Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit comes from the proud tradition of underdog sports movies/TV shows that require no knowledge of their respective sports, like Ted Lasso and Friday Night Lights. The Queen’s Gambit is about chess, which is not really even a sport, but the point holds: There’s a lot of chess over the course of the series’ seven hours, but it’s not really about chess. In fact, that may be a slight strike against it, because while there are a lot of chess scenes, and a lot of references to chess moves, we don’t actually learn much about the game. All of the chess scenes are reduced to a series of reaction shots. How well the chief protagonist, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), is doing is relayed entirely by pursed lips, furrowed brows, and squinting eyes.
I’d have liked to have learned more about the game itself from The Queen’s Gambit, but it’s a testament to Anya Taylor-Joy and Scott Frank — who directs all 7 episodes — that the intensity of the competition can be relayed almost entirely through wordless gestures cut together with the movement of chess pieces. It doesn’t even seem to matter that we have no idea what’s going on in the chess games themselves. There are no trick plays, no real weaknesses exploited on the board itself; there are only quick moves and more considered moves; we can glean everything we need to know from the context of the characters’ expressions.
Set in the 1960s, The Queen’s Gambit is a coming-of-age story about Beth, whose depressed mother crashes their car when she’s eight-year-old. Her mother dies, but Beth is left to be taken care of in an orphanage. There, Beth befriends the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (the phenomenal Bill Camp), who teaches Beth how to play chess in the basement (it’s not creepy like it sounds). Beth develops less of a love for chess and more an obsession, which she combines with an addiction to sedatives, initially forced on her by the orphanage before they are outlawed. The only comfort in life that Beth can find is in getting high on tranquilizers and visualizing chess moves on her ceiling.
When Beth is 15, she’s adopted by an alcoholic housewife, Alma Wheatley (who I am just discovering is played by Marielle Heller, the director of Tom Hanks’ A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Melissa McCarthy’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?), whose unappreciative asshole of a husband leaves her and Beth to fend for themselves. Beth takes it upon herself to sign up for a local chess tournament, and her years-long journey toward trying to become a grandmaster begins.
The Queen’s Gambit is a series about addiction, both of pills and of chess, that’s fueled by an underdog story about a young, female chess prodigy taking on a game dominated by men, some of whom Beth befriends (and occasionally sleeps with) along the way, although she doesn’t seem to have much capacity for romantic relationships (the one man with whom she falls in love is gay). Her friendships with her best friend from the orphanage (Moses Ingram) and her toughest American competition, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) are far deeper, as is her troubled relationship with her Mom, who both encourages her chess play and enables her addictions.
Bottom line: The Queen’s Gambit is addictive, entertaining, and ultimately hugely satisfying. There aren’t a lot of layers to The Queen’s Gambit, and as addiction dramas go, it’s barely surface deep. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth doesn’t have a lot of gears here, either: She’s stoic-happy, or stoic-sad; stoic-spiteful; stoic-drunk; and stoic and wide-eyed. Given the subject material, it’s not a particularly dark show, either. Scott Frank goes with the lighter tone, more befitting the Netflix binge model. In fact, it’s hard to go wrong with a good underdog story, especially one with impeccable period details, an attractive and likable cast, and a skilled creator like Frank — working from Walter Tevis’ novel — who knows how to push and pull those levers to ensure the series doesn’t peak too soon but also keeps us engaged until the rousing, crowd-pleasing finale. It’s not a series likely to be remembered a year from now, but it’s an easy and enjoyable way to melt away seven hours of our lives.
Header Image Source: Netflix