The Queen's Gambit: Series Review

"Girls do not play chess."

The Queen's Gambit is a Netflix limited series about Beth Harmon, an orphaned teenage chess prodigy who struggles with addiction.

It's amazing. Please go watch it right now.

The seven-episode series by Scott Frank, from a novel by Walter Tevis, is held together by Anya Taylor-Joy's exceptional performance as Beth as a teen in the 1960s as she moves up in the world of competitive chess that is dominated exclusively by men. Beth is introverted, prickly and rude, completely focused on her own interests and goals and incapable of anything other than the most rudimentary social interactions. And yet, it's impossible not to like her, to applaud her genius and root for her to win. Her obsession with chess is oddly beautiful. Because of the skillful writing, acting and direction, we can see the attraction and complexity of chess as she does.

The story begins, after the obligatory in media res, when Beth (in an exceptional performance by child actress Isla Johnston) is orphaned at the age of nine and goes to live in a drab Christian orphanage in Kentucky. Everything changes for Beth when she sees the custodian in the basement working through a chess game. That night, Beth's obsession is born as she visualizes pieces moving on a chess board on the rather creepy high ceiling in the ward room. While I don't often like stories about addiction, Beth's initial introduction to tranquilizers by the state at such an early age only increased my sympathy for her. Who could blame her for becoming addicted to an escape from her Jane-Eyre-esque institutional existence?



While Beth's upward trajectory in the chess world is fairly typical of this type of coming of age story, her life at the orphanage and later with her adopted parents never succumbs to clich├ęd predictable plot twists. I particularly warmed to Marielle Heller as Beth's foster mother Alma Wheatley, a sweet but broken woman who strongly reminded me of my own mother. And the variety of male reaction to Beth, from dismissal, anger, exasperation, admiration, and even sexual attraction is incredibly fun to watch. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is the stand-out here as another chess prodigy, Benny Watts, who is at first Beth's adversary and then her friend.

This series is heightened by exceptional photography, elaborate period sets and an effective score. The camera follows Beth as she enters new environments, showing the world opening up to her through unusual camera angles – especially ceilings, which were so important to her in the orphanage. The orchestral score dominated by piano, accompanied by the occasional sixties pop hit, works well with the story; I particularly liked episode five's tournament montage set to "Classical Gas." On a personal note, I was into chess as a teen and took an undergrad class where we learned chess notation, recreated famous games, and held exhibitions. I'm no expert, but everything about the chess scenes in this series felt genuine to me.

I initially tried The Queen's Gambit one afternoon, and could not stop watching until the end. I can't remember the last time I watched seven episodes of anything in a row. And then I had to go back and watch it a second time.

In other words, highly recommended. Four out of four opening moves,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

3 comments:

Richard said...

I watched the first half of this the day it came out and then had to wake up the next day and watch the other half. It was captivating. The amount of times I assumed that someone in her life had the worst of intentions in mind for her and then had that idea dashed (thankfully) just made me want to see more. The idea that everyone in her life wasn't just trying to subvert her accomplishments for themselves was such a wholesome notion that it had to come from another era.

Her foster mom seemed at first to just indulge her so she could get easy money but then you realize they are sympathetic characters who feed each other. Sometimes not in the best of ways, but we don't often know what's best for us, just what feels good.

I loved this series and I want more like this. I want the conflict to be intellectual and not just something to be shot at.

Unknown said...

Loved it, rattled through it in two nights. Anya Taylor-Joy's performance was spellbinding, you can't stop looking at her face! Best TV of the year for me..

Anonymous said...

Seems to be exactly what I need after binging "The Originals" in 2 weeks...dealing with that ending...and then going through the grief of Supernatural ending...thanks for the heads-up, Billie.

-Sooze