Netflix’s most recent surprise bombshell was The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis and which follows the personal and professional development of a prodigious chess player by the name of Beth Harmon. The story follows Beth from her mother’s death and her placement in an orphanage to her introduction to chess by the buildings janitor and the heights she climbs to from there, challenged all the while by crippling addictions, trauma, and social discomforts. The series stars Anya Taylor Joy as Beth Harmon after the age of 13 (Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelly play her at younger points of her life), Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling, Marielle Heller, and Marcin Dorociński among others. The series was co-created and written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. Scott Frank also directed the entire series.
I read a pseudo-review in The New Yorker the other day that was written from the perspective of someone who had read the book years ago, and therefore arrived at The Queen’s Gambit with a preconceived idea about what the world Beth Harmon lived in looked like. I couldn’t claim to be coming from a similar place. I hadn’t ever heard of The Queen’s Gambit until it rocketed to the top of like every Netflix in the world. I was intrigued by a limited series starring Anya Taylor Joy, an actress I’d been introduced to in Split a few years ago and have respect for, and I’ve always liked chess, even if I haven’t seriously played for 7 or 8 years.
It’s important to understand that this show isn’t about chess, not really. Chess is a prop, a tool through which we better understand the real draw of the narrative: Beth Harmon as a character. I submit that pretty much anyone, irrespective of their prior knowledge about chess, is in a position to thoroughly enjoy this show. She has enough about her, enough depth and more than enough of an arc, to make her development as a character fascinating to watch. Anya Taylor Joy is fabulous, charting that development in a way that feels honest and believable (credit is also very much due to Isla Johnston and Annabeth Kelley for contributing to that arc). The New Yorker article I referred to before was less complementary, mainly because of the way Beth’s character is described in the novel. That’s a fair way to look at it, and I couldn’t comment on the faithfulness of the rending, but Joy’s performance brings everything it needs to in order to make this interpretation of the character feel extremely real, and I fully expect her to get the acclaim she deserves for it. The show is actually pretty spoiled with strong performances, even from less prominent characters in the show. Thomas Brodie-Sangster is irresistible to watch, and Harry Melling and Marcin Dorociński are great, but a lot of the heartbeat of the show are made up by charactrers like Mr. Shaibel and Jolene, played by Bill Camp and Moses Ingram respectively, who act like human anchors in Beth’s more turbulent times. Ingram, who doesn’t actually have that much screen time, gives such flair to Jolene that she ends up being one of the most memorable characters. The only slight exception to the rule of strong performances might’ve been the role of Mrs. Wheatley. It was a case of miscasting, Marielle Heller didn’t do a bad job in the role that she was given, but the writing for that character was incongruent, too formal and thought out. If it was an attempt to represent the character as punctilious or something, it didn’t really land.
Aside from that, the writing was of a very high standard pretty much the whole way through; meaningful dialogue and the aforementioned developmental arcs that were done extremely well. The other technical elements were part of what made the show unique. The show’s heavily stylised, but managed to avoid being in your face about it. The whole 60s aesthetic was done really well, down to the wallpapers and the solid colours. Between that and a supremely underrated score and soundtrack (not so prominent that it would be the first thing you’d think of when you think of the show, but good enough to make my brother interested in watching the show solely based off of what he could hear while I was watching it in the other room), the atmosphere they create for the series is extremely watchable, even in the bleaker of circumstances onscreen. They make the chess really interesting, dynamic and hitting all the right dramatic notes. It’s cool to watch as a viewer, although I felt like they could’ve, in moments, done a little more to indicate when a game was going well and when it was going more poorly. A lot of times it was blatantly obvious from the acting, but the example that comes to mind is the first half of the first game Beth plays against Harry Beltik, where the facial expressions weren’t doing enough to give away who was in control (where, for instance, in the second half of that game, the camera angles and the score make it pretty obvious that she’s screwing him and good). But, aside from the competitive parts, there’s an air of wonder they give to the game which I was a big fan of. Anytime Beth saw the pieces on the ceiling had a Lucy-Pevensie-walking-backwards-through-a-wardrobe energy to it, kind of wonderful to watch.
I really hope they don’t make a second season of this show. It worked as a limited series; it had great characters, and it dealt with important things like addiction and support systems and it dealt with them well. That’s what I mean when I say that the show isn’t about chess, chess is just the shiny object. The show is about her addiction, her struggle with it, and how people like Jolene and Mr. Shaibel and Benny and Harry and Townes are like anchors in the face of waves. And it’s because of those anchors that chess works for her, that’s why she beats Borgov. And that should be it. The story was told incredibly well, but there’s no good way to go from here. She’s climbed to the top of the chess world, and to give her a regression in terms of her progress with her addiction for the purpose of a second season would rightly ring forced. The ambiguities that remain, like the exact nature of her relationship with Townes and some details regarding her parents, are maybe best left to ambiguity. Give the audience something to play with in their minds. As it stands, The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic series that absolutely lived up to, and exceeded, its current hype. I do hope they let it lie well.
– Aman Datta
Aman’s Score – 84/100