It’s difficult in these times of social isolation for us humans to engage in communal activities. Organized sports and public drinking have gone the way of the dodo for the time being. In an attempt to connect, many of us have eagerly latched on to certain pop cultural trends, promulgated by our friends on social media. In 2020 we all watched “Tiger King,” we all tried to bake sourdough bread and we all played Among Us. Even those of us who shun the mainstream have been happy to have something in common to chat about on Facebook. When a thing has been labeled the “hot ticket” this year, it has paid dividends to jump on the bandwagon. And in the last month or so, it seems like everyone on social media is gushing about “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.
But could a period drama about chess really be that entertaining? In a word: Youbetcha! If you’ve managed to fight it this long, stop. Turn on your TV. Binge-watch it now. Feel free to chat about it with your friends on Facebook later.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on the book by Walter Tevis (who also wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth). The series is the work of American screenwriter/novelist Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Logan) and Scottish screenwriter/novelist Allan Scott (Regeneration). That’s what you call a literate pedigree. It’s set primarily in the 1960s and centers on a teenage chess phenom named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy from The VVitch and Emma). Over the course this tight, seven-episode miniseries, we get intimate with the obsessive Ms. Harmon and her cloistered intellectual world.
Thanks to some extensive flashbacks, we know that Beth’s brainy mom struggled mightily with mental illness and ultimately committed suicide, leaving her only daughter to grow up in a Kentucky orphanage. Introverted and unschooled in ordinary “girly” pursuits, Beth is instructed in the fine art of chess by a grumpy but sympathetic janitor who recognizes her intellectual gift. Chess makes sense to Beth. It’s something that exists outside the chaos of the real world, and it’s something that she can control using the power of her mind. Eventually, in her teen years, she’s adopted by a suburban couple who immediately divorce, leaving Beth to be raised by struggling alcoholic Alma (Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). Uninterested in the more supervisory elements of parenthood, Alma soon accepts her adopted daughter’s preternatural skill in chess and takes on a role that is more managerial than motherly—which is just fine with our laser-focussed and emotionally bottled-up protagonist.
“The Queen’s Gambit” follows Beth through her rapid rise in the world of international chess tournaments—which, on paper, doesn’t sound all that gripping. This isn’t a shallow dive into the world of competitive chess either. There’s plenty of talk about “Sokolsky Openings” and “Nimzowitsch Defenses.” Credit goes to all involved, though, for sinking a hook in viewers and dragging them along from beginning to end. Thematically, the show examines obsession (along with its companion addiction) and the way in which “gifted” children are often pushed into specialization without developing real-world wisdom or social skills. At the center of this study is fascinating, troubled Beth. On the one hand, she’s a nerd icon: brainy, stoic and eerily attractive. On the other, she’s a troubled kid eagerly embracing her demons—guzzling booze and popping handfuls of tranquilizers like a seasoned rock star. Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing throughout, providing the series its dark gravitational center. Despite the star’s laudable acting abilities, it’s a bit of a shame that the series wraps up its flashbacks so early. Isla Johnston is quite good as the young Beth, and there’s arguably more drama buried in these childhood sequences than in Taylor-Joy’s more adult struggles.
The series functions as a straightforward coming-of-age/sporting drama, with our heroine navigating a male-dominated world and succeeding largely due to her innate skill and her disinterest in anything other than the game of chess itself. Still, the show has a certain fatalistic sense of humor which keeps things from drifting into soap opera or melodrama. On top of this, “The Queen’s Gambit” looks like a million bucks. Fans of “Mad Men” and “The Fabulous Mrs. Maisel” are likely to latch onto the show for its stylistic wallow in mid-century fashion, furniture, music and overall detail. (The wallpaper alone is worth the price of admission.)
“The Queen’s Gambit” has already been credited for inciting a resurgence in the popularity of chess—which is as good an endorsement as any for this show’s seductive ability. If you can make chess sexy, you’re doing something right. Feel free to join in on the obsession. [ ]