees the orphanage’s janitor, the stoic yet compassionate Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess in the basement. Beth begins spending her days sneaking into the basement to play and her nights visualizing games on an imaginary chessboard, with the aid of tranquilizers. Upon seeing the young girl’s potential, Mr. Shaibel becomes her mentor of sorts, and he even gives her the chance to play at the local high school.
As Beth’s remarkable talent for chess grows, so does her addiction to the pills. Now teenaged, her life takes a turn when she is adopted by Mrs. Wheatley (Marielle Heller), a housewife in dire need of a companion. With this comes the freedom of a life of her own, which for Beth, means the golden opportunity to really play chess.
She quickly rises in the ranks, chasing tournaments from Cincinnati to Las Vegas to Paris. All eyes are on her burgeoning chess career, though owing to her gender as much as her uncanny genius. Every match seems to fuel Beth, building her ambition and upping her game. She too begins to find her footing in life, transforming from a self-loathing, damaged girl to a composed woman who is comfortable in her own skin.
Her great triumphs, however, inevitably bring about a darker side, one riddled with alcoholism and substance abuse. Tranquilizers heighten her chess ability and as the stakes get higher, her dependence upon them verges on manic. This is juxtaposed with her troubled childhood, primarily through flashbacks to her life with her biological mother.
But as she traverses through these highs and lows, Beth isn’t completely alone. Rather, she finds lasting companions in the form of national chess star Benny Watts (Brodie-Sangster), former state champion Harry Beltik (Melling), and Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a journalist she pines for. These bonds give her life as well as a chance to find love.
With each episode as meticulously crafted as the next, there’s a great deal to unpack. Certainly noteworthy are the intricate production design and stunning soundtrack. What first comes to mind, though, is the awing performance from the criminally underrated Taylor-Joy.
Almost without words, she brings Beth Harmon to life; her subtlest expressions and motions, particularly amid chess matches, offer a window into Beth’s mind. Beneath her confidence is insecurity, and beneath her passion is anger. Raw and evocative, Taylor-Joy masterfully portrays the lonely life at the top and the all-consuming ache to win.
Really, The Queen’s Gambit isn’t so much about chess as it is about hope, sacrifice and redemption. As much as it may be a cautionary tale, it’s also an ode to dreamers. Hidden behind the showy thriller is a bold coming-of-age tale, complemented by daring subplots exploring addiction and trauma. The Queen’s Gambit sets the world against one lonely, out-of-place girl and transfixes us as we watch her conquer her formidable demons.