“The Queen’s Gambit,” titled after a chess opening by the same name, is a binge-worthy Netflix drama that follows the life of a troubled genius struggling to make it in the cutthroat chess world. The seven episode Netflix mini series is a must-see for its complex and well thought out story that captivates its viewers with each episode.
The series is first set in the mid-1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, shortly after Beth Harmon, only 9 years old at the time, lost her mother in a car crash. With the death of her mother leaving her orphaned, Harmon is transferred to an orphanage. It is there that she meets Mr. Shaibel, a reclusive janitor who passes his time playing chess in the building’s basement. While learning chess with Mr. Shaibel and showing potential as a child prodigy, Harmon begins to develop a dependence on tranquilizer pills given by the orphanage staff. The initial setup of the series brilliantly foreshadows Harmon’s struggle between chess and addiction that follows her throughout the entire series.
One of the many positive aspects of “The Queen’s Gambit” is how it avoids the common trope of static characters being divided into the narrow categories of the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Although the story is centered on Harmon, the series integrates a number of dynamic characters alongside and against the protagonist with their own character development, all flawlessly woven into the plot. Each has something to contribute to the overarching message of exploring what it means to overcome struggles and succeed in spite of them. From Harry Beltik’s redemption arc, to the subtle hints towards Vasily Borgov’s own struggles, no character exists in black and white.
Additionally, “The Queen’s Gambit” does not shy away from addressing political issues that are inextricable from the mid-1950s to late 1960s. The show does a fantastic job at realistically depicting the progression of Harmon’s addiction and how it interfered with her career. In another instance, the series also nods towards the racism faced by Jolene, an African-American girl who befriended Harmon in the orphanage. The series also addresses the misogynistic attitudes that Harmon would have faced as a female chess player at the time, but unfortunately falls slightly short in that respect. The reality of sexism in chess was much worse than the show portrayed it to be. However, it is important to consider the fact that Harmon’s story is loosely based on a novel by the same name written by Walter Tevis, a chess player himself. Given that her story is inspired by the experiences of a male chess player, some creative liberties had to be taken.
The standout performance came from Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon. Her enthralling performance carried the show as she represented Beth through all stages of her adult life. Most notably was her signature gaze into the camera, which perfectly captured the two sides of Harmon’s character: the threatening genius and the tortured soul. Taylor-Joy brought Harmon to life so exceptionally that at times it was hard to remember that you were watching an actress, not a real person.
Scott Frank, the director behind the series, did can be credited for bringing all elements of the story together. For example, the high quality production designs and period costumes do
wonders to immerse the viewer further into the story. The diverse range of costumes do not only reflect the fashion worn by niche subcultures like the mods or hippies, they show the styles worn by the average person as well. Moreover, Frank’s use of shots from Harmon’s perspective encourages the viewer to feel connected with the protagonist. The dynamic cinematography manages to make chess exciting to watch as if it was a football game, a feat that seems impossible. Another addition that added to the enjoyment of the series was the music. The soundtrack of “The Queen’s Gambit” is versatile and engaging, ranging from classic hits of the time period to intense instrumentals that build suspense and keep the audience on the edge of their seat.
Overall, “The Queen’s Gambit” is definitely worthy of being one of the most watched television shows of 2020. Each aspect of the series all comes together seamlessly, in such a way that it brings the audience on an adventure of their own as they empathize with Harmon shortcomings, root for her in heated chess matches, and even see themselves in her.