Arts and Entertainment

“The Queen’s Gambit” Will Steal Your Rook, and Your Heart

A review of Netflix new hit miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Nicholas Evangelinos

It’s Paris, 1967. There’s a knock at the door, and Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) awakens, lying clothed in a full bathtub. She crawls for her shoes, downs two green pills (with which we will become very familiar) with a bottle of hotel liquor, and rushes out of the room. The match has already begun. Her time is ticking. We watch her stare down her opponent, chin tilted down and eyes looking up in what we will come to recognize as a habit of hers, and then suddenly we’re watching a child, sporting Beth’s distinctive red hair, standing at the scene of a terrible accident.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” based on a novel by Walter Tevis and adapted by Scott Frank, tells the story of Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who is catapulted to fame at a young age, while simultaneously struggling with addiction. Much like the game it depicts, every move the miniseries makes feels calculated, deliberate, and strategic. In the first episode, aptly named “Openings,” we’re flung from Beth’s adulthood to her youth, giving the story the feel of a classic bildungsromane—think “Oliver Twist”—but with the gripping arc of a sports movie—think “Rocky” (1976). As we watch young Beth (Isla Johnston) arrive at the girls’ orphanage where she will live out her youth and play her first game of chess with a kind janitor (Bill Camp), we already know that she’ll rise to great renown. It’s the eternal appeal of a coming-of-age story that keeps the viewer hooked.

The earliest chapters of the show are certainly the strongest. Watching Beth discover her passion and undeniable talent for chess is exciting in the way that the beginning of any similar story is exciting—the comfort of knowing she’ll invariably succeed, the looks of shock on the faces of every smug adult she forces to knock down their king in resignation. There’s a tentative optimism about those early installments, married with the obvious darkness of those little green pills which the orphanage uses to sedate the girls, and on which Beth later becomes dependent. Oddly enough, though it’s only in the later episodes that Beth truly spirals into addiction, they lack the same dark edge that the earlier episodes possess. It may just be that the start of any coming-of-age story, when the protagonist has everything to gain and nothing to fall back on, will always be the most riveting part. It’s also notable that the show’s plot continues beyond the Paris match from which we initially flashback, rather than coming full circle to meet its beginning. As a result, the remaining chapters feel like more of an afterthought, albeit a very entertaining one.

There’s an inherent appeal to the show. Beth is a quick-witted underdog, and you can’t help but root for her from the start. Much of the show features Beth facing off against cocky older men. You silently wish for her to crush them. She does. They’re appropriately embarrassed, and the viewer feels vindicated in their humiliation. Though much of Beth’s character is laid bare from the opening episodes of the show, Taylor-Joy imbues her cold, detached nature with an undeniable charm and underpins it with the erratic energy of an addict (both to mind-altering substances and the thrill of victory). Maybe it’s in her little mannerisms—the way she rests her chin on her hands and peers up at her opponent with those ethereally large eyes, or the subtle, satisfied twitch of her lips after she delivers a scathing one-liner. Whatever it is, Taylor-Joy’s performance is laudable, as she carries Beth from awkward adolescence to adulthood.

She isn’t the only notable actress of the miniseries. Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), who initially seems neglectful and even adversarial, becomes unexpectedly sympathetic at the hand of Heller. Though perhaps better known for her directing career, Heller delivers a solid performance, charging Alma with an overwhelming sadness, one she tempers with bottomless martinis. She and Beth make an appropriate pair—both addicts battling consuming inner darkness, both enabling each other and offering emotional support. Viewers may have also been surprised to see some familiar faces during Beth’s competitive matches. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, known for his younger roles in “Love Actually” (2003) and the Maze Runner series (2014-2018), graduates to an indisputably adult role as Benny, a chess player who manages to bring Beth to a humiliating defeat, and matches her quippy humor line for line. Harry Melling, who many will recognize as Dudley from the Harry Potter series (2001-2011) , also sheds his childhood role as the grown-up Harry Beltik, a talented player who Beth bests—and embarrasses—as an amateur, though they later form a more amicable relationship as student and coach.

Though the show boasts a quirkily star-studded supporting cast, it truly is Beth’s story. The show’s secondary characters circle around Beth, their lives and stories intersecting with hers when she needs something from them, or when they have something to offer her. Jolene (Moses Ingram), a friend from Beth’s orphanage days, is a perfect example of this tertiary supporting character development. Jolene appears toward the end of the series, suddenly, having recognized Beth from a chess magazine, and proceeds to offer her a pep-talk of sorts, one which helps to pull Beth from her spiral of addiction and to her final victory. Jolene feels like a plot device, when she could have been more. This dynamic, however, works surprisingly well when it comes to Beth’s love interests. Harry, Benny, and Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) don’t overshadow her, nor do her relationships with them overshadow her true love for the game of chess. For any shows that aim to incorporate romance as a secondary plot of a coming-of-age story, take notes. “The Queen’s Gambit” finds that balance effortlessly.

While the miniseries does struggle to maintain the truly impressive quality of its first few episodes, overall, it’s a work well done. After all, what else can explain the overwhelming attention it’s garnered in the short time since its release, with many lamenting the lack of a second season? Perhaps what the series did best, though, was end. For all those fans hoping for a second season, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

The feel of the series can probably best be encapsulated by the motif of the chessboard that Beth first sees on the orphanage ceiling, high on sedatives—one on which she can play out entire games in her mind. The chessboard reappears during Beth’s final match with Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński), her Russian rival. When she bests him, it’s because she’s able to, at last, see the board while sober. That circularity seems to epitomize “Gambit”; it has a specific story to tell, and tells it well, to its conclusion. Beth’s last victory, both over the one man she couldn’t beat and her addiction, feels final. Much like Beth herself, “The Queen’s Gambit” doesn’t play to a draw. It plays to completion.