2020 has been a weird year where anything goes. So as much as I wasn’t expecting a show about chess to take over Netflix, I can’t say that I’m surprised.
“The Queen’s Gambit” follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a brilliant 1960s chess prodigy in her quest to the to be the best player in the world. Billed as a miniseries, the show is a brisk seven episodes long, and it tells a complete story that doesn’t necessarily need a Season 2.
Beth’s story begins in an orphanage (young Beth played by Isla Johnston), where she learns to play chess with the school’s custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp). Her talents draw the attention of the head of the orphanage, and she soon gets adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley (Marielle Heller and Patrick Kennedy). Beth pursues chess tournaments despite the protest of her foster mother (Allston is largely absent, “away on business”), but she comes around and eventually supports Beth in her endeavors, recognizing her talents.
Beth makes a name for herself by winning the male-dominated Kentucky State Championship, unseating the champion in Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), who later becomes a recurring character in the show. She also meets Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a fellow chess player from whom she develops unrequited love, and who later covers her regularly as a reporter.
From there, albeit a few stumbles, Beth has a steady climb to the top, frustrating all but the U.S. Champion, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and the Soviet/World Champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński). Watts and Borgov frustrate her, as they’re the only people she has to try to win against, and as a prodigy with little to no parental figures in her life, for much of the show, she is not mentally mature enough to handle losing.
The show portrays pretty well the cost of being a prodigy, as while Beth finds success easy early on in life, it’s a lonely existence, and she is unprepared to cope with all the mental baggage and responsibilities of being one of the top chess players in the world. She quickly becomes an alcoholic, and without direction other than chess, as she consistently pushes people away that want to help her, and she’s unable to develop healthy relationships with most people, which she makes some progress on by the end of the show.
The character of Beth and Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of her is what makes the show for me. Beth is undoubtedly a person who is capable of great things, and her journey to the top is laudable, but the show never presents her as someone that should be idolized, as she pays a heavy price for her gifts as a person. Even at season’s end, it’s not certain that Beth is happy, or that she’ll break out of the self-destructive path that she’s on.
The chess matches, which are central to the show, are also portrayed pretty well for general audiences, but I was a little frustrated when the show defaulted to showing us the opening move of an opponent, only to jump cut to the conclusion of the match. For me, this destroyed the tension in several high-stakes matches the show presents, and I think the show could’ve delved a bit deeper into the mechanics of chess without losing people. The show only half dives into them, name dropping special chess positions like the Sicilian, but never fully explaining what they are or why they’re so important. I get it, chess is boring, but I think the show more than earns people’s attentions to lead them through it in order to gain an appreciation for the game, and the drama in the show.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is a very good Netflix show you’ll probably enjoy, but it’s not great. It has a really good lead performance supported by a serviceable to good supporting cast, and wile there are layers to its characters and story, it says nothing profound.
“The Queen’s Gambit” Season 1 gets an 8/10